Friday, January 17, 2014

Iraq Update 2014 #9: Anbar Standoff Continues With Clashes in Ramadi and Fallujah

Clashes continued in Anbar throughout the last week, primarily concentrated on specific areas in Ramadi and along the highway area between Ramadi and Fallujah. Although the clashes are not as intense as those that characterized the beginning of the crisis, their continuation suggests that violence in Anbar is likely to be protracted.

Fallujah Clashes

The city of Fallujah remains surrounded by the Iraqi military and is still a no-go zone for Iraqi government forces. Nonetheless, significant events have taken place in the city and its surroundings in the last week. Shelling of areas close to Fallujah continued as the Iraqi Army carried out mortar attacks in Garma resulting in the death of four civilians and injury of six on January 14.

On January 10, unidentified gunmen using explosives destroyedtwo bridges near Fallujah. One attack took place near Garma, which has been a contested area since the beginning of the Anbar crisis. These attacks are intended to hinder supply lines for the Anbar-based ISF and also to isolate the forces deployed near the city. On January 11, a new administrator for Fallujah was appointedalong with a new police chief and they assumedtheir responsibilities the following day. These steps were meant to consolidate the powers of local brokers.   

On January 15, gunmen likely affiliated with AQI took over the Saqlawiyah police station in Fallujah district after the police force was defeated. The police stations, along with Saqlawiyah’s government complex, were regainedby security forces on January 16. AQI is known to have attacked police stations in the past and likely carried out this attack to establish presence and confiscate the weapons of defeated police. In Fallujah city itself, AQI members on January 16 are reported to have distributedleaflets that called on the population to carry arms and provide support to AQI. Furthermore, AQI-signed pamphlets are reported to have been found in the city announcing the formation of a body to resolve disputes among the city’s residents. The body, known as the “Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” commission, historically has a role of enforcing strict religious rules. Tribes and locals in Fallujah will likely respond adversely to this step. 

In a move that could open the door for escalation, on January 17 Anbar’s deputy council chairman, Falih al-Issawi, statedthat the tribes in Fallujah have failed to expel AQI from the city and that the new administrator and police chief are no longer in the city due to the kidnapping of the administrator and the escape of the police chief to Arbil. These reports are unconfirmed by any other sources from inside Fallujah.  According to the Issawi, this signifies the collapse of the government’s agreement with the tribes and could lead ISF to attempt to retake the city by force. If the report is accurate, the city will face intense military pressure in the coming days. It is likely, however, that Fallujah notables and tribes will pressure AQI members to become less visible in order to avoid a military campaign. It will be important to watch AQI’s reaction to such pressure.  

Clashes in Ramadi and the Participation of the Golden Division

On January 11, security forces led by the counter-terrorism forces, regainedcontrol of the “old security building” in Ramadi which was taken over by likely al-Qaeda in Iraq elements earlier in the week. The counter-terrorism force participating in the attack was likely the Golden Division of the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) which has spearheaded the Iraqi government response to attacks in Anbar the beginning of the crisis particularly in urban areas. The Golden division is led by Iraqi Kurdish General, Fadhel Barwari and, as the elite force in the CTS, it will likely be the lead force in any Iraqi government plan to retake control of Fallujah. Barwari has an active social media presence and he is using it to project his units operation and power in Anbar’s operations. On January 2, Barwari posteda photo on his Facebook page announcing the deployment of a new weapon by his unit in Anbar that he named after himself. Barwari’s effort in sharing the Golden Division’s operations is intended to compete with AQI’s and the Tribal Military Councils’ (TMCs) use of social media broadcasting their own activities.

While the Golden Division carries out its operations in Anbar, AQI is still able to carry out attacks in Ramadi. The clashes are concentrated in the Albu Bali area northwest of Ramadi as well as Khaldiya. The area is named after the Albu Bali tribe which is pro-government. Albu Bali is also a strategic area given its close location to the highway between Ramadi and Fallujah. On January 10, a social media outlet sympathetic to AQI posted a photo alleging AQI’s destruction of an Iraqi Security Forces HUMVEE in Albu Bali with an individual on top of the vehicle raising AQI’s black flag. On January 15, leader of the pro-government tribal Sahwas, Wisam al-Hardan, statedthat his forces along with other security elements are preparing to retake Albu Bali from AQI and added that most families in the area have departed due to the clashes. On January 16, a reported force of three thousand CTS and Rapid Reaction elements launched a counterattack on Albu Bali. At this point, it is not clear whether or not the attack was successful. 
Barwari posing with the "Barwari missile."  Photo from Barwari's Facebook page.

Photo posted on January 10 alleging AQI destruction of an ISF HUMVEE in Albu Bali. 

Elsewhere in Ramadi, clashestook place on January 13 in the area of Street 60 reportedly between AQI elements and ISF and pro-government tribal forces. The Malaab [Stadium] area police station also fellto likely TMC elements on January 15. There are media reports of continuous clashes in the Malaab area in Ramadi as of January 17. Anbar deputy council chairman Falih al-Issawi criticized the police in Malaab for allowing the station to fall, adding that the 200 police members could not resist attackers in four attacking vehicles. This indicates that the police force deserted. On January 10, the house of Anbar assistant governor, Mahdi Salih Noman, was blown up by explosives. Noman was not home during the attack and a local police source stated that AQI elements carried out the attack. If the attack was not carried out by AQI, it was possibly carried out by anti-government TMCs that intended to intimidate Noman instead of killing him and thereby incurring punishment by Noman’s tribe. Meanwhile, on January 17, a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest (SVEST) attackeda Sahwa force in the Albu Fahad area resulting in the death of at least two Sahwa members. SVEST attacks are signature AQI attacks. As AQI will continue to attack pro-government tribes, it will be important to watch if the TMCs will also choose to fight pro-government tribes.          


The attacks in Ramadi and Fallujah will continue. So far, the Iraqi government has restrained from militarily entering Fallujah and thus averting high numbers of casualties. Nevertheless, shelling the city has continued and there is a conflict in the city between local tribes that want to keep the Iraqi Army military out of Fallujah and AQI.  AQI has distributed leaflets that announce its long-term intention to remain in the city, impose harsh religious principles, and possibly to govern it as part of its Islamic State. The Iraqi government would nevertheless be well-advised to allow negotiations to take their course, continue to engage the tribal leaders of Fallujah, and avoid a violent and damaging siege.

Ahmed Aliis a Senior Iraq Research Analyst and the Iraq Team Lead at the Institute for the Study of War