I remember, back in my university days, blogging (before it was called blogging) on the first and second battles of Fallujah. Then, American forces had, in one of the largest battles of the Iraq war, crushed the insurgents of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who I thought was such a perfect villain I even made a MySpace page for him. (I celebrated his death in 2006 by getting drunk and pushing a shopping cart wildly out of control into a friend).
Having already fought the Americans and paid the price, why then are the residents of Fallujah once more revolting and carrying on? Most of the answer: because they can.
A brief, ugly history is in order, though
Fallujah was essentially nowhere before the battles of 2004. It was merely “on the way” to some place better. But it was also in the heart of Sunni Iraq and stood to lose from the change of government. Less repressed than the rest of Iraq, they weren’t totally overjoyed to see Saddam go. And when they exercised their suddenly-given freedom to protest, the 82nd Airborne shot a bunch of them.
Whether or not they deserved it is far besides the point. Fallujah and Ramadi nearby did what tribal societies do – they sought revenge. In March 2004, they got it.
And they pissed the Americans off something fierce, not least because the Bush Administration was losing intellectual ground to the anti-war parties in the coming election. Fearing a wider uprising, the Bush Administration sealed Fallujah off from the world in April 2004 until the election was over. An attempt at self-government failed. Insurgents under supervillain wanna-be Abu Musab al-Zarqawi took charge of the city.
After the election, the U.S. returned with a vengence. Freed of electoral concerns, and with Fallujah having become the obvious al-Qaeda HQ and proving to the Iraqi government that the city was a major threat, the second battle of Fallujah leveled good chunks of the city and basically broke its back.
Until last year, that is.
A Shi’a Iraq is not much better of an idea than Saddam’s Iraq
Increasingly, the Prime Minster of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, has been running the country as a Shi’a enterprise and pissing off the Sunni tribes the Americans fought so hard to subdue. Democratically, that makes some sense. But practically, it’s meant that the protests that have been on-going since the Arab Spring began have finally turned into outright revolt. There’s not much Maliki can do to stop the unrest minus force. Running a sectarian state tends to do that.
Fallujah both does and does not matter
Fallujah is a dustbin of a town, a major center for Anbar but not industrialized enough to support an effective military and not large enough to allow someone who controls it to make human waves that could overwhelm other portions of the country. The natural axis of advance is only along the Euphrates River, which makes it harder to organize a state from there and advance it outwards. There’s simply not much geopolitical advantage to the place.
But the propaganda is rather huge. Fallujah was the first city in Iraq to slip out of American control during the war. It’s once again doing the same for Baghdad. If Fallujah can go, why not Ramadi or even Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown? Why not all of Anbar?
The question being asked is whether or not Iraq as a unified state can continue. Losing control of Fallujah permanently means the end of a united Iraq.
And such a thing might thrill al-Qaeda – for a while
But in neighboring Syria, rebels have turned on al-Qaeda. This is because the al-Qaeda system of governance is awful and nobody wants to live under it. The only appeal of such a system is to those who want to lead it, since it gives them maximum power. Syrians learned quickly that such a system does them no favors. Hamas, they are not.
The boogeyman lurks but can’t do much more than that
Fallujah’s chaos is more a symbol of how badly run the Iraqi government is and how difficult it is to keep that state together than a sign of a sudden surge in jihadism. The Fertile Crescent is disintegrating and will continue to do so until something is decided on for Syria. Al-Qaeda will slip into cracks where it can, but won’t be able to do much else. If Al-Qaeda does end up running Fallujah, that will be because it’s become a ghost town and not because people have suddenly embraced them.
Let the proxy wars begin
The Iraqi government needs the supplies the U.S. can give it to defeat these insurgents, but isn’t at threat of losing power to them. That could happen if the Shi’a militias joined forces with the Sunni tribes, which they won’t. If anything, Baghdad will go the way of Aleppo and become a battleground (again) between the sects.
Alas for al-Qaeda, everybody hates them. America will use the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Iranians, whoever, to wipe them out. Propped up they may be by the Internet and weird Gulf sources, their days are numbered. Bad ideas, after all, always die out.