Falluja standoff poses dilemma for Obama
Iraqi insurgents battle government forces
An Iraqi soldier uses a binoculars at a checkpoint in Ein Tamarm, a town some 40 km west of Kerbala. Families fled violence in the Iraqi cities of Falluja and Ramadi with many arriving in the predominantly Shi’ite town of Kerbala, 86 km south of Falluja. Photograph: Mushtaq Muhammed/Reuters
Fierce fighting between Iraqi forces and rebel groups including al-Qaeda was reported near Falluja yesterday, 24 hours after the United States agreed to speed up arms sales to the government in Baghdad.
The standoff between the Iraqi army and the insurgents poses a dilemma for the Obama administration, torn between distaste for Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian approach to politics and a resurgence of al-Qaeda in the country.
Dhari al-Rishawi, the governor of Anbar province, which includes Falluja and Ramadi, was quoted as saying clashes yesterday took place 12 miles west of Falluja. The ministry of defence claimed to have killed 25 al-Qaeda militants in an air strike in the province.
The Iraqi government urged tribal leaders to turn on the insurgents and drive them out of the city. The insurgents vowed to stay and fight.
“They’ll only enter Falluja over our dead bodies,” said one of them, Khamis al-Issawi.
Security officials and tribal leaders said Maliki had agreed to hold off an offensive to give people in Falluja time to push the militants out. But it is not clear how long they have before troops storm the town.
“We’ve done our part of the deal. Now they [tribal leaders] should do theirs. If not, a quick offensive is coming,” an Iraqi special forces officer said.
Iraq’s US-equipped armed forces have killed dozens of militants in recent days in shelling and air strikes, officials say. The scale of casualties among civilians, security forces and tribal fighters is not clear.
The takeover of the centre of Falluja and the outskirts of Ramadi by Sunni protesters, including the al-Qaeda grouping Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), is of especial symbolic importance for Americans, both cities being the scene of bloody fighting during the US-led occupation.
“It is profoundly embarrassing for the US. These are iconic cities that were taken at enormous cost to the US. It is incredibly embarrassing to see them taken over by Islamists,” said Shashank Joshi, a Middle East security specialist at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.
The US announced on Monday it is to accelerate military sales to Iraq, including 10 ScanEagle drones and 48 Raven drones. It said the drones were purely for surveillance. A consignment of 75 Hellfire missiles arrived in Iraq last week.
The CIA, which retained a presence in Iraq after the 2011 US troop withdrawal, is reported to be involved in helping with co-ordination of intelligence as well as targeting Hellfire missiles. In addition, there are 200 US military advisers left after the withdrawal.
While the worry for the US is that it may face an expansion of al-Qaeda in both Iraq and Syria, Toby Dodge, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and a regular visitor to Iraq, predicted both Iraqi and Syrian governments would gain the upper hand against al-Qaeda.
There was close co-operation between al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, he said, but “both the Syrian and Iraqi governments are strong enough to beat al-Qaeda militarily”.
The 933,000-strong Iraqi military accounts for 8 per cent of the country’s workforce and 12 per cent of the adult male population.
Although the US had a tough fight in Falluja in 2004, razing huge parts of the city, Dodge said al-Qaeda was much weaker today, with nothing like the level of support it had during the US occupation. Intelligence estimates put membership of al-Qaeda in Iraq at 3,000, up from 1,000 in 2011.
Joshi warned that al-Qaeda was only one element in a coalition of groups opposed to the Maliki government.
“What were are seeing includes a protest movement and armed tribes,” he said.
Maliki, a Shia, is accused of creating the crisis by pursuing a sectarian policy that has seen Sunnis ousted from prominent government positions.
The US Congress is blocking the sale of Apache helicopter gunships to the Iraqi government amid concerns they might be used for sectarian repression, but the White House has backed the sale.
The problem facing the White House in the coming weeks is how to support the Iraqi government in Falluja and Ramadi without encouraging Maliki to think he does not have to find a political solution.
In a new report for the Washington-based Centre for Strategic International Studies, authors Anthony Cordesman and Sam Khazai are pessimistic.
“No outside power can change the situation. Given Iraq’s current political divisions and leadership, the most the US and other outside states can do is choose between bad alternatives and pursue the least bad options,” they said.
– (Guardian service)