The Iraqi military has initiated a slow-moving but potentially significant counterassault on al Qaeda-inspired militants in the western province of Anbar. Iraq’s Defense Ministry announced May 9 the commencement of a military offensive that aimed to permanently dislodge militants from Fallujah and possibly Ar Ramadi as well. Already, security forces have attempted to contain militants in Fallujah, potentially laying the groundwork for a final assault that would retake the small portions of the city held by militants since earlier this year. The Iraqi army will have to plan its next steps carefully. Moving in too quickly and without sufficient support from local tribal leadership risks inflaming sectarian tensions, creating a scenario that could end up benefiting the very jihadists Baghdad is trying to eliminate.
Iraqi forces initially responded with small-scale troop deployments to contain the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants soon after the militants moved into Fallujah in January. However, concerns about sparking a greater sectarian conflict pushed Baghdad to rely more on local tribal leadership to limit the militants’ expanding presence in recent months. With an eye toward the April 30 parliamentary elections, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s preliminary negotiations with Anbar’s tribal leaders sought to prevent Sunni resistance to the primarily Shiite government ahead of national polls. This was achieved primarily by al-Maliki agreeing not to move large numbers of the mostly Shiite national military forces into Anbar province, which is mainly Sunni Arab. The understanding was that the local tribes would lead the fight against the militants. The move also risked allowing Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant activities to continue from the bastions the militants had established in the urban centers of Fallujah and Ar Ramadi.
Anbar’s Sunni Arab tribal network has formed the front line against jihadist militants in the province since the establishment of the U.S.-brokered local power sharing arrangement in 2006, which gave tribal leadership more authority in local political affairs. The relationship between the local tribes, the militant elements (including what is now the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Baghdad’s security forces can effectively tip the balance within the region, depending on who the tribes favor. In recent years, Sunni Arab tribal forces working against jihadists, first with Washington and later with Baghdad, helped stem the tide of the insurgency in Iraq.
The relationship between the tribes and Baghdad faltered as a result of local frustration with al-Maliki’s consolidation of power following the pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq. This created a space for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s predecessor groups to expand their presence, especially against the backdrop of the civil war in neighboring Syria. Al-Maliki has worked in recent months to rebuild the cooperation between Baghdad and the Awakening Councils, including agreeing to delay a large-scale deployment of army forces into Anbar. Anbar’s tribal leadership has not yet made any statement for or against the Iraqi army’s activity in the region, but quiet measures such as cash payments from local councils to families displaced by clashes between militants and the Iraqi army point to some coordination, or at least tacit acceptance of al-Maliki’s post-election strategy against the militants.
Since its launch, the Iraqi military operation so far has moved to secure key choke points that control access to the city of Fallujah, including the primary southern bridge and the main highway from Baghdad in the east. Reports of limited visibility due to wind and sandstorms suggest that the operation is proceeding slower than planned. There are also lingering concerns about antagonizing local residents and sparking protests. With this new positioning of forces around Fallujah, however, the Iraqi security forces have afforded themselves the options of either staying in place and containing the militants or moving in with a more direct assault to push the militants out from their positions. The latter will be costly, since digging entrenched defenders out of an urban environment is difficult and risks higher civilian casualties.
The level of support Baghdad receives from local tribal elders will be a critical component to how far al-Maliki is willing to escalate current operations against Sunni militants, especially with the central government still locked in a contentious process of coalition-building following national elections. A full-scale assault is unlikely while negotiations about forming a parliament are ongoing, but the central government is taking the opportunity now that elections are over to increase its options and lessen the leverage of Sunni Arabs during talks.