Al Qaeda-linked rebels have gained control of the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in an uprising against the Shiite-led government. But their position may be weaker than it looks.
Violent clashes between government forces and members of the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) are set to continue after the rebels, who are linked to al Qaeda, took over the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi at the end of last month. On Friday (03.01.2014), the rebels declared an Islamic state and waved their signature black flags in Fallujah city center. On Sunday, an Iraqi government spokesperson said Iraq was preparing a "major attack" on Fallujah to drive them out.
ISIL started operating in 2006 and 2007, at a time when resistance against the US-led invasion of Iraq was strong. Fallujah had been a rebel stronghold and a scene for infighting since 2003. ISIL, which failed to find support in the population, was pushed back as US troops joined ranks with Sunni tribal leaders.
Al Qaeda-linked group has grown stronger
ISIL has grown stronger over the past few years, both in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, it has taken advantage of the weakened position of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the moderate rebel group fighting in the Syrian civil war which had been briefly supported by the US.
In Iraq, however, it's been the tough line taken by the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's that has helped stabilize ISIL, says Jochen Hippler, a politicial scientist at the Institute for Development and Peace at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Al-Maliki's authoritarian rule, his policy of discrimination against Sunnis and his violent response to demonstrations have enabled jihadist groups to reposition themselves.
Still, most people don't support ISIL as "the group is notorious for the brutality it employs to maintain its regional power," Hippler told DW. However, "there are areas in both countries where the ISIL militants are the strongest military force. Its combatants are well-trained, well-armed, highly motivated and well-organized."
The occupation of Fallujah is just one example. "In Syria, they are an important military player in Aleppo and in parts of eastern Syria."
Since the beginning of 2013, ISIL has started to move in on regions in western Iraq and northern Syria and has settled in there, says Günter Meyer, head of the Centre for Research on the Arab World at Mainz University. They fought government troops as well as rebel groups which were opposed to ISIL's brutal methods.
Meyer notes that, in the past few days, ISIL has suffered severe setbacks, especially in Syria, and he thinks that has stopped their drive forward for now, and that their occupation of Fallujah and Ramadi was a "short-term push."
And he doesn't take reports about the declaration of an Islamic state in Fallujah too seriously: "Wherever ISIL takes control, it's going to declare an emirate with a local Emir who's in charge of the troops. Ultimately though, this doesn't carry a lot of weight."
Will al-Maliki stick to his tough stance or will he join forces with Sunni tribal leaders to drive out the rebels?
Where to next, al-Maliki?
According to Hippler, the course of the conflict now depends on the policies adopted by al-Maliki and the rebels' next moves.
He thinks they could threaten the Iraqi government "if they cease using such brutal methods and transform themselves politically so that they become credible as an expression of Sunni dissatisfaction with the government."
Meyer will be interested to see whether the Shiite Prime Minister al-Maliki is prepared to join forces with Sunni tribal leaders, or whether he is going to stick to his tough stance. "In light of the upcoming elections, I could imagine him showing some sort of flexibility," Meyer says, "making it possible for Baghdad and Sunni tribal leaders to team up against the Al Qaeda fighters - using some help from US intelligence."
If al-Maliki were to change his stance toward the Sunni tribal leaders, Meyer says, "it would make it very hard for the al Qaeda fighters in Iraq."