Fallujah is now under the control of Al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq. The small city in the province of Al Anbar, which is less than a hundred miles west of Baghdad, has been a hotbed of conflict since at least the Gulf War, and it was the center of some of the bloodiest fighting for American troops in 2003.
Iraqi journalists are now reporting that Fallujah is the focal point of new militant activity against the Shiite-led government. Sunni fighters linked with Al-Qaeda have reportedly take control of many parts of the city, as well as the nearby city of Ramadi, according to security officials.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a Sunni-led insurgent group, are being reported to control areas of Fallujah previously occupied by American and Iraqi government security forces. Fighting over the weekend left several people dead and dozens more injured as the Iraqi army fights to retake territory in the city. The total cost of the fighting is not yet known.
The withdrawal of American forces in 2011 created the opportunity for local fighters to reassert their influence in the area, with local tribesmen taking up arms and joining the conflict. The takeover of the Sunni stronghold is setback for the Iraqi government, which has been fighting to keep control over the Anbar province where the city is located. Anbar is a majority Sunni province.
There are deep conflicts between the Sunni minority in Iraq and the predominantly Shiite government led by Prime Minister al-Malik. Sunni and Shia are the two major denominations of the Islamic religion. More than 75% of Muslims worldwide are Sunni, with approximately 15% to 20% identifying as Shiite. Shiites do, however, have very significant populations in southern Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The historical context for the Shia-Sunni split is rooted in the dispute for succession that occurred after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. Sectarian conflict between the two groups has been ongoing for centuries.
The Sunni believe that Abu Bakr, the father of the Prophet’s wife Aisha, was the rightful heir to the caliphate of Muhammad. The Shiite hold that Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali is the proper successor. Ali was married to Fatimah, the prophet’s daughter with his wife Khadijah.
Although all Muslims consider the Quran to be the divine word of God, there exist significant differences of interpretation on the hadith, the religious traditions derived from the reported words and deeds of the Prophet. These differences manifest themselves in traditions of worship and application of Islamic sharia law.
Followers of the Sunni tradition recognize six major collections of hadith, which form their central canon. Shiite Muslims do not adhere to this canon, referring instead to a collection known as The Four Books, compiled by Shia scholars known as the Three Muhammads.
The forces supporting these rival claims have evolved into the modern denominations of Islam, and the conflict has been played out within various modern nations, including Syria and southern Iraq.
Although the roots of the Sunni-Shia division are religious, there are political and economic contexts to the modern conflict. The Shiite are dominant in many of the oil rich lands of the Arabian Peninsula, bringing a complex dynamic to bear on the historical schism.
The al-Qaeda affiliated forces that have taken control of Fallujah are predominantly Sunni, and have used violence against non-Sunni and non-Muslims alike. These al-Qaeda fighters endorse sectarian violence in their bid for the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate.
By Mark Clarke