Massive flare-up in Iraq
Iraq’s Sunnis are moving towards a new phase in the anti-government insurgency, writes Salah Nasrawi
As efforts to form a new Iraqi government stumble, Sunni rebels in the country have expanded their campaign in several Sunni-dominated provinces in what seems to be an integrated guerrilla offensive to topple Baghdad’s Shia-led government.
Sunni armed groups battled government troops in Iraq’s Sunni triangle this week and launched a series of deadly bombings across Iraq. The rebels temporarily seized control over parts of the two key Sunni-populated cities of Samarra and Mosul. While they were dislodged from Samarra by the army and security forces using helicopter gunships and heavy artillery, fighting continued in many parts of Mosul throughout the week.
Insurgents also struck Baghdad this week with a series of daily bombings, including areas of busy commercial districts and some government offices and flouting the tight security around Baghdad’s Green Zone which hosts main government offices and diplomatic missions.
The escalation came as the standoff in the restive Anbar province between the Iraqi security forces and insurgents entered its sixth month and the authorities failed to follow through with their announced “anti-terrorist” operation to expel the rebels from the town of Fallujah.
The flare-up is a massive setback to Shia Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Iraqi Armed Forces Nuri Al-Maliki, who is also embroiled in a government crisis after April’s elections that gave him a large number of seats in the country’s parliament but not enough to form a government.
The success of the Sunni rebels in wreaking havoc on the government’s security system on such a large scale is a psychological victory that could mean more problems for Al-Maliki who is facing criticisms because of the security forces’ continuing inefficiency in handling the insurgents. Many Iraqis have called for a national salvation authority to replace his government following the new upsurge.
On Tuesday, insurgents seized most of the northern city of Mosul, including the governor’s offices, police headquarters and other key government buildings. The city fell to the rebels after five days of fighting with the security forces who reportedly abandoned their posts en mass leaving rebels to overrun key installations in the sprawling city.
Dozens of civilians were also killed or injured, and thousands fled to safer parts of the city or to neighbouring districts. Clashes, bomb explosions and airstrikes continued for days as Iraqi security forces tried to expel the insurgents from the city. Thousands of prisoners, many of them convicted terrorists who were sentenced to death were freed from Mosul’s prison.
Before their assault on Mosul, insurgents controlled temporarily controlled Samarra, a Sunni-dominated city 95 kilometres from Baghdad before they were expelled by security forces and Shia tribes. The gunmen, travelling in dozens of vehicles and carrying heavy weapons, seized police stations, the municipality offices and university building.
The rebels were close to control a major dam on the Tigris and could have cut water supplies to Baghdad and southern Shia provinces or divert the stream to flood swaths of land in central and southern Iraq.
Also, the rebels came within a striking distance of one of the key Shia shrines in Samarra whose bombing by Al-Qaeda in 2006 triggered the worst bout of sectarian violence in which thousands died.
On Friday, the security forces thwarted an attempt by militants to seize the headquarters of the counter-terrorism police in the centre of Baquba, the capital of the Diyalah province. Several people were killed in the clashes.
A day before, insurgents launched an offensive on Samarra, a Sunni-dominated city 95 kilometres from Baghdad, attacking police checkpoints before they took control of several neighbourhoods. The gunmen, travelling in dozens of vehicles and carrying heavy weapons, seized police stations, municipal offices and university buildings.
The rebels were close to controlling a major dam on the Tigris River and could have cut off water supplies to Baghdad and the southern Shia provinces or diverted the River to flood swaths of land in central and southern Iraq.
The rebels also came within striking distance of one of the key Shia shrines in Samarra whose bombing by Al-Qaeda in 2006 triggered the worst bout of sectarian violence in the city in which thousands died.
On Saturday, rebels stormed Anbar University, briefly taking dozens of students hostage before withdrawing from the campus after heavy gunfights with the army.
Bombings also hit Kurdish party offices in Jalawla and Tuz this week, killing or injuring hundreds and damaging houses and cars in the attacks. Both Jalawla and Tuz are in disputed areas and the bombings carry a significant message to Kurds wanting to annex the cities to their autonomous region in the north of the country.
