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Middle East Aflame
Al-Qaeda Militants "Take Over" Cities in Western Iraq

Hundreds of al-Qaeda-linked fighters battled state security agents for control of two large cities west of Baghdad on Friday in the third straight day of intense violence. Yesterday, radical Sunni militants dressed in black and waving the al-Qaeda flag rampaged through Fallujah and Ramadi, freeing prisoners from jail, setting fire to police stations, blowing up government buildings, and exhorting their fellow Iraqis to join the fight over mosque loudspeakers. Government troops fought them street by street. On Friday, after a brief lull, fighting erupted again.

At a park in Fallujah earlier today, militants interrupted Friday prayers. “We declare Fallujah as an Islamic state and we call on you to be on our side,” one shouted to the crowd. “We are here to defend you from the army of Maliki and the Iranian Safavids. We welcome the return of all workers, even the local police, but they have to be under our state and our rule.”

Fallujah and Ramadi, the largest cities in Anbar Province, are hotbeds of Sunni extremism. This week’s violence erupted when Prime Minister Maliki ordered security services to disband protest camps in both cities and arrest a prominent Sunni lawmaker. The arrest attempt set off a firefight between tribesmen and the police. Maliki agreed to withdraw his agents, but as soon as they were gone al-Qaeda militants swept through both cities. Many Sunnis blame the Maliki regime for a harsh crackdown on Iraqi Sunnis. One Sunni sheikh told the NYT that Maliki was “creating more depressed people willing to join Al Qaeda because of the sectarian behavior and ongoing arrests.”

As is often the case in Iraq, tribal alliances, religious divides, and ongoing violence make it difficult to know exactly what’s going on. The NYT account of the fighting indicates that some tribes in Anbar have been cooperating with the government, suggesting that not all want to side with al-Qaeda. And on Twitter this morning reports swirled that a leader of ISIS, an al-Qaeda partner group active in both Syria and Iraq, was killed in a battle with other Sunni tribal fighters this morning.

What is clear is that the Syrian civil war is bleeding extensively into neighboring countries. Left alone to fester, the Syria conflict was never going to stay within Syria’s borders, drawn as they were by Westerners with little consideration for the tribes and communities that extend from one country to another. West of Syria, Lebanon is experiencing the worst bout of violence since Hezbollah fighters joined the fight against the Syrian rebels; to the east, in Iraq’s Sunni provinces, al-Qaeda is trying to take over entire cities.

And President Obama wanted to wash his hands of the Middle East and pivot to Asia? That’s looking like a much harder policy shift nowadays.

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  • Anthony

    Not just Syrian civil war is bleeding and law of unintended consequences follow but Libya intervention has yet to be determined consequences for both Sahel and beyond…

  • gabrielsyme

    The old debate on the wisdom of partitioning Iraq is again becoming relevant. The success of the Petraeus/Bush surge for a time masked the long-term advantages of such a partition, but they are again becoming increasingly evident. Internecine violence continues; government is disrupted and destabilised due to ethnic and religious divisions and the economy stagnates. National minorities, all other things being equal, find themselves the more safe and tolerated when the majority is secure in its control; Iraq, where both the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs are strong enough forces to challenge Shia hegemony, has a demographic recipe for sustained conflict.

    An independent Kurdish state could actually prove to be a stabilizing force in the region, and Sunni Iraq would be less inclined to gravitate towards al-Qaeda if it were not locked in an endless struggle against a Shia central government – perhaps it could even be brought into an enlarged Kingdom of Jordan. Shia Iraq might fall fall slightly further into the orbit of Iran, but cultural and ethnic differences ought to prevent such a state from being entirely at the beck and call of the Iranian regime.

    It is just possible that such a partition would be welcomed by the Gulf monarchies, while undermining Iranian dreams of a Shia crescent (a secure Arab Shia nation might well have less need of foreign sponsors), helping to restore a balance of regional power disrupted by a future nuclear settlement with Iran.

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