Navigating the Iraqi Labyrinth

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Navigating the Iraqi Labyrinth | The Al-Anbar Province is the western part of Iraq. It begins in Bagdad and its borders are Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Area-wise it is the largest province in Iraq with a total population of about 2 million people – mostly Sunni, whose society is based upon large tribes. Clashes have been taking place in Al-Anbar since December 2013. The combat is mostly taking place in the district’s two major cities – Al-Ramadi, 70 miles southwest of Bagdad and Al-Fallujah, 40 miles southwest of Bagdad. In addition, sporadic fighting is also taking place in the area of the Al-Khalidiya Peninsula located in central Iraq, as well as on the northern outskirts of Bagdad.

The situation in this very important region has even prompted US and Iranian involvement – ironically on the same side…

What is the background for the fighting?

Most Iraqis are Shiite Muslims. The second largest group is Sunni Muslims. During the rule of Saddam Hussein – who was a Sunni – Iraqi Shiites were discriminated against and oppressed. Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a new, predominately Shiite government came into power in Iraq. The Prime Minister, Nouri Al-maliki, is a Shiite. Suddenly, the balance of power was reversed. The Sunnis now found themselves being discriminated against and oppressed. This change resulted in a growing discontent among the Sunnis and led to several outbursts of violence in the predominately Sunni provinces of Iraq. Up until now, one of the most brutal Sunni eruptions took place in April 2013 in the predominately Sunni district of Salahudin; dozens were killed and hundreds were wounded in clashes between Sunni militias and the Iraqi army. Following the events in Salahudin, the Sunnis set up a protest compound in the city of Al-Ramadi – the biggest city in the Al-Anbar Province, the Iraqi government demanded the compound be dismantled arguing that it was used to recruit Al-Qaeda militants and that it served as a base for terror attacks. When the Sunnis failed to comply with the demand, Iraqi police dismantled the compound, violence broke out in the city of Al-Ramadi and quickly spread to the city of Al-Fallujah.

Who are the factors involved?

The Awakening Movement (Sahwa)   
A coalition of the major Sunni tribes; its militia cooperated with the US in a successful military campaign against Al-Qaeda in Iraq from 2006 to 2008; it has political party in the Iraqi Parliament known as The Al-Mutahidun (The United) Party; all 44 party members resigned after the outbreak of the clashes

Global Jihad organizations
Accumulating reports indicate that there are six to eight Sunni Global Jihad terror organizations operating in the Al-Anbar Province

Iraqi SWAT Units
Mostly made up of Shiite soldiers; the district police (mostly comprised of local, mostly Sunni policemen); and according to unconfirmed reports, Shiite militias from southern Iraq

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and also known in Arabic by the initials DA’ESH – up until recently ISIS was Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq

The Military Councils
Sunni militias apparently comprised of Iraqi Sunni veteran militia and/or defectors; confirmed information indicates that they operate in the cities of Al-Samra, Al-Fallujah and Bagdad; unconfirmed information states that these councils work under the umbrella organization named “The Central Military Council of Iraq’s Rebels”

The Sons of Iraq /The New Awakening Movement
A coalition of some Sunni tribes in the Al-Anbar Province who compete with The Sunni Popular Movement in Iraq for political power

The Sunni Popular Movement in Iraq (Al-Harak)
A national Sunni political movement, the movement is not known to have a militia, but it’s possible that the movement is connected to a Sunni Militia named The Tribes’ Rebels

The Tribes’ Rebels
A militia of Sunni tribes operating in the Al-Anbar Province, according to one source, the rebels’ spiritual leader is a Salafi-Jihadist named Abu Abdallah Al-Janab, other information identifies him as a senior ISIS (up until recently the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq) leader

Who is fighting whom?

One might expect that the fighting is between Sunnis and Shiites.

Both senior Sunni and senior Shiite leadership openly describe the clashes as a Sunni-Shiite one. The senior Sunni religious leader in Iraq openly called on the Sunnis to “rebel against the illegitimate government,” while the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, announced that the clashes are the “continuation of the historical Sunni-Shiite struggle.” Interestingly, the most senior Shiite spiritual leader in Iraq – Ali Al-Sistani, has not made any statements.

