Al Qaeda (AQ) has in recent days distanced itself from the islamic insurgents in Iraq, who have captured Fallujah and started a re-run of the US battle there. The Islamist group currently in control of Fallujah is known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL for short. They were previously considered AQ-linked by some due to their hard-line islamic fascism, but they have now been publicly disowned by the AQ general command. The statement from Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, made it clear that ISIL are not supported by the international terrorist network and were commanded by it to disband.
However, this statement has more to do with Syria than Iraq, as ISIL operates in both countries. Whereas Iraq is more naturally Shia dominated, Syria is more naturally Sunni dominated, and therefore of utmost interest to Sunni based Al Qaeda. Indeed, Al Qaeda has chosen a favourite Sunni jihadi group in Syria, and that group is Jabhat al-Nusra, not ISIL. However, the tactical reality of Syria is that at the moment the Syrian city of Raqa is controlled by ISIL, and the likelihood of ISIL just packing up and leaving, or joining Jabhat al-Nusra seems small. Especially as ISIL has committed multiple suicide bombings that have killed other rebel leaders in Syria. Acts that Ayman al-Zawahiri has described as sedition. Indeed, almost 2,000 rebels have died in fighting between themselves rather than fighting president Bashar al-Assad in the last year.
What surprises everyone is power that ISIL seems to exercise. They are suspected of being responsible for the multiple car bombings that killed at least 33 people in Baghdad today, as well as resisting Iraq government efforts to retake Fallujah. In a re-run of the US war in Iraq, and even while distanced from Al Qaeda, they are believed to be a significant part of the violence in Iraq that claimed more than 7,000 lives last year, the worst since 2007, when the US was still present.
Todays bombings were almost certainly a response to the Iraqi government’s recent attempts to encircle Fallujah before an expected assault on the city. However, the retaking of the city is being left to Sunni tribesmen, possibly drawn from the “awakenings” groups that allowed the US to reassert some form of control against the insurgency in Iraq. It is not clear that the attempt to retake Fallujah will succeed given that ISIL is heavily armed, and the Sunni tribesmen are deeply alienated from the Shia Iraqi government. However, the Iraq PM Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, is loudly telling the nation that ISIL is about to be defeated. ISIL for its part snatched control of three villages in western Iraq in a possible effort to draw Iraqi troops away from Fallujah.
The beat of bombings in the Iraqi capital has murderously continued, today 33 died, yesterday 7 died, on Monday 23 died. The war there is far from over, and indeed the US government has considered returning US special forces to Iraq to try to beat back the rebels.
If ISIL cannot be contained by the Iraqi government, and ISIL’s resistance to them and their ability to out maneuver them has been demonstrated, then the US may have to send at least some troops to carry out a re-run of the Iraq war, even as AQ distances itself.
By Andrew Willig