Sunday, January 5, 2014

Iraq Update 2014 #2: Al-Qaeda in Iraq Patrols Fallujah; Aims for Ramadi, Mosul, Baghdad

Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) announced an Islamic state in Fallujah and detained 75 members of the Iraqi Army on Friday, January 3, 2014. Clashes continue in Ramadi between tribal militias working with Iraqi Security Forces and AQI. However, AQI is increasing its presence in Fallujah while the Iraqi Army calls up reinforcements outside the city and begin a bombardment of suspected enemy positions. The contest for control of Fallujah will almost certainly be a violent struggle. These events have produced a humanitarian crisis in Fallujah with at least hundreds of families fleeing the city. Meanwhile, a political standoff has renewed between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives (COR), Osama al-Nujaifi.

AQI Patrols Fallujah; Tribal and Police Counterattack Fails

On January 3, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) announced its presence in Fallujah during the major Friday prayers in the city. Reportedly, an AQI commander addressed the crowd and announced that the group is in Fallujah to “to defend Sunnis from the government.” On the same day, individuals in a “stolen” police vehicle roamed the city and used speakers to convey the same message to the population. A local government official, Dhari al-Rishawi, confirmed AQI’s presence and stated that the group is in control of the city. As a response, the Iraqi Security Forces shelled eastern Fallujah with mortar rounds. Three people were killed as a result of the shelling and 28 others were injured. Meanwhile, tribal forces along with Iraqi Police reportedly entered Fallujah from the western side and regained control of some police stations previously seized by AQI. However, the counter-attack by police and government-allied tribal elements attack in Fallujah was not fully successful.  

Locally, a statement was disseminated through a mosque loudspeaker claiming that the Fallujah’s notables, tribes, and religious scholars supported the effort of the police to enforce security in Fallujah. The statement makes clear that Iraqi Army deployment to Fallujah is not acceptable and calls on the people of Fallujah not to depart the city. This statement is indicative of the response by some segments of the population to AQI’s presence in the city as well as to the Iraqi Army’s artillery bombardment.

Tribal Militiamen on a highway in Fallujah after allegedly repelling an Iraqi military convoy and capturing a vehicle

On January 4, the situation in Fallujah worsened.  A security official stated that Fallujah had fallen under AQI control. Other media reports indicated that “AQI is in complete control of Fallujah after the withdrawal of security forces.” The same reports added that AQI members are patrolling in the city. Deputy Chairman of the Anbar provincial council, Falih al-Issawi also stated that AQI is in control of Fallujah. An unnamed source stated that AQI captured 75 members of the 53rd Brigade, 7th IA division who are stationed near Fallujah. The source added that AQI has taken them into the city, implying that AQI has established control there.

Additionally, tribal elements are reported to have seized control of the Mazra military camp in eastern Fallujah after the withdrawal of besieged members of the Iraqi military in the camp. Furthermore, an anonymous source from the Iraqi Police in Anbar stated that unidentified gunmen attacked an Iraqi Army convoy on the International Highway, east of Fallujah. Gunmen allegedly burned four fuel tanks and seized a number of military vehicles that were loaded with supplies for the IA in addition to soldier transport vehicles. The convoy was on its way to Ramadi and the gunmen let the soldiers go after seizing their weapons and materiel. Given that the soldiers were let go, it is likely that the attackers were tribal militias rather than AQI.
The IA reportedly used helicopters to target AQI members in western Fallujah with missiles as an unnamed Iraqi intelligence source stated that hundreds of Arab fighters have entered Anbar in the last two days through the western border. If this is true, the fighters would have likely come from Syria.

Reports further indicate that families have been displaced as a result of the violence in Fallujah. On January 4, an Iraqi newspaper reporter stated that “hundreds” of families departed the city of Fallujah to areas in western Anbar and Baghdad due the shelling that targeted number of residential areas. The report added that the road that connects Baghdad to Fallujah was cut which prevented food supplies from reaching the city. The source added that the IA targeted Fallujah with “random” mortar attacks. On January 3, the medical office in Anbar reported that mortars targeted the areas of Asakri, Jughaifi, Mualmeen, and Dhubat in Fallujah, resulting in the death of six individuals and 87 other casualties.