Elsewhere, rebels blew up several strategic bridges, apparently trying to block reinforcements sent by Baghdad in an attempt to repel the attackers. A curfew has been imposed on most of these cities to give army and police the chance to tackle the rebel’s seizure of various neighbourhoods.
The brazen attacks came as violence continues to surge in Iraq, with the rebels taking advantage of a lingering political crisis in the country. Nearly 1,000 people were killed in bombings across Iraq in May, while hundreds of others were killed in the fighting in Fallujah, making it the bloodiest month in the country so far this year.
The crisis in the Anbar province, triggered by last year’s government crackdown on Sunni anti-government protesters, has increased the polarisation in the country and given violent Sunni extremists the leverage to expand the rebellion.
The government has blamed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group for the latest offensive. While ISIS has admitted responsibility for the coordinated series of bombings, the new fronts in the insurgency seem to be the work of several radical Sunni groups working together to demoralise the security forces and destroy the government’s authority.
A closer look at the operations indicates that their military aim on the tactical level is to wear out the government forces and force them to scale back their offensive on Fallujah and other flash-points.
The political objective of the June offensive, however, seems to be more complicated. It aims to foment rebellion among the Sunni population at large and prevent the Sunni politicians who won seats in the newly elected parliament from cutting deals with the government at the expense of the community’s interests and goals.
It is not clear whether the insurgents will be able to achieve their objectives, but the latest rash of violence will certainly drive Iraq deeper into the sectarian abyss and further complicate the country’s national crisis.
One of the most feared consequences of the flare-up is that Al-Maliki may be able to use the standoff to whip up the Shias against the Sunnis in order to garner more support among his community in his drive to win another term in office.
Rival Shia political blocs, Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani and key Sunni political leaders have reiterated their strong opposition to his bid for a third term in office.
In a speech last week, Al-Maliki said rebels in Samarra were planning to attack the Shia holy shrine in order to provoke sectarian sedition. He thanked Shia tribes from nearby towns for coming to the support of the security forces in the counter-offensive in Samarra. Earlier, he had called the campaign to take back Fallujah from the Sunni rebels a “jihad,” or holy war.
Though Baghdad forces managed to hold off the large-scale Sunni assault, news coverage of the atrocities carried out by the security forces and the arbitrary shelling of residential areas during the counter-offensive have shocked the larger Sunni public, eroding support for their political and tribal leaders who have showed willingness to cooperate with Al-Maliki.
Before the latest escalation, Al-Maliki was reportedly receiving support from many newly elected Sunni members of parliament whom he hoped would join a broad political coalition he has been building to form a new government.
The Iraqi media have reported that Al-Maliki has paid up to $US1 million to each aspiring member and made other gifts to secure their backing.
In another political blunder, Al-Maliki has called for a “national dialogue” meeting to be held next week in a bid to find a peaceful solution to the Anbar crisis. He has promised to spend US$1 billion on reconstruction and compensation efforts in Anbar and promised an amnesty to “those who have committed violations.”
The offer was immediately rejected by tribal and political leaders in Anbar and Fallujah, who insisted that the government army should be withdrawn from the province and the local police force be restructured.
Al-Maliki’s attempts to buy the loyalty of the Sunnis or to divide the community seem to have little chance of ending his troubles. As the unprecedented assaults in major urban centres have shown, he will not be able to achieve a lasting victory without a negotiated end to the deep-rooted causes behind the insurgency.
Al-Maliki’s bid was largely seen as a manoeuvre to buy loyalty among Sunnis and to try to divide the community.
In a desperate bid to mobilise support Al-Maliki on Tuesday called on the outgoing parliament to impose emergency measures nationwide and urged tribes to join the armed forces to fight what called “terrorists.”
He also called for Arab and international help to fight “terrorism.”
What the unprecedented assaults on major urban centres have shown is that Al-Maliki can achieve no easy and lasting victory over the arduous Sunni insurgency. It remains to be seen if Al-Maliki is finally ready to step down and let a national salvation government takes over as many Iraqis have demanded or he will stay to watch the rest of Iraq burning.