The recent surge in violence in Iraq has caught most of the western media by surprise, mainly because of the the decline in its interest in the country since US forces departed two years ago. It has taken the occupation of much of Fallujah and Ramadi by Islamist paramilitaries to change that. Suddenly, Fallujah is back at the centre of attention to a degree unheard of since the closing months of 2004.
What is happening should not come as a surprise. Since Nouri al-Maliki formed his administration after the 2010 election, Iraq has experienced a steady increase in internal violence, with more than 9,500 civilians killed last year – more than twice the number of the previous two years, and taking us back to the levels of the horrific 2003-10 period.
At the root of this is the Sunni minority’s bitter resentment at the manner in which the Malaki government has consistently favoured the Shia majority. In itself this is not surprising, since it was this majority community that was consistently and often crushingly controlled throughout the Saddam Hussein regime’s period in power. In spite of this, one could argue that the Maliki government needed to rise above the understandable urge for “payback” and reach out to the Sunni minority. It has singularly failed to do so, and the early signs of its campaigning stance in this year’s forthcoming elections are that it will continue to take a strongly sectarian line.
As to the rebellion it currently faces, it is taking a very similar stance to that of the Assad regime across the border –- persistently claiming that resistance is coming purely from al-Qaeda terrorists, not just in Fallujah but also in the capital of Anbar province, Ramadi, and right across central Iraq. This is a highly dangerous simplification. Radical jihadist groups may well be key parts of the rebellion, but they probably number only a few thousand, and depend on much larger sectors of the Sunni population for support.
Where Malaki’s outlook strikes a chord overseas is with the claim that the al-Qaeda-linked groups in Anbar province are linked to like-minded groups in Syria. There is some truth in this; and additionally, there is a movement – more of an umbrella group than a narrowly functional organisation – that is certainly relevant. This is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also loosely translated as ISIS, with Syria replacing Levant) which has several thousand paramilitaries very active in northern Syria, as well as being connected to the groups in Fallujah and elsewhere in Anbar. For this reason alone, the US is likely to provide the Malaki regime with plenty of weapons even while it urges conciliation with the Sunni minority.
Why, though, is Fallujah so significant, with a symbolic weight out of proportion to what is actually happening there? The main reason takes us back more than a decade, to the US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003. That appeared initially to be hugely successful, with the Saddam Hussein regime collapsing within three weeks, but a bitter anti-occupation insurgency developed almost immediately, principally from Sunni paramilitaries that had formed part of the old regime’s elite special security forces and had gone underground in the face of the surging US forces.
This later morphed into an extraordinarily bitter inter-confessional Sunni/Shi’a conflict as well as an anti-occupation struggle, and was eventually to cost the lives of well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. In 2003, though, the violence was mainly directed at US forces, and by early 2004 the US Army and Marine Corps units were on the receiving end of serious casualties while trying to counter a determined urban-based insurgency, one for which they had inadequate training.
For the young soldiers and Marines, the people opposing them were all terrorists – this was still only two years after 9/11 and the clear narrative was that fighting in Iraq was fighting for Uncle Sam against terrorists linked in some way to that appalling atrocity. An inevitable result was the use of extensive firepower – and Fallujah was a classic example. By April 2004 the city was the most important centre of opposition to US forces and one infamous incident illustrated the issue, being covered by a highly experienced US war correspondent, Pamela Constable of the Washington Post, who was embedded with the Marines trying to subdue the city.
On one occasion, a Marines logistics unit got caught up in an ambush in a densely populated part of the city and had to be rescued by a strong force of Marines equipped with tanks. They suffered some people wounded, but after a difficult and hours-long operation were extricated from the city. Constable reported what happened next:
Just before dawn Wednesday… AC-130 Spectre gunships launched a devastating punitive raid over a six-block area around the spot where the convoy was attacked, firing dozens of artillery shells that shook the city and lit up the sky. Marine officials said the area was virtually destroyed and that no further insurgent activity has been seen there.
The AC-130 is a ground-attack version of the Hercules military transport, with a 105 mm howitzer mounted in the body of the aircraft pointing out sideways and downwards. It has a guidance system allowing it to slowly circle a target area, and can deliver up to 200 high explosive shells within a few minutes. In the case of Fallujah, a crowded city area the size of a small town was destroyed without warning as a reprisal for the attack on the convoy. There are no indications of how many people were killed.
This is in no way to deny the brutality common among the insurgents, but it illustrates a side of the war which was rarely reported. Furthermore, the Marines subsequently failed to pacify Fallujah, and only in November of 2004 did a huge force of 15,000 heavily armed US troops sweep through the city, killing or dispersing fewer than 2,000 insurgents and reportedly damaging or destroying half the buildings in the entire city.
City of Mosques and murder
Even then, Fallujah remained a centre of resistance. Known throughout the Sunni communities in Iraq as “the city of Mosques”, it is now hugely symbolic in the fight against the Maliki government’s forces. There may not be any Americans involved this time, but the fact that Maliki’s forces are armed by the US will hardly go unnoticed.
In all probability the Iraq government will suppress opposition in Fallujah, most likely with many people killed and injured, but it is almost certain to be a pyrrhic victory. Unless the root of the problem – the marginalisation of the Sunni majority – is addressed, this will be just one stage in a long and very bitter civil war. Moreover, as the connection between the war in Syria and this war grows, so the re-emergence of al-Qaeda will be evident, not as an organised movement but as an “idea”, one that has potency whether in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Libya, Mali or elsewhere. More than 12 years after 9/11, we are no nearer to understanding the nature of this movement nor its capacity for transformation. The events underway in Iraq are a singularly potent demonstration of this.