The dramatic events surrounding the intense negotiations for a deal on Iran’s nuclear industry and the sanctions on it deserve immense attention because of what they tell us about two pivotal dynamics in the Middle East, namely the role of Iran in the region and the world and the more mature attitude of the United States towards countries and movements that it disagrees with, like Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and others. Yet, despite the momentous impact of an agreement on Iran, the dynamic this week that I am watching much more closely is the offensive launched Monday by the Iraqi government to retake Anbar Province from the hands of “Islamic State” (IS). Anbar Province’s convoluted and fast changing condition in the past decade is a sign of wider stresses that plague Iraq, including the province’s successive anti-American, anti-Islamic State in Mesopotamia, and anti-Baghdad rebellions, its gradual loss to IS during the past year, and Baghdad’s current strategy to return it to the fold of the Iraqi state.
What happens in Iraq in the coming months and years matters dearly to the entire Arab world because Anbar’s turbulent recent history and its current condition manifest the most fundamental and crucial issues that still challenge most Arab states, and are likely to determine if they persist as sovereign, stable states. These issues relate to the ability of citizens and state to negotiate a social contract that ensures good governance and equitable participation and life opportunities for all citizens, which in turn would guarantee stability and security, and probably also prosperity, given Iraq’s immense natural and human resources. A social contract that meets these criteria has evaded every single Arab country in the past century—only because not a single Arab country (before Tunisia since 2011) ever attempted to credibly engage its citizens in the process of shaping public life, governance, participation, accountability, national values, and state policies. The test that Iraq and all Arab countries face is how to allow populations composed of several different ethnic and religious groups to work together within the context of the institutions and national integrity of their state.
Anbar Province is a wrenching microcosm of this pan-Arab dilemma. The first sign of the complexity of Iraq’s current state-building, or re-building, challenge is the multi-faceted nature of the fighters that are now attacking IS positions in Anbar. An official military spokesman said Monday that the forces arrayed against IS include the Iraqi army, mainly Shiite Hashd Shaabi (popular mobilization) militias, special forces, police, and local Sunni Muslim tribal fighters. These are supported with aerial attacks by forces from the United States and some Arab countries, and, when needed in the north, by Kurdish forces. Iranian and Turkish state support is also in play in places, one assumes. On Sunday, the U.S. air force carried out thirty-nine missions in Iraq, of which twenty-nine targeted IS positions near Ramadi.
The Anbar assault started with attacks on Fallujah (which has been under IS control for eighteen months now) and the provincial capital Ramadi, and will expand to cover the entire province. This campaign follows successful attacks by Iraqi troops and Hashd Shaabi forces, with supporting U.S.-led air strikes, that drove IS out of the eastern province of Diyala.
The recent liberation of Tikrit city, however, a prelude to moving north to free the much bigger city of Mosul, highlights the deep problems of inter-ethnic and inter-sectarian tensions that have so far prevented Iraq from rebuilding a stable, inclusive state after the Anglo-American invasion of 2003. Shiite reprisals against Sunni Iraqis in Fallujah are typical of the stresses that plague Iraq and many Arab states. Prime Minister Haidar Abadi was reluctant in recent months to use the Iranian-backed, mostly Shiite Hashd Shaabi forces in Anbar, but the fall of Ramadi in May made it imperative for all Iraqi forces to work together to defeat IS.
The fact that the official state military units and the Hashd Shaabi forces in Anbar represent most of the major Iraqi demographic groups, especially Sunnis and Shiites, and their cooperation with American and Iranian elements, suggests that Iraqis are determined to keep trying to work together for the common good of their united, pluralistic country, rather than to fight each other for the right to rule small ethnic provinces.
So we should greet with enthusiasm the statement Monday by an official spokesman for Iraq’s join operations command that, “The Hashd Shaabi, the armed forces, the special forces, the national police and the sons of the Anbar tribes are now carrying out the liberation battles and advancing on their goals.”
The success or failure of this effort will have tremendous repercussions throughout Iraq and other Arab lands, which is why I am watching it very closely while also following the historic developments in Iran.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global