All American troops left at the end of 2010 and Islamic and Sunni nationalist terrorists are now a local police problem. That has not worked out well because the Iraqi government continues to suffer from massive corruption. This makes it difficult to suppress the growing Sunni terrorism activity as some of the bad behavior involves Islamic terrorists bringing army and police commanders. Terrorist deaths are way up but are still much lower than they were during the peak years of the post 2003 violence. In the past terrorist deaths went from 29,000 in 2006 to 10,000 in 2007 and kept falling until 2011 (when there were 4,100 deaths). Then came Arab Spring and the Sunni uprising against the Shia minority government in Syria. This energized Sunni radicals and led to a big jump in Sunni terrorism in both Syria and Iraq. This has enraged Shia radical ground and now what all Iraqis fear is a return of the Shia death squads. These unofficial (and eventually shut down by the police in 2008) groups went out killing any Sunni Arabs they could find. If this starts up again it could be catastrophic in terms of Sunni deaths and calls on other Sunni nations to intervene. That could result in Iran moving in to help the Iraqi Shia government. Meanwhile terrorism related deaths in 2013 were over 8,000 (estimates range from 7,800 to 9,500), at least twice the low point reached in 2011.
While American troops are gone, American military supplies still arrive regularly. Iraq has asked for additional supplies of ammunition, including more Hellfire missiles, and the U.S. announced that these requests will be quickly taken care of. The Iraqi government thanks the Americans and blames neighboring Arab countries for supporting the Sunni terrorists. There is evidence of this, as many of the suicide bombers are foreign Sunni Arabs and individuals in Sunni Arab oil states are still being detected contributing to the Islamic terrorists in Iraq. This is often done via Islamic charities, which are accused of accepting some donations with the understanding that some of the money will be diverted (via several more deceptions) to Islamic terrorist groups. The U.S., Iraq and most Western states have long pressured the Sunni governments in Arabia to crack down on this and there has been some action. But there are also lots of legal (and quasi-legal) ways to move the money through Islamic charities to Islamic terrorists and the donors keep coming up with new deceptions. Hiding your finances from government scrutiny is a popular indoor sport in the region and governments are at a disadvantage because so many people are hiding cash for so many different reasons. Supporting Islamic terrorism is only one of the many illegal destinations for this money.
All this has made Iraq one of the centers of Islamic terrorist activity for over a decade. For most of the last decade the majority (54 percent recently) of terrorist activity has occurred in three countries; Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. What these three nations have in common is a powerful minority (Sunni Arabs in Iraq, Pushtuns in Afghanistan and Pushtuns and non-tribal Islamic radicals in Pakistan). Terrorist violence continues in Iraq because of diehard Sunni Arabs who refuse to accept democracy and Shia domination and growing support from Sunni Arabs in elsewhere in the region who fear growing Iranian efforts to spread Shia Islam via Iraq. More areas of Iraq are now at peace (as some have been since 2003) but the 2007 Sunni Arab peace deals are unraveling. Worse, the uprising in Syria is led by the Sunni Arab majority there (against the ruling Shia Arab minority). Iraqi Sunni Arabs are enthusiastically aiding the Syrian rebels and the Iraqi government is officially neutral (but actually doing much of what Iran asks to support the Syrian government). There are growing tensions between the Kurds in the north (over northern oil fields) and the Arab majority. That could trigger a civil war. Because the Kurds are better prepared for war and the oil money is very important to preserving their autonomy the Kurds might win. Plus, the Kurds don't trust the Arabs. To make matters worse for the Iraqi government, Turkey backs the Kurds.
In Fallujah three weeks of violence has killed or wounded over 200 civilians (including about three dozen dead). Most of this is from government artillery and aerial bombs. The government has used these weapons sparingly to avoid enraging the Sunni tribes. So far, this strategy has worked. Instead the government is now recruiting Sunni tribesmen to join anti-terrorist militias. Recruits approved by their tribal leaders are given weapons, ammo and regular pay. These men often do little more than man checkpoints and patrol their own neighborhoods. But some can volunteer for the more dangerous business of fighting al Qaeda men who have taken control of cities and towns in Anbar. The Islamic terrorists still control most of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. Pro-government tribesmen have driven the terrorists out several smaller places and the army is concentrating on attacking rural terrorists bases. These places can be hit with artillery and aerial bombs with little risk of causing a lot of civilian casualties.