So, on the one hand, yes, the Sunnis fight the Shiites.

On the Sunni side:
The Global Jihad organizations, ISIS, The Military Councils, The Tribes’ Rebels, (it is not clear if they cooperate and coordinate their military activities)

On the Shiite side:
The Iraqi SWAT Units, including the police, and maybe some Iraqi Shiite militias

But the picture is much more complicated because at the same time, the fighting is between Sunnis and…Sunnis.

On one Sunni side:
The Global Jihad organizations, ISIS, The Tribes’ Rebels, and The Military Councils

On the other Sunni side:
The Awakening Movement (Sahwa) and, the Sons of Iraq/The New Awakening movement

In order to understand the complex reality, you must understand the current interests of the primary Sunni players involved

Al-Qaeda’s goal is to establish a global Islamic Caliphate which will be based upon the strict extreme implementation of the Islamic religious codex – the Shari’ah, In recent years Al-Qaeda has seized control of substantial areas of countries including Yemen, Somalia, Syria and North Africa, ISIS acted as Al-Qaeda’s arm in Iraq from roughly 2006.

ISIS has gained control in portions of western Iraq.

ISIS has also gained control over some areas of Syria. In the past year ISIS has taken over villages and towns in Syria – including in the city of Aleppo (in western Syria) where it has created local governmental systems based on its extreme version of Sharia’h, it has also created bases of terror in these areas. The war in Syria provides ISIS the opportunity to also extend its tentacles into the eastern Syrian districts of Dir Al-Zur and Al-Hasakah. ISIS’ encroachment into Syria has put it on a collision track with the major Syrian rebel groups, including Jabhat al-Nusrah, the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and the Kurdish Militias. Over the past few weeks fierce fighting between ISIS and the Syrian rebels has taken place in different areas resulting in massive losses on both sides. According to source that are unverified, more than 2,000 militants have been killed in these battles, among them more than 250 ISIS militants. As a result, ISIS has lost control over some of its strongholds in Syria including areas within the city of Aleppo.

The Sunni Tribes in Iraq
Both ISIS and the Sunni tribes are hostile to the Iraqi government. Yet, the major Sunni tribes in the Al-Anbar Province, The Popular Movement and The Sons of Iraq /The New Awakening Movement militias fight ISIS.Why? Because most Iraqis do not share the radical ideology inspired by Al-Qaeda; they do not want Iraq turning into an Al-Qaeda-style Islamic Emirate.

The tribes’ leaders are concerned that ISIS’ growing influence reduces their political and economic power. And their concern is warranted because ISIS has already taken control over the economic activities and income sources like extortion fees, taxation of goods, gas stations, etc. in some areas of Iraq.

ISIS’ militants come from different places – Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and so on. However, most of ISIS’ militants are Iraqi and from the local Sunni tribes. The leaders of the tribes are concerned that if ISIS’ influence expands it will result in the disintegration of the tribal societal structure.

The tribes’ leaders are concerned that if ISIS takes over the Al-Anbar Province they will take revenge on the tribes for their role in fighting ISIS during the US occupation of Iraq.

What is the situation on the ground at the time that this report was written?

As of now at least 400 people – many of them civilians – have been killed in the clashes.

Clashes continue in some locations in the cities Al-Fallujah and Al-Ramadi. Reportedly, Iraqi forces have restored control over the area of Al-Khalidiya Peninsula, located fifteen miles east of Al-Ramadi.

According to accumulating reports some 140,000 Iraqis have fled Al Anbar.

It seems that the clashes have not significantly spilled over into other parts of the Al-Anbar Province.

The Sunni forces fighting ISIS have demanded the Iraqi government not send military forces into the cities, but rather leave the task of expelling ISIS to them. Indeed, as of now, the Iraqi government has complied with their demand and has not sent military forces into the cities to restore order.

