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No, Iraq’s Al-Anbar Protests Were Not Peaceful

The Iraqi army is preparing to launch an assault on Fallujah, a town in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate which has seen disproportionate suffering over the past decade. The issue is not simply sectarian: While a narrative of Shi’ite Baghdad persecuting Sunni al-Anbar might fit well with some journalists and diplomats, the situation in al-Anbar is more complex. Take resources: Iraq has vast oil wealth concentrated in its north where Kurds dominate, and the south, where Shi’ites hold sway. Anbar is not devoid of resources, however: It has—or had—vast subterranean water reserves which could have supported an agricultural boom. But Saudi enterprises came in, literally grew hay for animal feed which depleted the water table, trucked it back to Saudi Arabia, and claimed it was produced there to qualify for government subsidies as the Kingdom tries to bolster its own agricultural sector.

From the days predating the surge to the present, Anbar has also had to deal with the influx of Islamists and al-Qaeda adherents who run roughshod over local tribal culture. It is here that the Sunni vs. Shi’ite narrative breaks down because, whatever the faults of the government in Baghdad—and there are many—one of the biggest conflicts within al-Anbar has always been between Sunnis.

There is a narrative put forward by some diplomats and military analysts that the current problems in al-Anbar are simply the result of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki provoking those in al-Anbar. For more than a year, some local residents had sat in protest camps to protest unemployment, sectarian discrimination, and voice other complaints. While that was certainly the case with some young participants, al-Qaeda elements were a presence in the camps long before Maliki sought to clear them out. Here are a few examples

  • At around 48 seconds in this YouTube video, the preacher declares fealty to al-Qaeda.
  • This video shows al-Qaeda members openly displaying their flag in Ramadi last October.
  • Here is a march from last November in which participants declared their loyalty to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and quote Abu Masab az-Zarqawi.
  • And here is another protest from last autumn in which protesters raised the ISIS flag.

I spent a part of last week in Tikrit and Mosul, Iraqi cities with large Sunni Arab populations. Locals expressed a great deal of unease about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and what they saw as the sectarian character of his government. Unlike some analysts outside of Iraq, though, they did not downplay or dismiss the presence of al-Qaeda in al-Anbar long before Maliki’s raid on the protest camps. They recognize that al-Qaeda poses as much a threat to Sunni Iraqis as it does to Shi’ites.

As the Iraqi army begins its operations to clear al-Qaeda from Fallujah, many Iraqi Sunnis hope that long-term Anbari residents can wear the uniform of the Iraqi army to clean house in their own home province. No one but Anbaris have ever been welcome in Anbar in a military sense, and so tribal elements hope that they rather than Shi’ite recruits from distant provinces will be the ones who do what is necessary. Here, Iraqis hope the United States will play just a supporting role, ensuring the Iraqi army has a qualitative military edge over al-Qaeda, and recognizing that al-Qaeda exists because of its ideology and its foreign sponsors; it did not simply materialize because of some political grievance, nor had it been absent from the protest camps which some outsiders describe as pure and nonviolent.