A surge in car bombings killing many civilians has wreaked havoc in Iraq. This is the backdrop to warnings by the prime minister of possible regional and global effects if the international community stands idle.
The standoff continues between the Iraqi army and militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who overtook the city of Fallujah in the Anbar region more than two weeks ago. ISIL has also taken part of Ramadi.
This is the first time that militants claiming links with al Qaeda seize urban centres in Iraq.
They appear to have been emboldened by their actions in Syria and Lebanon.
The insurgent group known as Dā‘ish in Arabic has pushed Iraqi government forces to within a few dozen kilometres of the capital, Baghdad. Its orders for reinforcements at Fallujah have been to hold off. Retaking it was hard enough for the Americans in 2004.
The Iraqi authorities are wary of heavy losses among civilians here as well, with the consideration of the effect on anti-government feeling in the Sunni region in Shia-majority Iraq.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said: “We do not want this city to suffer at all. We will not use force as long as the tribes are ready to fight al Qaeda and expel them.”
In other words: ‘you do it’, al-Maliki is telling the tribes. But some anti-government tribal fighters helped the ISIL take Fallujah.
Some threaten reprisals against others who might be tempted to follow Baghdad’s suggestion, but, according to security expert Ahmed al-Sheriyeffi, the number siding with the ISIL has been relatively small.
Al-Sheriyeffi said: “We don’t see local tribes welcoming the extremist group or helping it. Although those tribes in Anbar have disagreements with the Iraqi government, they haven’t reached the point where they need to ally themselves with the terrorist organisation.”
The ISIL continues to prove ruthless in its pursuit of building an Islamic state with strict sharia law. The acronym for the group ends with the ‘Levant’ – meaning designs on the whole Middle East.
Al-Maliki must hope his warning does not fall on dismissive ears – and that in capitals around the world his concerns are being addressed to stop uncontrolled extremism.
Euronews reporter Paul McDowell spoke with Middle East analyst Firas Abi Ali about the escalating violence in Iraq and who is behind it.
euronews: Firas, how much is the escalating violence in Iraq down to a loose alliance of fighters joining with Al Qaeda rebels, or is there a coordinated strategy there?
Firas Abi Ali: I think it’s more of a loose alliance and I think that one of the main characteristics of the Sunni community, not just in Iraq but across the region, is how deeply divided it is across different regions.
So what you’re seeing in Iraq is basically some of the Sunni community fighting on the side of the government under the same of Sahwa or Sons of Iraq against ISIL.
Some of the Sunni community are fighting on the side of ISIL against the government because of the sense of exclusion under Nuri al-Maliki and then a tranche in the middle that doesn’t want to be ruled by ISIL again because they’ve had a very bad experience there, and they also don’t want to be ruled by Maliki and his allies.
euronews: Any conversation, any question, seems to come back to ISIL. Who are they? How powerful are they?
Firas Abi Ali: They have a very nihilistic ideology and an interpretation of Islam that relies primarily on violence, as we’ve seen in their relations with other Syrian insurgent groups who were supposedly on their side, but who they have turned against.
They rely quite heavily on an inflow of foreign fighters, primarily from Middle Eastern countries. We’ve seen a small number of Chechens as well – up to a few hundred – and their ideology seems to be to impose an Islamic state by force that is extremely backwards-looking and quite medieval in character.
euronews: I get a sense that you’re saying that violence is going to continue, and continue for some time?
Firas Abi Ali: I think it is. I don’t see any indication that it’s going to be reduced.
The actors who can fundamentally change this are really Turkey and Jordan who are having a lot of trouble controlling their borders in order to prevent these groups from entering into Iraq and Syria, but it’s also quite obvious that at least the Turks are turning a blind eye to the movement of Jihadi groups into Iraq and Syria.
If they were to change their tactics then we could see a reduction in violence, but not without that.
euroews: So what is the thread, then, to other areas and regions?
Firas Abi Ali: We’re already seeing the spread of Sunni militancy into Lebanon. I mean, this pre-dated the Syrian civil war…it is being made a lot more acute by the Syrian civil war, and now we’re seeing bombings targetting Shi’ite civilians in Lebanon and the attack obviously on the Iranian embassy in November.
The relationship between the Jihadi groups and the Jordanian government are quite bad and are probably going to worsen going forward.
I think that if, in the next few years it will probably have to, the Syrian conflict begins to unwind, you will start seeing some of the Europeans that are fighting in Syria returning with ideas of their own.
In addition, we’re seeing some Tunisians beginning to return from Syria into Tunisia and causing a problem for the security services.
euronews: Faris Abi Ali, thank you very much for joining us.
Firas Abi Ali: Thank you for having me.