The upsurge of al Qaeda violence in western Iraq (Anbar province) is part of a long-term strategy to take control of Anbar and declare another Islamic Republic. This was tried before. The "Al Qaeda In Iraq" leadership has long been considered out of control by the most senior al Qaeda people (bin Laden and his successor). Most of the Iraqi Islamic terrorist leaders are really out there, at least in terms of fanaticism and extremism. This led to declaring the establishment of the "Islamic State of Iraq" in late 2006. This was an act of bravado, touted as the first step in the re-establishment of the caliphate (a global Islamic state, ruled over by God's representative on earth, the caliph.) The caliphate has been a fiction for over a thousand years. Early on, the Islamic world was split by ethnic and national differences, and the first caliphate fell apart after a few centuries. Various rulers have claimed the title over the centuries, but since 1924, when the Turks gave it up (after four centuries), no one of any stature has stepped up and assumed the role. So when al Qaeda "elected" a nobody as the emir of the "Islamic State of Iraq", and talked about this being the foundation of the new caliphate, even many pro-al Qaeda Moslems were aghast. This time around al Qaeda in Iraq is determined to gain undisputed control over Anbar before declaring again. The big problem is not the government but the Sunni tribes that dominate Anbar. These tribes want nothing to do with the sort of religious dictatorship al Qaeda has in mind. Al Qaeda turned off the tribal leaders a decade ago when they used assassination and kidnapping against uncooperative tribal leaders. This led to the tribes joining with the American and government forces to fight al Qaeda in 2007. Now it’s happening again.
To make matters worse, days after al Qaeda decided to go after the cities in Anbar, the rebels (moderates and Islamic terrorists) united against the ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS) and sought to destroy this Iraqi led organization, at least in Syria. So far this fighting has killed over a 1,200 people. About half of the dead are ISIL and another 10-15 percent are civilians. The Syrian Army is taking advantage of this by advancing into areas, especially around Aleppo, where rebels have largely moved off to fight Islamic terrorist rebels nearby. ISIL only has about 6,000 fighters available in the north, around Aleppo and along the Turkish border and in the east (across the border from Anbar). Within the rebel movement ISIL is outnumbered about 15 to 1, but in the areas where it is strongest the odds are much lower (often two or three to one) and their fanatic fighting spirit has made then more than a match for the more moderate rebels attacking them. Despite that ISIL has suffered heavily in the last two weeks, probably as much from desertions as from combat losses. Many ISIL fighters are dismayed at having to fight fellow rebels and have gone over to more moderate rebel groups or left Syria in disgust. So while one branch of al Qaeda in Iraq is on the offensive, the one in Syria is fighting for survival.
If the fighting keeps up much longer ISIL will be less than half the strength it was at the start of the year. Similar losses may be suffered by the al Qaeda in Iraq forces. While the fighting has stalled in some areas of Syria, it is continuing in most places. The defeat of ISIL does not mean the end of al Qaeda in Syria because even more al Qaeda men are fighting against ISIL. The losers here are the Iraqi radicals who dominate the ISIL. Despite the attention paid to the war with ISIL the rebels still control most of the country, or at least dispute control with the security forces.
Back in Iraq Fallujah is the center of the action because of the crucial geographical position the city has occupied for nearly 3,000 years. The city is actually a small peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Euphrates River and the banks not covered by the city are full of date palms and other cover for armed men. The city itself is densely populated with lots of marrow streets and alleys. No wonder a quarter of the American dead during the Iraq war were in and around Fallujah. Only 60 kilometers west of Baghdad it is the gateway between the desert-like region to the west and the densely populated Tigris-Euphrates river valley to the east. The local Sunni tribes have convinced the government to not launch a major military assault, which would probably succeed but likely destroy the city (again, it’s happened many times over the centuries). The tribes are sending their gunmen and negotiators in and hope to outtalk, outmaneuver or simply kill all the Islamic terrorists there.
Meanwhile the army and police have Fallujah surrounded and there is constant skirmishing with al Qaeda men trying to get in, or at least open a supply line to their compatriots inside the city. The army is aided in this by pro-government tribes, who were recently rewarded for their loyalty by the revival of the government support (weapons, equipment and, most importantly, a regular paycheck) Sunni militias. The Americans came up with this idea in 2007 and persuaded the government to go along. But after the Americans left in 2010 the Shia government gradually cut all support for the militias and made the pro-government Sunnis feel unwanted and abused. The Americans warned the government that these policies merely helped the Sunni terrorists and now the government has admitted it made a mistake. That’s a big deal, but more importantly the pro-government Sunnis, especially the armed ones in Anbar, are more willing to help crush this al Qaeda insurrection.
