As Iraqi security forces backed by their Sunni tribesmen allies battled anti-government rebels in Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar province this week, violence continued to soar in Baghdad and many other cities across Iraq.
The surge in violence has raised concerns about the continuing deterioration in the security situation in the country less than three months before a crucial parliamentary election.
Violence has escalated since early January, when Sunni extremist insurgents seized large parts of the two cities after government forces had dismantled a Sunni Muslim protest camp in Ramadi.
While the security forces retook control of some parts of Ramadi with the help of allied local tribesmen, Fallujah has remained largely under rebel control.
This week government forces intensified shelling of the rebel hideouts in Fallujah in what appeared to be the preparation for a ground offensive to regain control of the city.
But an all-out assault to reassert control over Fallujah has been put on hold, probably out of fear of large-scale civilian casualties and to convince the Sunni tribes to oust the militants themselves.
However, fierce fighting has left dozens of the insurgents dead, according to the government, while locals have reported heavy casualties among residents because of the army’s shelling and air-strikes.
More than 140,000 people have been made homeless since the new conflict erupted, according to Iraq’s ministry of displacement and migration.
Meanwhile, terrorist acts and other violence continued in many other parts of Iraq. Car bombings hit crowds, marketplaces, restaurants and government buildings mostly in Shia-majority towns and neighbourhoods.
In a daring attack on Thursday, assailants stormed government offices in Baghdad, killing at least 20 people and briefly taking a number of civil servants hostage. The attack was mounted by eight armed men.
The security forces reportedly killed four of the attackers in clashes that left many parts of the huge government building that hosts the transport ministry and human rights ministry devastated.
Fearing more attacks on other government offices, police blocked roads around Baghdad and areas leading into the capital’s fortified Green Zone, which is home to the government headquarters, foreign embassies and other key institutions.
Baghdad’s heavily guarded international airport was struck by three Katyusha rockets on Friday. The missiles hit the runway, a parked plane and the airport’s border area.
There were no reports of casualties, but the attack raised concerns about the security of the airport, Baghdad’s gateway to the world and a facility that handles dozens of flights every day and hosts several international airlines.
The raid indicates that the insurgents can now penetrate the fortified security zone around the facility and the multiple checkpoints on its highways and strike at Iraq’s main transportation network.
On Monday, Katyusha rockets also rattled Baghdad’s Green Zone. Columns of smoke were later seen bellowing over an army garrison inside the enclave.
At the same time, many parts of Iraq have been engulfed in sectarian and political violence, a sign that the situation has been exacerbated by the recent fighting in Anbar province.
In other Sunni-populated provinces, such as Diyalah, Nineveh and Salah al-Din, anti-government rebels have stepped up their attacks against the military, police forces and pro-government tribes.
They are now clashing with the army and police posts nearly every day in some of Baghdad’s outskirts, including Abu Ghraib and Tarmiyah.
Retaliatory attacks, including on Sunni mosques, and killings by Shia extremists in some mixed districts and neighbourhoods have also been growing in recent weeks.
Such attacks have raised concerns that Shia militias who had earlier been showing restraint might now have abandoned it.
Some 1,013 Iraqis were killed, including 795 civilians, in the violence in January, according to government figures, while 2,024 were wounded, making it one of the bloodiest months in the country in two years.
Experts of all stripes agree that the ongoing standoff between the Iraqi forces and the militants in Anbar may take a long time to resolve.
Many of them believe that even if the army can retake Fallujah, the Sunni anti-government resistance will not end until the roots of the Sunni rebellion are removed.
Iraq’s latest crisis started in December 2012, when tens of thousands of Sunnis began protesting against what they saw as the marginalisation of their sect.
The protesters initially wanted the Shia-led government of prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki to put an end to the perceived targeting of the Sunnis by the security forces, but these later turned into demands for the equal sharing of power and wealth.
By late December, Al-Maliki was claiming that a protest camp in Ramadi had been turned into the headquarters of the terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Iraqi army and police forces later moved to dismantle the protest camp after efforts to find a political solution to the crisis had broken down.
Clashes then broke out in Anbar, with Sunni anger at the government’s crushing of the year-long protest movement inflaming Iraq’s already deeply rooted sectarian tensions. Since the fighting broke out in Anbar, fears of an all-out sectarian war have increased.
As the violence spirals, there seems to be no military solution to Iraq’s situation and the prospect of peace and stability seems bleak. Al-Maliki has been labeling the Sunni anti-government rebels as Al-Qaeda terrorists in an attempt to discredit the insurgency and justify his government’s crackdown.
While extremists may be taking the lead in the fight in Fallujah, Sunni hard-line tribesmen and other armed groups, especially officers from the decommissioned army of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, have been actively involved in the rebellion. Al-Qaeda has disavowed the ISIS.
In a purported statement published on one of the jihadist Websites on Saturday, the General Command of the terrorist group insisted that it had no link with the ISIS, a move which will give credit to claims that rebels in Fallujah are not Al-Qaeda members.
Al-Maliki’s strategy seems to be to rely on building allies with rival Sunni tribes and provide them with arms and funds to fight the insurrection. This is a carbon copy of the disastrous “surge” that was forged by the US army during the nine-year US occupation of the country that ended in total failure.
What Al-Maliki should understand is that he is now facing an entrenched resurrection by the country’s wider Sunni minority, who complain of being neglected and excluded by his government while he has been refusing to make any compromise.
The consensus opinion is that if the fighting in Anbar drags on it will cast a grim shadow on the next parliamentary elections that are slated for 30 April. Virtually every commentator believes that even if these elections are held peacefully, they will reproduce Iraq’s sectarian troubles, tensions and frustrations.
As a whole, the battle in Anbar and the larger Sunni resistance it is causing is drawing a deeper dividing line in Iraq’s politics, as well as in its geographical and social dimensions.
Kicking out the fighters from Fallujah could be a breakthrough in the fight against the insurgency and finding allies among the Sunnis to join the war against the rebels may divide the Sunni camp, but in the end what Iraq needs is a sustainable solution to its problems.
Iraq is crumbling not just because violence is playing havoc in the country, but also because there has been no breakthrough in the sectarian deadlock that has paralysed its government for so long. Unless there is a working system that guarantees inclusion within a just state that will deal with all Iraqis as equal citizens, there will be no peace or stability in the country.
by Salah Nasrawi