After Friday prayers, ISIS [also known as ISIL] fighters mounted an offensive in Fallujah, destroying police headquarters and the mayor's office as they declared "We are God's rule on earth!" and claimed the city as "their new independent state," the New York Times reported Friday. -- The government in Baghdad has begun to organize an assault on the city, Yasir Ghazi and Tim Arango said. -- Iraq is "descending into a maelstrom of violence," they said. -- "The Iraqi government has reportedly used airstrikes, from Russian helicopters the government recently bought." -- Reporters for Bloomberg News reported that "much" of the city was under the control of the al-Qaeda fighters, who "have seized military equipment provided by the U.S. Marines to Fallujah police." -- According to Zaid Sabah and Gopal Ratnam's source, "There’s no sign of government forces inside Fallujah, and most of the fighting is taking place on a highway that links the city to Baghdad." -- Bloomberg's reporters said that "The Pentagon is 'keeping an eye on the situation,'" according to a spokesman, but no details were available about what steps the U.S. military is taking. -- "So far, the violence hasn’t affected Iraq’s major oil fields, the country’s main source of revenue. -- Output rose by 100,000 barrels a day last month to 3.2 million barrels . . . -- The country pumped more crude as it increased links to wells in its predominately Shiite south. -- Iraq is the second-biggest producer in OPEC after Saudi Arabia." -- The Christian Science Monitor noted several important factors underlying the fighting in Anbar: -- (i) "Sunni Arab resentment of the Shiite-dominated central Iraqi government"; -- (ii) "a lengthy and porous border with Syria"; -- (iii) the Sunni tribes that played such an important role in the Awakening in 2007 are now being re-enlisted by the Maliki government to help put down the al-Qaeda-linked revolt now unfolding. ...
QAEDA-ALIGNED MILITANTS IN IRAQ CLAIM Fallujah AS INDEPENDENT STATE
By Yasir Ghazi and Tim Arango
New York Times
January 3, 2014
BAGHDAD -- Black-clad Sunni militants of Al Qaeda destroyed the Fallujah police headquarters and mayor’s office, planted their flag atop other government buildings, and decreed the western Iraqi city to be their new independent state on Friday in an escalating threat to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whose forces were struggling to retake control late into the night.
The advances by the militants, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, came after days of fighting in Fallujah, Ramadi, and other areas of Iraq’s Anbar province, a center of Sunni extremism that has grown more intense in reaction to Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and the neighboring civil war in Syria.
Assertions by ISIS fighters that they were in complete control of Fallujah were disputed by government security forces and an alliance of tribal leaders who have joined them. By nightfall, the security forces and tribal militia members had recaptured a part of the main street and a municipal building.
Mohamed al-Isawi, the head of the Fallujah police, said in a telephone interview that he was gathering men in an area north of Fallujah, as a staging ground for what he hoped would be a decisive battle to retake full control of the city.
“We succeeded today with the tribesmen in getting back the main street of Fallujah after a big fight,” Mr. Isawi said, “and now we are keen to fight the terrorists and liberate our city from any traces of the criminals.”
But ISIS fighters still appeared to have the upper hand, witnesses and others reached by telephone said, and there was no question that ISIS had scored a propaganda victory against Mr. Maliki, whose authority over Anbar province has been severely undermined in the two years since American forces left the country.
ISIS fighters cut power lines in Fallujah late in the day, and ordered residents not to use their backup generators. In one area of Fallujah, a militant said over a mosque loudspeaker: “We are God’s rule on Earth! No one can defeat God’s will!”
The ISIS advance came hours after a short period of calm had returned to the city, where traffic police and street cleaners resumed work during the day and mosque loudspeakers exhorted stores to reopen so hungry residents could buy food.
The calm evaporated when the militants appeared at the close of Friday Prayer -- which had been moved by local imams to a public park, away from the combat zones -- and seized the stage, waving the Qaeda flag and daring the Iraqi authorities to evict them.
“We declare Fallujah as an Islamic state, and we call on you to be on our side!” one fighter shouted to the crowd, according to witness accounts.
Referring to Mr. Maliki’s government and its Shiite ally Iran, the fighter shouted, “We are here to defend you from the army of Maliki and the Iranian Safavids!” a reference to the Persian Empire that ruled present-day Iran and Iraq hundreds of years ago.
“We welcome the return of all workers, even the local police, but they have to be under our state and our rule!” he shouted.
The resumed fighting included other areas of Anbar Province, including its largest city, Ramadi.
It has pitted Qaeda-affiliated Sunni extremists, who now control large amounts of territory in the desert province, against the security forces of the Shiite-dominated central government, backed by local tribesmen who are not strong supporters of the government but, in this struggle, have decided to side with the army and police against Al Qaeda.
