The stability in Iraq has been worsening for some time now. The American doomsday scenario of al-Qaeda linked groups taking control over various parts of the Middle East is getting closer. The latest news last Friday about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda affiliated group, taking control of Fallujah and Ramadi, two biggest cities in the Al Anbar province in western Iraq raised the alarm bells. ISIS linked fighters captured government buildings in these mostly Sunni populated cities and raised black al-Qaeda flag over them, even declaring establishment of “Islamic Emirate of Ramadi.”
The political atmosphere has remained volatile in Iraq since the withdrawal of the U.S. troops in December 2011. However the recent gains by the ISIS were an important step for resurgence of al-Qaeda in the country. The ISIS had significant presence in Iraq during the Iraq War; especially in the governorates of Al Anbar, Ninawa and Kirkuk, but the U.S. succeed to subdue it in 2006-2007 with the support of Sunni tribes in the region. After the U.S. withdrawal however, the policies of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, against the Sunni tribes of the region created rift between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites in the country in general and non-cooperation of the Sunni groups in Anbar with the forces of the central government This opened the way for the extremist groups to fill the power vacuum. The civil war in Syria also provided safe-haven and fresh supplies for the extremist groups, such as ISIS, and empowered them. Under the leadership of Abu Bakr Baghdadi, the group seeks to establish an Islamic order within the territories of Syria and Iraq. In July, the ISIS fighters coordinated attacks to Abu Ghraib and al-Taji prisons and freed more than 500 inmates, including senior members of the group.
The Iraqi Army has so far failed to recapture Al Anbar; and now the government is trying to convince so far neglected Sunni tribes to support government forces. The control of the strategic province, bordering Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, is crucial for the unity of the country. The geography also allows interaction between various Iraqi and Syrian extremist groups and supplies through the Saudi border.
The seriousness of the situation might create strange couples in the region: Both the U.S. and Iran are very concerned about the developments in Iraq and have declared their will to help the Maliki government. Yet, the U.S. is still reluctant about Maliki’s wish list, presented during his visit to Washington in October. Some in the Congress have doubts about Maliki’s close relations with Iran and also his intentions; whether he would use the delivered arms solely against the insurgents or Sunnis groups in general. The fall of Fallujah to ISIS control might pave the way for the delivery of additional U.S. weaponry, as it wants to find a solution without boots on the ground.
The Iraqi government on the other hand wishes to strengthen its hand before the parliamentary elections in April. Maliki hopes to win a third time. Yet he is facing a tough struggle in Al Anbar as some of the tribes in the region are already fighting alongside ISIS fighters, while others are still supporting the government forces. This division is no doubt the natural outcome of the sectarian policies of the Maliki government.
The effects of advances by al-Qaeda linked groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are likely to pose a serious threat for the region as a whole. There is no regional power that can cope with the al-Qaeda alone. Potential regional powers are more interested in focusing on their rivalry with each other, rather than cooperating against the al-Qaeda. As long as this continues, the Middle East will provide a fertile ground for the al-Qaeda to be reborn with a vengeance.