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Iraq's massive flare-up

By trying to seize cities, Iraqi Sunnis move into a new phase in their anti-government insurgency

Salah Nasrawi, Thursday 12 Jun 2014
This image made from video posted by Iraqi0Revolution, a group supporting the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Wednesday, June 12, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows a militant standing in front of a burning Iraqi Army Humvee in Tikrit, Iraq. (Photo: AP)
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As efforts to form a new Iraqi government stumbled, Sunni rebels have expanded their campaign in several Sunni dominated provinces in what seemed to be an integrated guerrilla offensive in their push to topple Baghdad's Shia-led government.

Sunni armed groups battled government troops in Iraq's Sunni triangle this week and launched a series of deadly bombings across Iraq. The rebels seized control over most parts of the key northern city of Mosul and threatened to advance steadily southwards towards other Sunni populated cities. Last Thursday they temporarily took control of Samarra before they were dislodged by the army and security forces using helicopter gunships and heavy artillery fighting.

The militants' control expanded to Tikrit, the hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein. On Twitter, the ISIL said it would "not stop this series of blessed invasions" that witnessed that fall of the whole  Nineveh province in the north and swathes of Kirkuk and Saleheddin provinces further south.

Insurgents also struck Baghdad this week with a series of daily bombings, including areas in busy commercial districts and some government offices propelling tight security around the green zone which hosts main government offices and diplomatic missions.

The escalation came as a standoff in the restive Anbar province between the Iraqi security forces and insurgents entered its six month and authorities failed to follow through with their announced "anti-terrorist" operation to expel rebels from the town of Fallujah.

The flare-up is a massive setback to Shia Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Nuri Al-Maliki who is also embroiled in a government crisis after 30 April which gave him large number of seats but not enough to form a government.

The success of the Sunni rebels in wrecking havoc in the government's security system at such a large scale is a physiological operations victory which could mean more problems for Al-Maliki who is facing criticism for the security forces' continuing inefficiency in handling fighting with the insurgents. Many Iraqis have called for a national salvation authority to replace his government following the new upsurge.

On Tuesday, insurgents seized most of Mosul, including the governor's offices, police headquarters and other key government buildings. The city fell to the rebels after five days of fighting with security forces who reportedly abandoned their posts en mass leaving rebels to overrun key installations in the sprawling city.

Dozens of civilians were also killed and injured and thousands fled to safer parts of the city or to neighboring districts. Thousands of prisoners, many of them convicted terrorist who were sentenced to death were freed from Mosul's prison.

Before their assault on Mosul, insurgents controlled temporarily controlled Samarra, a Sunni-dominated city 95 kilometres from Baghdad before they were expelled by security forces and Shia tribes. The gunmen, travelling in dozens of vehicles and carrying heavy weapons, seized police stations, the municipality offices and university building.

The rebels were close to control a major dam on the Tigris and could have cut water supplies to Baghdad and southern Shia provinces or divert the stream to flood swaths of land in centeral and southern Iraq.

Also, the rebels came within a striking distance of one of the key Shia shrines in Samarra whose bombing by Al-Qaeda in 2006 triggered the worst bout of sectarian violence in which thousands died.

Elsewhere, security forces on Friday thwarted an attempt by militants to seize the headquarters of the counter-terrorism police in the centre of Baquba, the provincial capital of Diyalah. Several people were killed in the clashes.

On Saturday, rebels stormed Anbar University briefly taking dozens of students hostage before withdrawing from the campus after heavy gunfight with the army. Bombings hit at a Kurdish party offices in Jalawla and Tuz this week killing and injuring hundreds and damaging houses and cars in the attacks. Both Jalawla and Tuz are in disputed areas and the bombings carry a significant message to Kurds who want to annex the cities to their autonomous region.

Rebels also blew up several strategic bridges, apparently trying to block reinforcements which were sent in by Baghdad to repel the attackers. A curfew has been imposed on most of these cities to give army and police mobility to tackle the rebel's seizure of neighborhoods.

The brazing attacks came as violence continues to upsurge in Iraq as rebels take advantage of a lingering political crisis. Nearly 1000 people were killed in bombings across Iraqi in May while hundreds other were killed in fighting in Fallujah, making it the bloodiest month so far this year.

The crisis in the Al-Anbar province, triggered by last year’s government crackdown on Sunni anti-government protesters has increased the polarisation and gave violent Sunni extremists the leverage to expand the rebellion.

The government has blamed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria ISIS for the latest offensive. While ISIS has admitted responsibility for the coordinated series of bombings the new fronts in the insurgency seemed to be the work of several radical Sunni groups working together to demoralize the security forces and destroy the government authority.

A closer look at operations indicates that their military aim on the tactical level is to wear out the government forces and drive them to scale back the offensive on Fallujah and other flash-points.

The political objective of the June offensive, however, seems to be more complicated. It aims to foment rebellion among Sunni population at large and prevent Sunni politicians who won seats in the newly elected parliament to cut deals with the government at the expense of the community's interests and goals.   

It is not clear whether the insurgents will be able to achieve their objectives, but the latest rash of violence will certainly drive Iraq deeper into the deadly sectarian abyss and further complicates the country's national crisis.

One of the most feared consequences of the flare-up is that Al-Maliki could use the new standoff to whip up the Shias against the Sunnis in order to garner more support among his community in his drive to win another term. Rival Shia political blocs, Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani and key Sunni political leaders have reiterated their strong opposition to his bid for a third term in office.

In a speech last week Al-Maliki said rebels in Samarra were planning to attack the Shia holy shrine in order to provoke sectarian sedition. He thanked Shia tribes form near by towns for coming to the support of the security forces in the counter-offensive in Samarra. Earlier, he called the campaign to take back Fallujah from Sunni rebels as a “jihad”, or holy war.

Though Baghdad forces managed to hold off the Sunni large-scale assault, news coverage of atrocities carried out by security forces and arbitrary shelling of residential areas during the counter-offensive shocked and dismayed the larger Sunni public and further increased their dismay and eroded support for their political and tribal leaders who have showed willingness to cooperate with Al-Maliki.

Before the latest escalation, Al-Maliki was reportedly managed to receive support from many newly elected Sunni members of parliament whom he hoped will join a broad political coalition he is building to form a new government. Iraqi media reported that had paid up to $US 1 million to each aspiring member and other gifts to secure their backing.

In another political blunder, Al-Maliki has called for a meeting of “national dialogue” next week to find a peaceful solution for the Anbar crisis. He promised to spend US# 1 billion on reconstruction and compensation in Anbar and promised an amnesty to "those who have committed violations."

The offer was immediately rejected by tribal and political leaders in Anbar and Fallujah who insisted that the government army should be withdrawn from the province and local police force be the restructured. Al-Maliki's bid was largely seen as a maneuver to buy loyalty among Sunnis and to try to divide the community.

In a desperate bid to mobilize support Al-Maliki on Tuesday called on the outgoing parliament to impose emergency measures nationwide and urged tribes to join the armed forces to fight what called "terrorists."

He also called for Arab and international help to fight "terrorism."

What the unprecedented assaults on major urban centers have shown is that Al-Maliki can achieve no easy and lasting victory over the arduous Sunni insurgency. It remains to be seen if Al-Maliki is finally ready to step down and let a national salvation government takes over as many Iraqis have demanded or he will stay to watch the rest of Iraq burning.

Salah Nasrawi is an Iraqi journalist who lives in Cairo.

This story was first published at Ahram Weekly.

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