Iraq's Anbar Province Under Threat From Al-Qaida

Heavy fighting has been reported in the Anbar province of Iraq this week. NPR's Arun Rath speaks to Middle East specialist Kirk Sowell about what it means.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

A little over nine years ago, American soldiers and Marines in Iraq endured the bloodiest combat since Vietnam to retake the city of Fallujah from Iraqi and foreign insurgents. It must be hard for the veterans of that battle to see the headlines today, that Iraqi extremists aligned with al-Qaida have retaken the city and are declaring it an independent state.

Tensions have flared up there in part because of ethnic divisions and in part as a backlash against the country's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his decision to crack down on protesters and adversaries.

Kirk Sowell is the editor in chief of Inside Iraqi Politics and is based in Amman, Jordan. I asked him if we should fear the worst when it comes to the al-Qaida presence in Fallujah.

KIRK SOWELL: They've not taken over the whole city. However, what has actually happened is that Fallujah, the entire city has fallen entirely outside of the control of the federal government. The tribes in that area are armed, and they've appointed a military council to try to restore security in the city. Parts of Fallujah and Ramadi are in the hands of al-Qaida - the al-Qaida affiliate there. But most of it is more in the hands of local Sunni militias.

RATH: When we're talking about al-Qaida, is this the old al-Qaida in Iraq that U.S. forces were fighting during those heavy days of fighting in the Iraq War?

SOWELL: Yes. It's a evolved mutation of that organization. We beat them down quite a bit before 2011, and then U.S. forces left in December of 2011. They were not wiped out completely, but they were mostly wiped out. About that time, they changed their name from al-Qaida in Iraq to the Islamic State in Iraq. And then earlier last year, they changed their name again to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or the Levant, meaning they are based in Iraq and Syria. So it's a mutated form, and it's much stronger now.

RATH: Now, given the history of Fallujah, all the fighting over the city in the past and that there is, as you mentioned, you know, it's a Sunni city that may not be too inclined to feel friendly toward the mainly Shiite government in Baghdad, I would think that the Iraqi Army, they would have been there in force. It's kind of surprising that Fallujah of any city, that would be a place that could be lost.

SOWELL: If you look at 2013 as a whole, the best way to summarize the situation is that of a gradually strengthening al-Qaida organization. And they had a two-prong strategy. One was mass killing bombing attacks, suicide attacks against Shia. And then they were - also had a separate track, which was targeted assassinations against Sunni officials. We talk about Fallujah, they assassinated the mayor there just about a month or so ago.

So the situation was bad. However, ISIS al-Qaida did not actually control anything. And then after Maliki's raid against the protest side at Ramadi, there was this sort of tribal uprising, if you will, in both Fallujah and Ramadi. And then there was also a threat to withdraw from the political process by Sunni politicians in Baghdad. So Maliki pulled back the federal police and army that were guarding all the entrance points and exit points in Ramadi and Fallujah. And then that is what has led to the complete chaos over the last few days.

RATH: That battle of Fallujah in 2004 with U.S. forces, that was one for the history books. Do you think it's going to be as bloody an undertaking for the Iraqi government to regain control of the city, even though it's disputed how much they're in control?

SOWELL: Frankly, I think they're not going to try. I think it would be absolutely foolish for them to do so. They've identified what they say is an al-Qaida base, which may or may not be an al-Qaida base. It may be just a local militia that's hostile to the government that's not al-Qaida. And they're shelling the city. If the federal army were to go in, it would be, I think, frankly quite a bit worse or quite a bit more bloody than it was in 2004.

This is not a well-trained army. This is a hammer, it's not a scalpel. They do not have, you know, a lot of precision weapons. They're not trained to do precision fighting. What they're going to have to do is basically negotiate their way to where the city is in control of tribes, but tribes that are at least - even if they're hostile to the government, are also hostile to al-Qaida. That's sort of the best-case scenario right now.

RATH: Kirk Sowell is a Middle East expert and consultant. Kirk, thank you.

SOWELL: Thank you.

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