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Anbar province headed toward isolation

As fighting continues in western Iraq's Anbar province, some warn that continued fighting will isolate the province from the rest of the country in the upcoming elections.
Iraqi SWAT troopers pose for pictures as they take part in an intensive security deployment during clashes with al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the city of Ramadi, 100 km (62 miles) west of Baghdad, February 1, 2014.  Iraqi troops and allied tribesmen killed 57 Islamist militants in Anbar province on Monday, the Defence Ministry said, in advance of a possible assault on the Sunni rebel-held city of Falluja. There was no independent verification of the toll among the militants,

BAGHDAD — Reports about the military operations in the Anbar province suggest that the “decisive moment” remains elusive. There are battles involving Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) militants, fighters from the province’s tribes and members of the regular military forces, with no clear winning team on the ground.

These conditions drive many politicians and security experts to believe that what is happening in the volatile province is a kind of a war of attrition that may widen and thus pave the way for a Syrian scenario in Iraq.

Since late December, Anbar has been witnessing large-scale military operations where various weapons are being used. These weapons include US and Russian arms that Iraq has started to import to fight armed groups.

Various Iraqi security and media sources from Anbar told Al-Monitor during the last days of January: “The conflicting parties take turns in gaining control of the province’s neighborhoods and streets. As soon as government SWAT forces took control of ISIS centers, ISIS fighters managed to localize themselves in other areas.”

These sources said: “The delayed decisiveness is due to the political split in the Sunni community, which affected the role of tribal militants in the military conflict. The fact is that some of these militants fight alongside the Iraqi army, while others fight against it.”

Consequently, in his weekly address on Jan. 29, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki threatened to storm the city of Fallujah "to resolve the matter there.” He pointed out that “the battle will cost the army casualties but he has to do it.”

However, the implementation of military operations, especially in the city of Fallujah, seems a hard call because it is difficult to distinguish civilians from ISIS fighters. Moreover, many believe that the organization took advantage of the political divide, presenting itself as the defender of “Sunni’s interests” in Iraq.

Ahmed al-Jumaili, a tribal leader in the city of Fallujah, told Al-Monitor, “The people of Fallujah sympathize with ISIS militants because of their anger toward the Iraqi army, which is known as 'Maliki’s forces.'”

While fears of the expansion of ISIS power are growing, the prime minister believes that a military initiative should not be delayed any longer. “Frankly, there is not much time left if we are going to enter Fallujah and settle the matter,” Maliki said in the same address.

Thus, ever since the Sunnis took to the street in open-ended protests again Maliki’s government, the troubled city of Fallujah has found itself at a crossroads. Repeating the Syrian scenario will not be the best choice to make.

In parallel with the military operations, Sunni oppositionists have declared the formation of what have come to be known as “military councils” in several Sunni regions. In early January 2014, it was announced that such a council has been formed in the Baghdad province.

A security source told Al-Monitor, “The arrival of rebel groups to areas near Baghdad will result in significant momentum due to sectarian differences among the people. Violent confrontations are likely to occur.”

Many political analysts prefer to say that an ongoing war of attrition in Anbar is likely to distance the province from the upcoming parliamentary elections in April. The Political Council for Iraqi Action — which is a group of Iraqi political forces — warned against the same thing. In a statement, which Al-Monitor obtained a copy of, the council said “the crisis in Anbar is designed to isolate the province from Iraq.”