The fight has become a severe test of Mr. Maliki’s ability to keep the country together and prevent a full-scale eruption of civil war.
The combat scenes that have played out in Anbar, which had been the heart of the Sunni insurgency during the American occupation and where more than 1,300 American soldiers were killed, have provided the sharpest evidence yet of a country descending into a maelstrom of violence, just two years after the departure of the last United States soldiers.
For the Qaeda militants in Iraq, who are fighting under the same name as the most extremist Sunni rebels in Syria, the gains they have made in Anbar appear to represent a significant step toward realizing the long-held goal of transforming Iraq and Syria into one battlefield for the same cause: establishing a Sunni Islamist state.
Fallujah residents reached by telephone late Friday said they had been traumatized by the seesaw battle around them.
“We are scared, my kids keep crying from the sounds of shelling,” said Azher Qasim. “I have a sick son, and I need to buy medication for him, and no stores are open. We have no food, or heat, and our only light is candles.”
He added, “We might die any time from a rocket, or a gunman storming our house.”
An Iraqi special forces soldier reached by telephone on Friday said he was holed up with his men at a college campus in Ramadi, sending targeting information for airstrikes to superiors. The soldier, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, described fierce fighting on Friday, and said his patrol had been targeted by suicide bombers.
“We have orders to kill any gunmen in the street,” he said. “When we catch one, we kill him immediately. There is no arrest.”
The soldier said he had been facing some of the most intense fighting of his life.
“We have been here for six days, fighting everywhere and storming cities and police stations all over Anbar,” he said. “When we first entered Ramadi, it was like hell opened a door. They were shooting at us from everywhere. For me, I have one idea in my mind -- that I have to fight with no mercy, or I will die.”
The Iraqi government has reportedly used airstrikes, from Russian helicopters the government recently bought.
Since the withdrawal of American soldiers at the end of 2011, the United States, in an effort to influence the Iraqi government, has maintained a multibillion-dollar program to sell weapons to the Iraqis. But the slow pace and bureaucracy involved -- not to mention that many of the weapons, such as F-16 fighter jets, have little practical use against Qaeda cells -- has frustrated the Iraqis, who have increasingly looked elsewhere, especially Russia.
More recently, as the Sunni insurgency has gained strength, the United States has said it was rushing missiles and surveillance drones to Iraq.
By Friday evening, reports emerged from contested areas in Anbar of government shelling and civilian casualties. An official at a hospital in Fallujah said the hospital had received the bodies of three civilians killed in the shelling and had tended to 30 others who were wounded, including at least four children. Late Friday, security officials in Anbar said that 86 people had been killed in the day’s fighting, and that 150 others were wounded. It was not immediately clear how many of those were civilians.
Heavy fighting also afflicted the western edge of Ramadi, according to a police official, and in one battle alone, the official said, 17 militants were killed and seven trucks belonging to the insurgents destroyed.
--Yasir Ghazi reported from Baghdad, and Tim Arango from Istanbul. An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Anbar Province.
AL-QAEDA FIGHTERS TAKE CONTROL OF FALLUJAH AS IRAQ ARMY ATTACKS
By Gopal Ratnam and Zaid Sabah Abd Alhamid
January 3, 2014
Al-Qaeda-linked militants held control of much of the Iraqi city of Fallujah and other nearby towns, fighting off efforts by troops with air support to regain control, according to a witness.
The al-Qaeda fighters have seized military equipment provided by the U.S. Marines to Fallujah police, whose headquarters have been seized, Uthman Mohamed, a local reporter in the city in Iraq’s western Anbar province, said in a phone interview late yesterday. There’s no sign of government forces inside Fallujah, and most of the fighting is taking place on a highway that links the city to Baghdad, he said.
Halima Ahmed, a health official in the province, said by phone that the death toll in Fallujah in the past three days of fighting has reached 36, mostly civilians killed by army shelling. The military also has carried out air strikes targeting suspected al-Qaeda fighters, Al Jazeera said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent reinforcements on Jan. 1 to dislodge militants from Fallujah and nearby Ramadi, a focus of the 2007 “surge” of U.S. forces. The fighting there is part of an escalation of violence in Iraq, where 2013 saw the most civilian casualties for five years amid the kind of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that also has engulfed Syria and Lebanon.
The war to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam who’s backed by Iran, is being fought by largely Sunni rebels supported by Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest Sunni power.
The Sunni gunmen in Anbar, which neighbors Syria, are linked to an al-Qaeda affiliate called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is also fighting Assad. The U.S. has stepped up arms supplies to help Maliki’s Shiite-led government suppress the group, agreeing to send helicopters, missiles and surveillance drones.
While President Barack Obama has declined to intervene directly in the Syrian war, the U.S. may come under increasing pressure to contain the fallout from that conflict if the al-Qaeda militants gain a foothold in western Iraq, Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said in an interview.
