Iraq prepares for poll in shadow of militant threats

Election to be held amid increasing bloodshed and sectarian violence

Ubiquitous campaign posters prior to Iraq’s parliamentary elections in Sulaimaniya, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Voters go to the polls today in Iraq’s first nationwide election since the withdrawal of US forces at the end of 2011. Photograph: Yahya Ahmad/Reuters

Ubiquitous campaign posters prior to Iraq’s parliamentary elections in Sulaimaniya, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Voters go to the polls today in Iraq’s first nationwide election since the withdrawal of US forces at the end of 2011. Photograph: Yahya Ahmad/Reuters


Snipers line the rooftops across Fallujah, waiting for a chance to shoot at government soldiers, should they try to invade. Homes have been wired to explode, too, just in case the government rushes the city. And roads have been studded with countless steel-plated bombs, of the type that killed so many US soldiers here.

Fallujah – and greater Anbar province – perhaps more than any other locale in Iraq, embodies the extreme lengths the United States went to tame a bloody insurgency unleashed by its invasion. But now, much of the region is again beyond the authority of the central government and firmly in the control of the Islamist State of Iraq and the Levant, a jihadist group that is so radical it has broken with al-Qaeda, in part because it insisted on being allowed to indiscriminately kill the Shia.

That reality, which the government appears powerless to remedy, offers a sobering postscript to the US war and a volatile backdrop to national elections scheduled for today. The vote will be Iraq’s first nationwide election since the withdrawal of US forces at the end of 2011, and it is clear it will he held amid spiralling violence and sectarian bloodletting. On Monday, six suicide bombers struck polling sites around the country as security force members voted, killing at least 27 people, said officials.

The greater fear, though, is that there is no way back this time, that the sectarian division of the nation will become entrenched as the government concentrates its forces on protecting its seat of power in Baghdad. With fighting in Abu Ghraib, on the western edge of Baghdad, the government recently shut down the local prison. Insurgents have gained strength in Salahuddin province, to the north of Baghdad, and in Diyala province, northeast of the capital.

“All arrows are pointing toward Baghdad now,” said Jessica D Lewis, research director at the Institute for the Study of War, who has closely followed the fighting in Anbar. Iraq’s security forces have been unable to dislodge the militants. In trying to help, the US may unwittingly have made matters worse when it pressed the government to arm the tribes to fight the radicals, a strategy that worked the first time the US tried to tame the region.

‘Big mistake’
A year ago, Washington rushed

14 million rounds of ammunition and more than 250,000 grenades to the fight. But arming the tribes did not work.

“Arming the tribes in Anbar was a big mistake,” said Sheikh Laurence al-Hardan, a tribal leader in a village named Karma, near Fallujah, who said he is opposed to the central government and the radical Islamists controlling his villages. “That allowed the tribes to fight other tribes. And large numbers of weapons were taken by the armed groups.”

With the residents that remain in Fallujah, the militants have taken a slightly lighter approach than the harsh Islamic rule extremists aligned with al-Qaeda established a decade ago, before being dislodged by US Marines in bloody fighting that claimed hundreds of lives.

The insurgents have set up free garbage collection. Men are allowed to smoke cigarettes and are not required to grow beards. Women, though, need to be covered in a full veil, called a niqab. “I can only show my eyes and nothing else,” said a 24-year-old woman who only gave her first name, Sawsan. “And no makeup is allowed.” Sawsan was looking forward to graduating from a local university this year, but the school is closed. “We have an unknown future waiting for us, with no hope left inside us,” she said.

Adding to the bleak landscape, with the militant gains in Anbar, the insurgency in Iraq has increasingly converged with the civil war in Syria, and experts and officials are beginning to speak of a vast territory that stretches from Aleppo in Syria through Anbar province and up to the doorstep of Baghdad that is controlled by Islamist extremists.

Militant gains
As the Iraqi security forces have lost territory, and suffered casualties rumoured to be in the thousands but undisclosed by the government, militants have destroyed bridges

and seized a dam, cutting a vital supply of water to the south, and flooding areas of Fallujah.

The fighters in Anbar, now a mix of extremists and local tribal fighters, are better trained than the ones who faced the Americans. And the local Sunni population are more inclined to side with the extremists than the government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Tribal militias are also fighting one another in some places, adding to the complexity of the battlefield.

Maria Fantappie, Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organisation, said that in the face of an impossible fight in Anbar, al-Maliki is likely to put more resources into defending Baghdad. “My fear, as an analyst, is that Anbar and Fallujah will shift to Syria, and more and more the Iraqis will focus on protecting the Green Zone,” she said, referring to the fortified centre of the capital where most important government buildings are.

Recent interviews with Fallujah residents paint a dystopian portrait of fear. Schools have closedand local journalists who remained have been threatened with death.

Muhammed Anmar, a carpenter, used to earn a living selling furniture. “Now I am just sitting, waiting for what’s going to happen next in this city that is dead,” he said. “We used to have life here. Now, no work, no sound of life.” – (New York Times service)

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