The rise of Al Qaeda in Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq’s Anbar province has stirred well-deserved concern and fears of renewed violence and despair. The Obama administration’s proposal to fix the insecurity of Anbar by providing the central Baghdad government, under Nouri al-Maliki, with more weapons is not only futile but will also further alienate Anbar locals and drive an already deep wedge further into a fragile country.
Iraq is a manufactured state and remains one of the most diverse countries in the Middle East. It is not a monolithic country by any means. Some of the oldest and most obscure religious and ethnic communities live in a vast territory where an Iraqi state identity has always been weak and held together by a ruthless web of security and intelligence forces in Baghdad.
When the United States invaded and occupied Iraq, it inherited a country hollowed-out of almost all civil society organizations by its long-time dictator Saddam Hussein, who ruled with an iron fist from Baghdad. The victims of his ruthless ways were the Shiite majority, Kurdish nationalists and many others who challenged the dominance of Baghdad. He was called the “butcher of Baghdad” not only for his style of rule, but also for being intolerant of regional demands for a greater say in local affairs and for acceptance of their ethnocultural differences.
Regional alienation is pervasive across Iraq. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein opened the floodgate of ethnocultural identities, and the U.S.-guided constitution created a power-sharing federal state that unintentionally encouraged the formation of political parties along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Today, the rise of Al Qaeda in Anbar province, or more precisely the rise of an Al Qaeda franchise called ISIS, can be traced back to the political vacuum in western Iraq and abutting eastern Syria. It’s a space that ought not to be filled by the Baghdad federal government, but by local actors and groups who have the legitimacy provided by kinship and network ties.
Local tribes in Anbar province did not welcome Al Qaeda forces into their towns in the past weeks and months, but the Baghdad government run by Maliki will take advantage of long-standing local despair and reaffirm its power and control over this restless province.
The Maliki government is up for re-election this spring and its support base in Baghdad has lived through an already horrific year of terrorist attacks. To shore up his base in the centre of the country, Maliki will want to flex his muscles both politically and militarily.
Unfortunately, Maliki has been given an international green light to bomb and annihilate Al Qaeda forces in Anbar. The Iraqi leader wants to raise his credentials as a strongman who can control the vast countryside; we can expect him to take a scorched-earth approach to the pounding of Anbar province. The result will be a high rate of civilian death, destroyed infrastructure and resentful families and locals throughout the province.
Fixing this situation by hammering Anbar province into submission will have enormous blowback. The Iraqi operations will further alienate communities and towns in Anbar from the centre. This will be a catastrophic mistake. The international community is misguided to think a military solution will fill a political vacuum.
Instead, the Maliki government needs to be pressured to address local grievances and build up provincial economies, capacities and infrastructure. No one can afford to have local Anbar residents turn to Al Qaeda forces for protection against the Maliki government’s brutal assaults or for Anbar residents to take their fight literally to Baghdad, feeling justified in sectarian terms.
The challenge is that Maliki may happily ignore western governments, while boosting his credibility as a man who will not tolerate regional pull-aways from Baghdad. The assault of Anbar may happen with or without western involvement. But, at minimum, western governments should not encourage or militarily support a butcher of Baghdad in the making.