“If al-Qaeda manages to really take hold of western Iraq, that’s a pretty substantial base on Arab territory, where they’d have security and the space to start thinking about operations wherever they want to think about,” said Crocker who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009. “It’s exactly what they had in Afghanistan before 9/11.”
There is little support in the U.S. for renewed military involvement in Iraq, where 4,489 Americans were killed and 51,778 wounded in action after the Bush administration invaded the country almost 11 years ago. Obama has listed ending the war in Iraq as one of his main accomplishments.
Civilian fatalities in Iraq, including police, totaled 7,818 last year, with almost 18,000 wounded, according to the United Nations Assistance Misison for Iraq.
The Pentagon is “keeping an eye on the situation,” a spokesman, Army Colonel Steve Warren, told reporters in Washington yesterday. He said the U.S. is providing assistance to Iraqi authorities in accordance with the security framework agreement between the countries, without giving details.
So far, the violence hasn’t affected Iraq’s major oil fields, the country’s main source of revenue. Output rose by 100,000 barrels a day last month to 3.2 million barrels, the most since August, according to a Bloomberg survey. The country pumped more crude as it increased links to wells in its predominately Shiite south. Iraq is the second-biggest producer in OPEC after Saudi Arabia.
Anbar province has been a battleground pitting the army, assisted by some Sunni tribesmen, against militants who have torched buildings and police stations. Maliki also faces political unrest, with 44 members of Iraq’s parliament resigning because the government used force to dismantle Sunni-led protests.
Terrorism & security
AL QAEDA-LINKED INSURGENTS, WITH TIES TO SYRIA, FIGHT FOR CONTROL OF IRAQI CITIES
By Ariel Zirulnick
** Nowhere did U.S. troops fight harder to expel Al Qaeda-linked insurgents than in Fallujah and Ramadi. But two years after the US withdrawal, the group fights on. **
Christian Science Monitor
January 3, 2014
Capitalizing on building Sunni Arab resentment of the Shiite-dominated central Iraqi government, Al Qaeda-linked militants have swept into two cities in Iraq's western Anbar province that the U.S. fought fiercely to wrest from insurgents during the war.
The two cities, Fallujah and Ramadi, were the focus of near continuous U.S. military efforts between 2003 and 2010, but insurgents -- among them militants who share the worldview of Al Qaeda and came to call themselves the Islamic State in Iraq -- proved impossible to root out.
Anbar is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab, and the toppling of Saddam Hussein began a process in which their community has felt more and more politically and economically marginalized relative to the country's majority Shiite Arab community. While that process of disenfranchisement paused briefly towards the end of the U.S. occupation of the country, when a U.S. military strategy of outreach to Sunni Arab tribes with promises of jobs and a seat at the political table paid huge dividends, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has persistently antagonized Sunni Arab politicians and citizens alike since the U.S. military's departure at the end of 2011.
Many of the Sunni Arabs of Anbar now view Maliki much as they did Iraq's interim American rulers, and with a civil war in Syria raging next door, the local Al Qaeda franchise is finding the wind at its back once more. The Islamic State in Iraq, which incorporated many Syrian jihadi fighters during the battle against U.S. forces, formally merged with Al Qaeda supporters in Syria last year to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also commonly referred to as ISIS) which has become one of the most powerful groups fighting against the Syrian regime.
The cross-border movement is far from supported by all in Anbar -- its heavy-handed treatment of citizens of towns it controls and contempt for the local culture, tradition, and tribal notables saw to that -- but the number of people willing to join up, and almost as importantly willing to turn a blind eye rather than informing the authorities about militant movements, has swelled.
Anbar shares a lengthy and porous border with Syria, and has been the focus of concern about Syrian war spillover since the early days of the Syrian uprising. Smuggling routes were well-established during the U.S.-led sanctions regime against Saddam Hussein, and after 2003, Syria became an important transit point for foreign fighters and weapons flowing to the Sunni insurgency. When Iraqi forces worked with over 100,000 U.S. troops in the country, they never managed to shut the border or control the province. Since the U.S. departure, the job has hardly gotten easier.
The militants have taken advantage of local unrest. The *New York Times* reports that Fallujah and Ramadi were the site of year-long anti-government sit-ins by Sunnis frustrated with their treatment by Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government. Mr. Maliki sent in government forces to dismantle the protest encampments in the two cities earlier this week, and the confrontation erupted into violence between armed tribesmen and the government forces that took days to calm. (Agence France-Presse reports that Maliki had dubbed the protest site in Ramadi a "headquarters for the leadership of Al Qaeda.")
The prime minister finally withdrew the army from the area on Tuesday, after striking a deal with the local tribal leaders -- but as soon as government forces withdrew, Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters "swarmed" the cities, the *New York Times* reports. Maliki immediately dispatched the Army once again, and tried to bring the local tribesmen onto the government side with offers of guns and money, reaching an agreement Thursday.
