Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters took over large parts of Anbar province last week in a series of well-coordinated attacks. The al-Qaeda-linked Sunni terrorist organization raided and occupied police stations and other government buildings in Fallujah and Ramadi. Even if ISIL rebels cannot hold the territory, their success provides an important propaganda victory for the group, and a “poke” at the U.S., which was instrumental in their ouster in 2006/7.
In a televised address aired Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed to wrest control over Anbar province back from Islamist militants. During the speech, al-Maliki promised clemency to fighters who gave up their arms even as the Iraqi army prepared an assault against extremists in the city.
An Iraqi soldier stands guard at a check point in west Baghdad, January 6, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)
According to tribal leaders and security officials, the Prime Minister agreed to delay an offensive to take back militant controlled areas, most notably Fallujah. Iraq’s army surrounded the city with tanks and artillery on Tuesday. The central government hopes that locals in Anbar can fight ISIL rebels themselves or persuade many them to lay down their arms. Indeed, Baghdad-backed tribal fighters gained control of central Ramadi, Anbar’s provincial capital, on Monday with assistance from government airstrikes.
International assistance to the central government in fighting extremists remains limited. The U.S. will expedite the delivery of air-to-ground Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones to help the Iraqi army; but, Secretary of State John Kerry stated clearly that deploying U.S troops is not an option.
Iraqi leaders now face the first significant challenge to their authority since U.S. troops left in 2011. Securing the porous Iraq-Syria border, over which many extremists travel freely, should also help to limit future violence from Syrian based rebel groups. It remains unclear whether the Iraqi Army is capable of making major inroads in the travel and smuggling lanes.