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Jun 20, 2014 | 20:14 GMT

7 mins read

The Iraqi Conflict Enters Its Next Phase

The Iraqi Conflict Enters Its Next Phase
(SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

The previous days of the conflict in Iraq were focused on the jihadist surge led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The following days will see negotiations develop involving the Shiite leadership in Baghdad, the United States and a number of influential players in Iraq's Sunni political and tribal landscape designed to wean Iraqi Sunni support away from the militant group. At the same time, the Iraqi government is preparing a military counteroffensive that will be reinforced by Shiite militant proxies. While sectarian violence will continue growing, the current political efforts will likely succeed in taking the momentum from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-led offensive, thus insulating Iraq's core around Baghdad and the Shiite south from a jihadist siege.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has obvious talent for hit-and-run attacks and raids on cities, but the group has a much harder time holding onto local support. In 2005, al Qaeda in Iraq experienced a reversal of local Sunni support with the creation of a Sunni Awakening (Sahwa) Council, whose entire purpose was to push al Qaeda out of Iraq with U.S. financial and military support. Although jihadists make up some of the most formidable fighters on the Syrian battlefield, over the past year in Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has been confounded with challenges from other rebel factions who are uncomfortable with the group's austere perspective on following a Sharia-compliant lifestyle.

The group's experience in Iraq will be no different. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant's offensive is approaching its inevitable outcome, specifically its devolution from a large coalition of fighters engaged in conventional warfare back into a diffuse insurgency. As we have underscored, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and its militant affiliates would not have had such tremendous success in seizing territory across Iraq's Sunni belt had it not been for the acquiescence of local Sunni tribes. At the same time, Iraq's Sunnis largely have no real fondness for the militant group and its jihadist predecessors. They see the group as a tool to regain their seat at the negotiating table with Baghdad to bolster their demands on issues like salaries for Sunni security and military forces, political representation at the local and national level and economic development in Sunni territory.

Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant Activity

Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant Activity

The Growing Urgency of Negotiations

Learning from the surge experience in 2007 and yet unwilling to commit troops to the conflict this time around, the United States is ramping up its efforts to restart negotiations between the Shiite leadership in Baghdad and the Sunni community. This strategy involves a lot of cash, but it is one that the United States knows well, and there are already strong hints that talks between Baghdad and the Sunnis are developing rapidly.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki held a meeting June 17 with several influential Sunni figures in Iraq who will be critical to this process. The al-Nujaifis are a prominent family in Mosul in Iraq's Ninawa province and have on numerous occasions lambasted the al-Maliki government for its refusal to integrate Iraq's Sunnis. Both Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi and his brother, Mosul Gov. Atheel al-Nujaifi, attended the meeting with al-Maliki. Atheel, who has become a prominent target for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has called for the formation of a Sunni Arab army to resist the jihadist group and reportedly has been meeting with U.S. diplomats to build support for this initiative. It is now up to al-Maliki (and the United States, which stands behind him) to ensure that these Sunni Arab forces can coordinate with Baghdad in the counteroffensive. 

Also in attendance was Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, another key Sunni representative at the national level who has been meeting with U.S. officials while condemning al-Maliki. Representing the clerical community at the meeting was Iraq's Sunni Mufti Rafi al-Rifai and Sunni clerics Abd al-Malik al-Sadi and Harith al-Dari. Al-Dari is the leader of Iraq's Association of Muslim Scholars, whose pro-Sunni channel Al Rafidayn was shut down June 18 and has been known to be sympathetic to the Sunni resistance.

Stratfor has also learned that former Baathists have been negotiating in Arbil regarding Kurdish cooperation against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The information has not been confirmed, but a group of former Baathists allegedly met with Kurdish officials to strike a bargain regarding rights over energy blocks in Iraq's disputed territories now controlled by Kurdish peshmerga. This is a particularly contentious issue between Arbil and Baghdad that likely will play into the negotiations over Sunni tribal support against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

While these talks are ongoing, al-Maliki seems to be making some concrete steps in responding to at least some of the Sunnis' demands. Al-Malki's national reconciliation committee acknowledged on June 20 that the six-month overdue salaries had been paid to the Awakening Council members in Anbar province through Sheikh Mohammed al-Hayes. A day earlier, the Anbar Provincial Council also acknowledged a request from Baghdad for tribal volunteers to join the Defense and Interior ministries in opposing the extremist militants there. Sabah al-Khairhot, the chairman of Anbar province, said the council had asked each clan in the province to provide 300 fighters to join Baghdad's security forces.

The Sunnis' Changing Attitudes

Stratfor is carefully tracking the general mood toward the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in Iraq's Sunni community as the group imposes strict social norms in their areas. Saudi-owned Al Hayat reported on a June 16 meeting that involved some of the city's clerics, local politicians and armed factions. The participants reportedly criticized the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, especially after the group began forcing tribal chieftains to pledge allegiance to it, demanded that no statements be made in the name of other armed factions and that only the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant's flag could be raised.

Meanwhile, Friday sermons on June 20 have revealed mixed attitudes toward the resistance. In Ar Ramadi in Anbar province, Sheikh Ali Abdullah al-Dulaimi called al-Maliki a "bloodthirsty criminal" and warned that Iranian-backed Shiite militias will try to annihilate the Sunnis. On the other hand, in Baghdad, Sheikh Mahmoud al-Issawi delivered a sermon at al Qadeeyya Shrine, one of the largest Sunni mosques in Iraq, where he emphasized the need to stand by Iraq's security forces and to fulfill their national and moral duty to protect the homeland. Notably, he pointed out that "both Sunnis and Shiites suffered from terrorism" and that now is the time for politicians of both sects to forget their differences to deal with the current threat.

Both Baghdad and Washington have bought Iraqi Sunni support before, and they can buy it again. A great deal of distrust remains over whether the Shiite government in Baghdad will follow through with any short-term pledges it makes to elicit Sunni cooperation, and the reinforcement by Shiite militant proxies will only add to that distrust and raise sectarian tensions overall. Nonetheless, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant's support network in Iraq remains tenuous. Although it will retain the ability to carry out terrorist attacks throughout Iraq, including Baghdad, the group is still heavily constrained in its ability to make a conventional thrust into Iraq's core, much less the oil-rich Shiite south, with the Iraqi army still holding together.

Iraq's Military Maneuvers

Baghdad is encouraging the diffusion of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and other Sunni fighters in a number of ways. The military has withdrawn large numbers of regular army units from Anbar and dispatched reinforcements from the south. The Iraqi army is now massing near As Samarra as it prepares to mount counterattacks against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and other Sunni opposition forces currently operating in a tense coalition. In addition to the regular army forces, the central government continues to urge volunteers to join in the fight, and large numbers of Shiite militia fighters have already mobilized and moved north. Finally, thousands of Iraqi Shiite fighters previously fighting alongside government forces in Syria are streaming back home.

An estimated 50,000 armed men are already massed north of Baghdad, and with these continuing deployments the Sunni opposition's strategic momentum is for all intents and purposes stalled. Though the rebels and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant could make smaller advances, the strategic initiative will soon revert to the government forces as they launch their counteroffensive. Operationally speaking, the thrust of the offensive will fall primarily along two lines of advance. The Iraqi central government will seek to reinforce Baqubah and move forward against opposition forces in Diyala province to the northeast of Baghdad. Simultaneously, the Iraqi military and allied paramilitary forces can be expected to head north from As Samarra in the general direction of Mosul with the short-term goals of clearing Tikrit and securing the refinery at Bayji.

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