January 19, 2014: The army and pro-government tribesmen launched a major operation to clear remaining Islamic terrorists out of the provincial capital Ramadi. Army specialists are disabling the many booby-traps and landmines left behind by the retreating terrorists.
January 16, 2014: In Anbar 3,000 elite army troops attacked an al Qaeda camp midway between Ramadi and Fallujah. The camp quickly fell and dozens of Islamic terrorists were killed. Some skirmishing continued in Fallujah.
January 15, 2014: Nine car bombs went off in the capital, in Shia neighborhoods. But police managed to capture four other car bombers before they could set off their explosives. All of the bombers were foreigners, showing that al Qaeda in Iraq continues to attract Sunnis from other parts of the Arab world to join in the fighting against Shia Iran. Since these foreign volunteers usually arrive with few useful skills, many are convinced to volunteer for suicide bombing missions. The foreigners often balk at attacking Sunnis, so Iraqis are used for those attacks, which usually don’t involve suicide bombers.
January 14, 2014: The government announces that it will revive the Sunni militia benefits that the Americans introduced in 2007 but that the Shia government gradually eliminated after 2010.
January 10, 2014: Pro-government tribesmen began driving al Qaeda gunmen out of Ramadi (the provincial capital of Anbar) and several other smaller towns and villages. By the end of the day the tribesmen claimed control of most of Ramadi. The government announced that it was allowing the tribesmen to retake the cities, rather than use largely Shia troops, whose use of artillery and mortars and bad attitudes towards Sunnis would result in heavy civilian casualties and lots of property damage.
January 9, 2014: In Syria, in Aleppo, rebel gunmen captured the headquarters of ISIL. The Iraqi dominated ISIL is under attack by most of the other rebel groups.
January 8, 2014: North of Baghdad al Qaeda attacked an army barracks and killed twelve soldiers before being repulsed.
January 7, 2014: The U.S. openly urged the Iraqi government to make amends to the pro-government tribes in Anbar (and pro-government Iraqi Sunnis in general). The U.S. has been urging the government to do this for a decade now, but the Shia dominated government felt more comfortable being hostile to the Sunnis.
In Baghdad al Qaeda gunmen went into a brothel and killed seven women and five men. There was a similar attack in the same area last year. In the last week al Qaeda has killed at least a dozen people in Baghdad for buying or selling alcoholic beverages.
January 5, 2014: The air force began bombing (mostly at night, to avoid ground fire) al Qaeda targets in Anbar. The air force has limited bombing capabilities and are using armed recon or trainer aircraft.
January 4, 2014: In Fallujah the security forces (mainly the police) withdrew from the city under pressure from thousands of al Qaeda gunmen. Civilians in the city have appealed to their tribal leaders (most of whom live outside the city) for help in expelling the Al Qaeda men, who make it clear they want to run the city according the strict (and hated by most Iraqis) Islamic law. Al Qaeda entered the cities in force over the last week and sometimes surrounded police stations telling the police they could either get out of town alive and unarmed or stay, fight and die. Most police got out.
January 2, 2014: In the north Islamic terrorists bombed an oil pipeline again. In Anbar police and soldiers fought al Qaeda gunmen in the streets of Fallujah and Ramadi.
International surveys agree with most Iraqis, that the corruption is getting worse inside Iraq. For these surveys corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The three most corrupt nations have a rating of 8 (Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia) and the least corrupt is 91 (New Zealand and Denmark). In the last year Iraq has gone from 18 to 16 in the corruption index while Libya has gone from 21 to 15 and Yemen went from 18 to 15 and. The Middle East average is 37 against the world average (for 177 countries) of 43. Egypt, which is still suffering unrest, is unchanged at 32. The U.S. is 73, Canada is 81 (as is Australia) and Mexico 34. There are bright spots in the Middle East, with the UAE at 69.
December 31, 2013: In western Iraq ISIL fighters attacked Fallujah and Ramadi, the two largest cities in Anbar (western Iraq) and declared Anbar an Islamic State. The army and pro-government tribesmen counterattacked and are slowly driving ISIL and its anti-government tribal allies out of the cities. The unexpected effectiveness of the counterattack has unnerved ISIL, which is now in danger of suffering a major, and very public, defeat.
December 30, 2013: Outside Ramadi police used force (and killed ten people) clearing a camp used by anti-government protestors. In reaction to this 44 Sunni members of parliament resigned.
December 27, 2013: In Ramadi police and army commandos raided the compound of a prominent Sunni politician. They encountered resistance and killed five people before finding out that the politician was not at home. This enraged Sunnis in the area.