According to a later *New York Times* report, the local tribesmen are fighting alongside government troops only "reluctantly, making the calculation that, in this case, the government is the lesser evil than Al Qaeda."
Sheikh Hamed Rasheed Muhana echoed what many Sunnis in Iraq feel when he complained that the government had alienated Sunnis with harsh security crackdowns and mass arrests of Sunni men, militants, and ordinary civilians alike. He said the government had worsened matters by “creating more depressed people willing to join Al Qaeda because of the sectarian behavior and ongoing arrests.”
Overnight calm Thursday was shattered as Friday prayers, which local imams held in a public park away from the worst of the fighting, came to a close. The *New York Times* reports: "As services were concluding large numbers of masked militants affiliated with Al Qaeda appeared and took the stage. Waving a black flag, one fighter shouted to the crowd: 'We declare Falluja as an Islamic state and we call on you to be on our side.'
"'We are here to defend you from the army of Maliki and the Iranian Safavids,' the fighter continued. 'We welcome the return of all workers, even the local police, but they have to be under our state and our rule.'
"Also on Friday, gunmen blew up several government buildings in Falluja, including the police headquarters, the local council and the office of the mayor, according to a security official.
"As fighting spread, the militants recaptured that had been liberated by security forces and their tribal allies. Fighting was also said to have picked up again in Ramadi, and one official said four soldiers had been killed."
AFP describes ISIL as the "latest incarnation" of an Al Qaeda affiliate that the U.S. and local tribesmen banded together to drive out in 2006. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the Syrian war sowed the seeds for a comeback of the group, and the Sunni grievances of the past year, which created tension between the local Sunni tribes and the government, created a situation ripe for this takeover.
ISIL's "strength and territorial control and influence has been expanding in Anbar for some time, but has primarily been focused on rural desertous terrain," Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told AFP. ISIL "has ridden this wave of popular Sunni anger," he said.
Anger has been simmering in Anbar for a long time. The *Christian Science Monitor* observed Al Qaeda efforts to rally support during protests there in February, which were the largest since the toppling of Saddam Hussein: "The Anbar demonstrations began in December, with protesters demanding an end to perceived targeting of Sunni Muslims after the arrest of the Sunni finance minister’s bodyguards on terrorism charges. But it is the arrests of dozens of Iraqi women that have infuriated many in this fiercely tribal area. That anger has spread to Sunni areas in Baghdad and to provinces farther north, and both Al Qaeda in Iraq and mainstream political figures have been quick to join the fray.
"The Al Qaeda umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq, appealed to Sunnis this week to arm themselves against the Iraqi government and security forces. Hard-line Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr on Thursday, meanwhile, threatened to withdraw cabinet ministers from Mr. Maliki's coalition government if the protesters' demands weren't met."
Unrest has surged in Iraq in the last year -- 2013 had the highest death toll since 2008, as a sectarian civil war was waning. Over 7,100 civilians were killed in attacks last year, more than double the death toll in 2012.
Fallujah and Ramadi were two of the most critical cities in the U.S. fight against the insurgency during the war in Iraq. The *New York Times* details their significance: "For the United States, which two years ago withdrew its forces from Iraq as officials claimed the country was on track to become a stable democracy, Anbar holds historical significance. It was the place of America’s greatest losses, and perhaps its most significant success, of the war. Nearly one-third of the U.S. soldiers killed during the war died trying to pacify Anbar, and Americans fought two battles for control of Fallujah, in the bloodiest street-to-street combat U.S. troops had faced since Vietnam.
"As Iraq descended into civil war during the U.S. occupation, the epicenter of the unrest was in the desert region of Anbar, a restive cradle of Sunni discontent where swaggering tribesmen defied authority even under Saddam Hussein. A U.S. pact with those Anbar tribesmen in 2007 -- to pay them to switch sides and fight alongside the United States against Al Qaeda -- became known as the Awakening. That pact was credited with turning the tide of the war."
Local Sunni tribesmen told Reuters yesterday that they were talking with the militants in hopes of keeping them away from the fighting.
"We are looking to prevent the government from using excessive power against us by using the excuse of Al Qaeda's presence," a senior Anbar tribal leader familiar with the negotiations told Reuters by phone.
In the midst of the tribal-army clashes, tribal fighters banded together to form the Tribal Revolutionaries, placing snipers on top of houses to keep the army from returning after they drove them out.
A prominent local sheikh defended the tribal fighters' resistance, saying the government troops did not represent or defend Anbar residents. "We cannot let this army enter our cities. They are (Shi'ite) militias, not a national army, and they are loyal to Maliki, not to the Iraqi people," he told Reuters.