In just over four weeks, more than 260,000 people have been displaced by fighting in Iraq’s Anbar Province, creating a new humanitarian crisis in a country already straining to cope with an upsurge in sectarian killings.
The violence in Anbar has been portrayed as a fight between the government of Iraq and al-Qaeda factions who have spilled into the country from across the border in Syria.
But while militants from the jihadist outfit, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), are certainly involved in western Iraq’s Anbar, many analysts say this is only part of the story. At the heart of the fighting, they say, is long-running opposition to the Shia-led government from Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni minority, the main community in Anbar.
IRIN asked experts about the clashes in Anbar and what they mean for the rest of Iraq as it prepares for general elections in April.
What is the background to this latest fighting?
Officially, the government says it is taking action against ISIL, which on 21 December killed five senior Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) commanders.
However, according to Toby Dodge of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the seeds of the current violence in Anbar date back to December 2012, when the house of popular Sunni Finance Minister, Rafi al-Issawi, was raided and his bodyguards were arrested.
“This triggered a mobilization of a Sunni section of Iraqi society who, since the elections of 2010, had been feeling increasingly and deliberately excluded from Iraqi politics, and cut off from the benefits of oil wealth, and discriminated and targeted by Iraqi security forces,” he explained during an IISS lecture in London last month.
In 2012, Anbar’s provincial capital, Ramadi, was at the epicentre of a widespread protest movement, which initially demanded the release of Sunni prisoners and the revocation of anti-terrorism legislation seen to target Sunnis after the ousting of former Baathist President Saddam Hussein.
One year later, on 28 December 2013, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the arrest of Ahmed Al-Alwani, an influential Sunni member of parliament (MP) from Anbar who is also a leading member of the protest movement. Two days later, a protest camp at Ramadi was cleared.
These moves angered local leaders in Anbar, and as tensions rose, the prime minister decided to withdraw external security forces from the province, leaving local officials in charge.
Dodge says this then “opened a window to the ISIL”, which announced its presence in Fallujah, another flashpoint city in Anbar, on 3 January. ISIL said it was there to defend the Sunnis from the government.
Who exactly is fighting in Anbar?
“There are a lot of different groups and a lot of competing interests at play here,” explained Jared Levy, an independent Iraq expert, formerly a senior Middle East analyst at Dunia Frontier Consultants.
“Some are ISIL. Some are local tribesmen. Some are insurgent groups. Some are local criminal syndicates. And some are neo-Baathist Sunnis. It’s a complicated mix of different people, all of whom are trying to take advantage of the growing anti-government sentiment,” Levy said.
Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst based in Amman, Jordan, and editor-in-chief of Inside Iraqi Politics, told IRIN: “I try to push back from the simple claims that this is an al-Qaeda spill-over from Syria or just part of Iraq’s sectarian grind. It is both and more, but what is clear is that Maliki’s actions have made this a lot worse than it was, and he can’t now just put the genie back in the bottle.”
Sowell added that while the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) would not have any difficulties getting Anbari tribesmen to fight ISIL, because very few Iraqis identify with their agenda, it would be much harder to mobilise Sunnis to tackle other insurgents from groups such as the Jaysh al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (MRTN) or the Islamic Army.
“The problem the government has is that the local police are probably not going to be willing to fight these tribal revolutionaries because they are part of the society to an extent,” he said.
Will the fighting spread beyond Anbar?
From exile in Qatar, former Iraqi vice president Tariq al-Hashemi told Reuters he believed the violence could spread. Al-Hashemi, a Sunni, was sentenced to death in absentia after being found guilty of running death squads - something he denies - in what was seen by many to be a politicized decision by the courts.
“Maliki is targeting Arab Sunnis in different provinces, with the use of army forces… in a way that has never been seen before in Iraq’s modern history,” he said, “and therefore it is the right of those individuals to defend themselves in every way possible.”