Not sending in the army serves the Iraqi Government because sending military forces into the cities may:

Result in a confrontation with Sunni tribal militia. Such a confrontation may ignite violence in other Sunni provinces, thus leading to a much bigger war.

Cause heavy casualties – military as well as civilian – which would expose the Iraqi government to increased domestic and international criticism.

In addition, the inner-Sunni clashes actually serve the Iraqi government because it weakens the Sunni opposition. So, the continuation of the fighting actually serves al-Maliki’s interests.

Who are the winners and losers as of now?

The Iran-Assad axis benefits because:

The clashes in Iraq, which involve some of the same entities that make up the rebel groups in Syria, help support Assad’s argument that he is facing terror groups – and not a popular Syrian uprising. It is no wonder then that Iran rushed to offer Iraq support in their “war on terror.”

ISIS is sustaining serious losses because it is simultaneously fighting in Iraq and in Syria, thus its operational capacity is being degraded which is good for the Iran-Assad axis.

In addition to fighting Assad, ISIS is also fighting the major Syrian rebel groups, thus weakening those groups – this obviously serves the Iran-Assad axis well.

Sunni tribes in Iraq benefit because:

A weakening ISIS helps the tribes maintain and secure their political and economic power.

The scenario of an ISIS radical Emirate stretching from Iraq to Syria deeply concerns the international community. Therefore, the Sunni tribes’ success in preventing the expansion of ISIS and restraining them, positions the tribes as a valuable and important player in the eyes of the international community. This improves the tribes’ political power inside Iraq. How? Here is one example: The US announced it expects the Iraqi government to conduct a fruitful dialogue with the Sunnis and to be much more receptive to their demands…

In fact it seems as if the continuation of the current tensions – especially as long it is contained to the areas of Al-Fallujah and Al-Ramadi – serves the interest of Sunni tribes as a tool to put political pressure on the Iraqi government.

ISIS loses because:

ISIS’ capabilities are not unlimited and it is facing serious challenges. It is simultaneously fighting on two fronts and has sustained heavy losses on the ground – including the death of senior commanders. According to accumulating reports, an unknown number of ISIS militants defected and joined Jabhat Al-Nusrah, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria.

Documented evidence reveals ISIS’ brutal and barbaric cruelty. The atrocities ISIS terrorists perpetrate in Syria against innocent civilians, as well as against other militants, prove that many of ISIS’ militants are psychopathic killers. The heinous images have been met with a deep sense of horror, shock and revulsion in the Arab world.

The international community perceives ISIS as a strategic threat and is determined to limit its power.

ISIS recently sustained another blow from a less expected direction when on February 3rd Al-Qaeda formally announced that it has no connection with ISIS. That announcement clearly reflects Al-Qaeda’s growing discontent with ISIS. Amazing as it may sound, even the Al-Qaeda supreme leadership was disturbed with ISIS’ brutality. Read more about that in my Al-Qaeda Intelligence Bulletin (published on February 14).

Al-Qaeda’s announcement comes at a bad time for ISIS, there are some indications that ISIS’ growing difficulties may be thwarting the organization’s momentum and demoralizing their militants. It is questionable how long ISIS will be able to keep its hold on the cities it controls – or partially controls – in Iraq and in Syria. Under continuing military pressure it is unlikely that the organization will be able to hold onto its strongholds for a long time.

Arab analysts wonder then why the Iraqi army can’t crush – or at list repress – ISIS, an organization of a few thousand militants struggling with mounting difficulties. Their answer is that it is actually in the interest of the Iraqi government that ISIS continues.Furthermore, they argue, that it is actually the Iraqi government that deliberately initiated the recent clashes in Al-Anbar for the following reasons:

  • ISIS’ activity in Iraq and Syria serves the interest of the Iran-Assad axis, and the current Iraqi government is an important member of that alliance.
  • ISIS’ activity in Iraq causes an inner-Sunni conflict, thus weakening the Sunni opposition to the Iraqi government.
  • ISIS’ activity provides the Iraqi government the opportunity to present itself as a government that is fighting a serious terror threat. Therefore, the Iraqi government gains political credit and popularity both within Iraq, as well as in the international arena. Indeed, the US just announced it will provide the Iraqi government with military and political support in its war on terror.

