January 11, 2014


Al-Qaida repeats old mistakes as a new act in Falluja's tragedy unfolds (Peter Beaumont, 1/11/14, Guardian)

Paradoxically, however, Isis's recent successes have underlined not its strength but rather its structural weaknesses, as once again an al-Qaida franchise has attempted to impose its own austere and brutal caliphate in captured territory.

And it is in Falluja's bloody history that lie indicators of its probable future, and the fate of Isis across the region.

Even before the first battle of Falluja - the US marine-led assault on the city in April 2004 following the murder of four US contractors - the "city of mosques" concealed complex realities under the banner of "resistance" to US occupation.

When I first visited the city a decade ago, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, I found a conservative but hospitable place. Western journalists could work there independently. Within a year, however, its jumble of metal shops would be making bombs, the first generation of largely nationalist and tribal insurgents already being replaced by a more dangerous group of jihadi fighters.

In truth, this ancient city on a bend of the Euphrates has long bridled at outsiders. Under the Ottoman Turks Falluja was developed as an administrative centre to control the powerful Dulaimi tribe, and it was here in 1920 that the explorer and British colonial official Gerard Leachman was murdered.

By the time of Saddam Hussein, this city, 50 miles from Baghdad, had become, along with other locations in what US officials would later call the Sunni Triangle, an important centre of Saddam's Sunni-dominated Baathist regime, providing a disproportionate number of security personnel and other officials. Even then its tribal leaders could be restive, forcing Saddam - more than once - to buy their loyalty.

What is now largely forgotten is that it was not inevitable that Falluja would become associated with violence. It was largely untouched by the 2003 invasion and the wave of looting that convulsed Iraq immediately afterwards, and the first American troops to enter Falluja found a local defence force in place and a mayor willing to work with them.

All of that changed on 28 April 2003, when US paratroopers fired indiscriminately into a noisy demonstration outside a school they were occupying, killing 17 civilians. A year later, in the aftermath of the first battle of Falluja, the Coalition Provisional Authority would issue its infamous de-Baathification order, throwing tens of thousands of Sunnis who had once worked for the regime out of work, and effectively excluding them from the political process.

The consequences of those two acts cast a very long shadow, one that persisted even beyond the withdrawal of US combat troops.

The reality is that, despite its depiction at the time by America, armed opposition to the US occupation was never a simple affair. Even as the insurgency grew in size and pace, it was defined by competition and changing allegiances between groups - Baath nationalists against the first jihadis, who would become al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), which a decade later would later morph into Isis, and which has at various times included a large contingent of international fighters - and between local leaders vying for prominence, not least in the Buessa tribe.

Through the rise of al-Qaida in Iraq to the second battle of Falluja and the emergence of the Sunni Awakening Movement - which began in 2006 and saw substantial numbers of tribal fighters turn against al-Qaida and join forces with the US - those tensions persisted. As Brian Fishman, director of research at the Combating Terrorism Centre at the US's West Point military academy, noted in November, when he comparing al-Qaida in Iraq in the previous decade and its rebranded version in Syria (and now again in Iraq), the militant group originally foundered for reasons that remain valid.

"The determination to build an Islamic state," he wrote before the latest upsurge in violence in both Iraq and Syria, "put AQI out of step with many Iraqi Sunnis, who felt a sense of nationalism even as they were isolated from governing institutions. AQI's attempts to impose draconian social policies on a population unaccustomed to them alienated AQI from their would-be constituency, and that led the group to spend as much time fighting potential allies as it did trying to overthrow the Shia-led government. AQI's strategy aimed to provoke a Shia backlash against Sunnis that AQI would rebuke, thereby winning the hearts and minds of that constituency. Yet attempting to establish a jihadist state in a majority Shia country by challenging the existing tribal social framework was a course fraught with risk from the start."

Posted by at January 11, 2014 8:32 AM

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