Although Iraq is already enduring its highest levels of violence in five years with an upsurge in sectarian attacks - the Anbar clashes appear to have remained localized within the province. What may create a problem going forward is the sheer scale of the resulting displacement.
“There is a concern, when you have large population displacements, insurgents can use that as a cover and they may embed themselves,” explained Levy.
He said authorities in the semi-autonomous Kurdish north of Iraq were taking that threat seriously.
“I am sure they will be screening all the incoming IDPs [internally displaced persons] very carefully indeed. Given the already super-charged tensions in Iraq right now, it doesn’t take much to exacerbate that,” he added.
What role has the conflict in Syria played in the violence in Anbar?
Many people have blamed the rise of ISIL in Syria, which shares a long and porous border with Anbar, through which weapons and fighters flow largely unchecked, for the province’s surge in violence.
That is a view pushed by the Iraqi government, which has been counting on the West’s fear of jihadist movements to solicit military and weapons support.
However, Joel Wing, the US-based author of the popular Iraq blog “Musings on Iraq”, told IRIN over email that while Syria has provided a new source of recruitment and supplies for ISIL, the main cause of the fighting was “Iraqi (namely Sunni) identity politics.”
The Sunni community in Anbar sees itself as “victims of a Shia/Iranian plot to destroy the country,” he said, adding that “Maliki's missteps like arresting MP Alwani and shutting down the Ramadi protest site” were also to blame.
What impact might the clashes in Anbar have on the upcoming election?
Marc Simms, an Iraq analyst with Geopolitical Monitor, says he does not believe the fighting in Anbar will affect the general election, which is currently slated for April.
“I believe the election will go ahead as planned, barring any major or unforeseeable events like the assassination of a well-known public figure or attack on a religious site,” he said.
“To me, this looks like Maliki is trying to get security issues off the table before the election, as well as drive wedges between opposition parties and create new opportunities for himself.”
Levy is less sure.
“Right now you could not hold a meaningful election in the main cities of Anbar, so if you held an election, the majority of Anbar would not vote,” he said.
“Last year, the provincial elections were held six weeks later in Anbar and Nineveh [provinces] than in the rest of the country, but it would be much more complex to do that with national elections.”
What is the humanitarian impact of the fighting in Anbar?
Some 45,000 families have been displaced from their homes, and many others are still believed to be trapped inside Fallujah and Ramadi.
Aid agencies have struggled to reach those in need due to the fighting, and the UN has had several convoys blocked, turned back and in some cases detained.
The full casualty numbers from these last four weeks in Anbar are not known, though on 30 January the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reported that in the preceding three weeks, hospitals in Fallujah and Ramadi had reported 126 deaths and 666 injuries.
Human Rights Watch has accused both the government and its enemies of “unlawful methods of fighting” which had led to “civilian casualties and severe property damage”.
In a report, published last month, the group was also highly critical of what it described as a “government blockade” of Fallujah and Ramadi, which “resulted in limited access to food, water and fuel for the population.”
“In the longer term, all must recognize that alleviating the security threats coming from the Sunni provinces will require years, not weeks or months,” noted analyst Sowell.
“However much blame can be rightly apportioned to Sunni protest leaders for the obstinacy, Baghdad can do more to resolve these problems than any other actor through a comprehensive change in its own methods of governance,” he added.
Wing, from the Musings on Iraq blog, agreed. “The complaints within Anbar will continue. I think it's also important to point out how divided Anbar is politically. There are those who support the insurgency, those who are against ISIL but also Baghdad, and those who have aligned themselves with Baghdad. People like to talk about Sunnis as a homogenous group, but it really isn't. There are all kinds of different ideas and leaders.”
IISS’s Dodge believes the April elections present a “watershed moment” for a country “at a fascinating crossroads”. The polls will either increase violence levels, and mass population transfers will continue pushing Iraq towards further instability, or the election could “change this trajectory” and be a “moment of truth”.