The capture of the Iraqi city of Fallujah by al-Qaeda-linked militants over the weekend fulfilled a pledge by the group’s leader made six months ago. It’s also confirmed his strength.
We’re “here to stay,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said in a June audio statement, vowing to erase the Western-imposed border with Syria, where guerrillas of his Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant are also fighting. He called on followers to “tear apart” the governments in both countries and their regional backers.
More than seven years after U.S. forces dealt a major blow to al-Qaeda in Iraq by killing its chief, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, al-Baghdadi’s ISIL is emerging as the most powerful Sunni militant force in the region.
Luring fighters from the region with a call for holy war, the strength of ISIL had eclipsed that of the U.S.-backed rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before opponents started to push back late last year. It’s also testing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who leads a Shiite-dominated government and is already struggling to assert control over the oil-rich country following the U.S. pullout.
The group’s success in capturing Fallujah may also mark a shift in Iraq’s sectarian violence from car bombs and suicide attacks to ground battles.
“Many people thought that al-Qaeda was on its way out a few years ago,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “Al-Qaeda has staying power and their so-called franchising approach has been successful.”
The American assault on Fallujah, about 64 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad in Anbar province, was the toughest battle waged by U.S. troops since Vietnam. The charred bodies of four Western contractors had been hung from a bridge there in 2004. It may soon see even more violence as Iraqi security forces prepare a counterattack, a government official said yesterday.
As the group’s strength has grown, so has the death toll in Iraq, which in 2013 saw the most civilian fatalities in five years. In July, ISIL fighters helped orchestrate attacks on two prisons outside Baghdad, using mortars to free more than 500 inmates, including al-Qaeda leaders. The breakout was a “major threat to global security,” Interpol said at the time.
Syria’s civil war is pitting mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against the forces of Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The conflict has deepened sectarian divisions in the Middle East, drawing in regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively the chief backers of Sunnis and Shiites. Iraq’s Shiite-led government backs Assad in his fight.
In his statement, al-Baghdadi called on fighters to kill Assad’s troops as well as his backers from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. The Islamic state “will not shrink,” said al-Baghdadi, who is Iraqi and was born in 1971, according to Interpol.
“The conflict in Syria gave a new lease of life for al-Qaeda inside Iraq and Syria,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center. “Zarqawi laid the foundation of the Islamic state of Iraq. The group then took advantage” of the Syrian war to expand, he said.
After initially working with other groups to attack Assad’s troops, ISIL has recently started to clash with others seeking to oust Assad, such as the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and Kurdish factions.
Expanding its presence in Anbar, which borders Syria, will help fighters plan more attacks, according to analysts and former officials including Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
“Iraq is heading south for its own reasons, but the situation in Syria is likely speeding up the process,” Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, said by e-mail yesterday. “Border incursions in both directions are likely happening as I write.”
The administration of President Barack Obama, which lists the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq among its achievements, has no plans to resend troops there, Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday. Instead, the U.S., which has already stepped up arms supplies to help Iraq’s Shiite-led government, is in contact with Anbar’s tribal leaders who are fighting the militants, he said.
The Iraqi armed forces need about three days to dislodge ISIL fighters from Fallujah, Lt. General Rasheed Flayeh told state-run television yesterday.
The group’s control of Fallujah may not have been meant to last. “They want to send a message that they have the capability to occupy a city,” Alani said.
The presence of militants in Fallujah had already diminished yesterday, according to residents including Abu Omar, 49.
“Last week they were roaming around in big numbers, brandishing their black flags,” he said, asking for his full name to be withheld out of fear for his safety. “Now their numbers are declining. We don’t want them here.”
In Syria, the rebel Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups have also mounted counter-attacks against ISIL, with gunmen encircling its main stronghold in the northeastern Reqqa province, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today.
Even if the group withdraws, losing a city will just be one battle “in a longer war,” in the Middle East, said Hamid, pointing to a surge of attacks from Yemen to Libya, mounted by al-Qaeda-inspired groups. “There is nothing to suggest that it’s going to stop anytime soon.”
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