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Unruhe und Gewalt im Irak Falludscha 01.01.2014
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Inroads for al Qaeda

Interview: Najima El Moussaoui /sst
January 4, 2014

Middle East expert Guido Steinberg says the latest violence in Iraq will become a permanent condition as al Qaeda-linked groups grow stronger. Moreover, Syria's civil war continues to fuel conflict in the region.


DW: Mr. Steinberg, who is responsible for the recent fighting in Iraq?

Guido Steinberg: It was the government's attempt to arrest Ahmed al-Alwani, a Sunni Member of Parliament, that sparked the escalating riots in Ramadi and Fallujah. That led to protests and clashes. And al Qaeda did profit from these clashes, because it sent fighters to these cities as well. At this point, many Sunnis had started to fight back, targeting al Qaeda. The situation is much more complex than a simple confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis.

Isn't Iraq mostly fighting a confessional war?

The confessional aspect shouldn't be overemphasized. The conflict in Iraq is first and foremost a political conflict between [Shiite Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki and the opposition - Sunnis and secularists in Iraq's western regions.

In addition to that, al Qaeda has regained its strength, but this organization does not equal Sunni opposition.

Guido Steinberg from the German think tank, SWP
The Iraqi government has lost control of some areas, says SteinbergImage: DW/S. Amri

How did the Sunni extremist group "Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) - an Iraqi al Qaeda-linked group - manage to take over both Fallujah and Ramadi within a couple of days?

Al Qaeda in Iraq benefits greatly from being able to retreat to Syria. Reports of the group taking over parts of the cities Ramadi and Fallujah show that the organization has grown stronger, both in Iraq and Syria. It has managed to challenge government troops in house-to-house fighting.

The conflicts in Iraq and in Syria's civil war fuel each other - especially since Iraqi soldiers fight in the ranks of Syrian government troops and Iraqi extremists help Syria's opposition forces. What are the consequences?

If the situation does not change, there will be areas in Iraq and Syria where different jihadist groups can act without any form of control. Neither the Iraqi, nor the Syrian, governments will be able to control these areas effectively and long-term. Already today, Iraq's northwest, Syria's northeast and portions of some Syrian cities are essentially inter-connected operation areas for Iraq's al Qaeda groups.

How likely is it that the situation in Iraq will improve in the long run?

At the moment, the trend points the other way: We are witnessing a slow but steady destabilization of Iraq. Today's level of violence resembles the level in 2008 when many observers spoke of a civil war.

Fighters take up position during clashes with Iraqi army (photo: EPA/MOHAMMED JALIL)
According to a senior leader of a militia, 62 al Qaeda linked militants were killed in the Ramadi areaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

On the other hand there is a central government that has a lot of money from oil exports at their disposal. Al-Maliki's government can pay the country's security forces with that money. That's why I don't see a realistic chance for sub-state actors to shake this state.

What is the most realistic future scenario?

I think the most likely scenario is that the current situation - outbursts of violence, but a stable government - is going to continue for a long, long time in Iraq; at least as long as the civil war continues in neighboring Syria.

Until now, Prime Minister al-Maliki managed to stay in office for over two terms. How much political influence does he still have?

Maliki is the strongest person in the country at the moment and will remain so until the upcoming elections. He is strong because he commands Iraq's security forces. The military, the police and the intelligence services are all under his control. And this is an estimated 900,000 people.

Will Sunni extremists be a threat to his re-election as prime minister when parliamentary elections are held in April 2014?

I expect that he still wants to be prime minister. Whether he is going to win the election depends on whether he can get his former Kurdish and Shiite allies on his side. As far as domestic politics go, he has been weakened by a stronger al Qaeda because he was not able to ensure law and order in Sunni areas [like Ramadi and Fallujah].

Nouri al-Maliki (photo: Muhannad Fala'ah /Getty Images)
Al-Maliki commands a 900,000-strong military, police and intelligence forceImage: Getty Images

Does the United States still play a role in Iraq?

The US still has power, but it's been reduced since the US pulled out its troops at the end of 2011. The US continues to supply weapons to Iraq's security forces and - what's probably more important - gives them information to help fight al Qaeda. But the US has little influence on the country's fundamental political problems, such as al-Maliki's conflict with Iraq's minorities.

How much influence do the two biggest regional powers - Iran and Saudi Arabia - have on Iraq?

Iran is the most important ally for al-Maliki's government with regard to foreign affairs. Iran pretty much has taken the place of the US in Iraq. It's certainly not an occupying power, but is more or less the patron of a strong client.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, hardly plays a role in Iraq. It is simply too weak. It also does not want to support militant groups, such as Iraq's al Qaeda. Consequently, that leads to a weak presence in the country. And it is not likely that Saudi Arabia will play an important role in Iraq in the forseeable future.

Guido Steinberg is a Middle East expert and researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

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