Tribes and Security Forces Cooperate to Defend Ramadi

Overall, there are important differences between the situation in Fallujah and Ramadi. In Ramadi, it appears that the tribes are working more closely with the government while the dynamic in Fallujah suggests that AQI is more dominant; as a result, there is less tribal-governmental cooperation. In Ramadi, an anonymous security source stated that clashes took place between security forces along with tribal gunmen and members of AQI. The source added that the clashes took place in central Ramadi. According to the source, Iraqi Army Aviation participated in the clashes. Sources also stated that people were advised to evacuate certain areas in Ramadi as an attack by ISF and tribal gunmen became imminent. The clashes are reported to have resulted in the deaths of thirty members of AQI.

AQI Threats to Baghdad and Ninewa

Closer to Baghdad, on January 3 an Iraqi Police source stated that AQI members were present in several areas of Abu Ghraib. According to the source, those areas constitute 45% of the district. The source adds that the AQI members are attempting to control Iraqi Army outposts and positions. This development signifies AQI’s intention to push into Baghdad and block Iraqi military reinforcement from southern Iraq and Baghdad.

Elsewhere in Iraq, Ninewa’s governor Atheel al-Nujaifi announced the foiling of a plan by AQI to control the Shura sub-district in southern Mosul. According to Nujaifi, the plan included attacking checkpoints and planting explosive devices. Nujaifi noted the role of local police, but also praised the role of Federal Police in the process. AQI is capable of attacking urban centers in several provinces, including Baghdad. While the Iraqi Army focuses on Fallujah, it will be critical to watch for AQI launching such attacks in other cities. Likewise, it is critical to watch for the response of the Iraqi Sunni tribes in Salah ad-Din and Ninewa to the shelling and aerial bombardment of Fallujah by the Iraqi Army. These threats draw attention to the Iraqi Sunni political apparatus and its response to Maliki’s decisions in Anbar.

Political Response

On the political front, the Baghdad Operations Command (BOC) blocked speaker Osama al-Nujaifi’s convoy from reaching the Abu Hanifa mosque on January 3. Nujaifi, who is the leader of the primarily Sunni Mutahidun party, called for an investigation of the BOC after this event. The BOC commander Abed al-Amir al-Shamarri stated that he is willing to answer any questions arising from this incident. This issue indicates a stand-off between Nujaifi and Maliki at a critical time.  Nujaifi likely intended to preserve the political engagement of Iraq’s Arab Sunnis while the Iraqi Army shells Fallujah. It is unclear if Nujaifi’s previous rapprochement will hold. Another significant development took place when Maliki ally Yasin Majid criticized Mutahidun’s stance with regards to events in Anbar. Majid’s statements were provocative, as he wondered whether there is cooperation between the Mutahidun Alliance and AQI. These statements can be viewed alongside statements from PM Maliki on January 4 that AQI was three weeks away from announcing a state in Anbar before the shutdown of the protest site in Ramadi.  These statements were meant to justify the advance of the Iraqi Army into Anbar as well as the closure of the Ramadi protest site, which had initially produced a violent tribal response to the Iraqi Army. It is important to watch for indications from Maliki that he will use this security crisis to delay the April 30 national elections.


Reports and statements conflict over who is now in control in Fallujah. It is clear that AQI has visible freedom of movement in the city and may be holding 75 Iraqi soldiers prisoner there. Moreover, it is likely that AQI’s control is accelerating in the city. If reports are true that AQI fighters have arrived in Anbar, it indicates that AQI plans to augment its forces in the province and engage in a sustained military effort around the cities. It will be a major victory for AQI if it truly captured 75 soldiers, and the ISF will be in a very difficult situation if the main government camp in Fallujah is now controlled by armed gunmen. There are still conflicting reports about the camp, but it is clear that armed groups are attacking ISF infrastructure.

The Iraqi Army will likely continue its aggressive attack on Fallujah in order to wrest control from AQI. It has already begun to do so through artillery and missile strikes. The Iraqi Army lacks the precision intelligence, targeting, and weaponry that would be required to clear the city without re-leveling it. The threat of civilian casualties or population displacement are high. The resonance among Iraq’s Arab Sunnis of the Iraqi Army fighting in the streets of Fallujah may trigger violent uprising against the government in other provinces. It is unclear how Iraqi Sunni politicians will handle the double-edged sword of working with Maliki to counter AQI. De-escalation is primarily in Prime Minister Maliki’s hands. He and his allies have to refrain from provocative statements and behavior in order to ensure that Iraq AQI’s immediate threat is dealt a significant blow.

Ahmed Ali is a senior Iraq Research Analyst and the Iraq Team Lead at the Institute for the Study of War