Many Arab analysts even argue that ISIS is actually funded and supported by the Iran-Assad axis. That argument should not be dismissed because of two major reasons:

  • A couple of years ago, Assad released Jihadist militants who were imprisoned in Syria and allowed them free passage from Syria to Iraq. In Iraq the freed prisoners killed thousands of Iraqis in murderous terror waves. It is a proven fact that many of those militants are members of ISIS today.
  • Accumulating information indicates that senior Al-Qaeda leaders as well as Al-Qaeda camps are, or at least were, based in Iran.

Iraq loses because:

The Iraqi government loses because the clashes emphasize its incompetence to rule and to provide security.

If not stopped and restrained, the clashes could percolate into other major Sunni provinces thus generating large-scale violence.

As national elections in Iraq approach (scheduled for April 2014) the Iraqi Prime Minister confronts growing criticism internally as well as by the international community, who demands the Iraqi government restrain ISIS and demand that they stabilize the security conditions in Iraq.

The big losers are the Iraqi people

The recent clashes in Al-Anbar Province are yet another link in the never ending violence in Iraq.

In 2013 alone more than 8000 Iraqis – most of them civilians – were killed in the endless violence in Iraq. During the month of January 2014 alone, more than 1,000 Iraqis were killed- most of them civilians. In my article Cruel Iraq Percolating Democracy, published in March, 2012, I described the violence in Iraq. Sunni and Shiites brutally kill each other in mosques, parades, ceremonies, public events, coffee shops, malls, markets and the streets of Iraq. There is not one single secure place in the entire country.

And what about the US?

The clashes in Al-Anbar have another important aspect. They are deepening the increasingly tense relationship between the US and the Arab world. Why?

In the eyes of many Arab analysts and politicians the Al-Maliki government, which is a useful and cooperative member of the Iran-Assad axis, is not a victim of terror as it portrays itself to be – it is rather, a producer of terror.

In the eyes of many in the Arab world, the Al-Maliki government cannot be a part of the solution because in their analysis the al-Maliki government is the problem.

Many Arab analysts argue that the fact that the American administration rushed to express its support for the Al-Maliki government reflects the fact that the American misread the map and fundamentally do not understand the situation.

However, a growing number of Arab analysts argue that the current American administration’s policy regarding the clashes in Al-Anbar does not reflect a misreading. They assert that is actually reflects a calculated decision of the current American administration to turn towards Iran (the Shiites) at the expense of the Arabs (the Sunnis). To support that argument, they emphasize that ironically the clashes in Iraq have prompted both Iran and the US to step in and help the current government fight its “war on terror.”

Iraq is an enormously important state, its future, as well as the future of the region, are inextricably intertwined. As of today, Iraq’s future seems gloomy. The recent clashes in Al-Anbar reflect the growing chaos in Iraq, perpetrated by extremists whose interests go well beyond the borders of Iraq. To a large extent, Iraq is a failing state on the course of disintegration. That process holds substantial ramifications for the region and the world.

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Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed is an expert on current affairs in the Arab & Muslim World and their impact on Israel & the Middle East. A former Israeli Intelligence Official & Senior Official on Arab Affairs, Fluent in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, he has held high-risk Government, Senior Advisory, Intelligence & Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions in Arab cities & communities - often in very sensitive times - on behalf of Israeli Government agencies. He is the Founder & CEO of Inside the Middle East | Intelligence Perspectives - an apolitical non-partisan curriculum using intelligence methodology to examine the Middle East. As an Author, Educator, Expert, and Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Avi provides Intelligence Analysis, Briefings, and Geopolitical Tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policymakers, global media outlets, and a wide variety of international businesses, organizations, and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East Affairs.

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