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Is latest sectarian fighting in Iraq a strategic misstep for al-Qaida?

January 3, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Iraq's Anbar province, Sunni militants linked to al-Qaida have escalated a fight against Shiite-led government troops, blowing up official buildings. Judy Woodruff talks to author Bing West and Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, about the latest sectarian violence and how tribes from Anbar have joined in the fight.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Two key Iraqi cities have been the scene of intense sectarian fighting for nearly a week. 

Sunni militants aligned with al-Qaida have escalated a battle against Shiite-led government troops.  It’s all taking place in the western province of Anbar, where U.S. troops suffered their greatest losses during the eight-year war.  In Fallujah today, militants blew up several government buildings, including the police headquarters and mayor’s office. 

Violence also picked up in Ramadi.  The al-Qaida-linked fighters are seeking to control both cities.  The militants fight under the same banner as jihadists in Syria, evidence that that country’s civil war is spilling beyond its borders. 

But it is not a clean sectarian split.  Powerful Sunni tribes in Anbar have allied with the government troops to fight al-Qaida, just as they did with U.S. troops in 2007, in a move called the Awakening, which helped turn the tide of the war. 

To help us understand this latest bloodshed, we turn to former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and to former Marine Captain Bing West, who spent a lot of time in Iraq, particularly in Anbar, and who has written several books about the war. 

Gentlemen, we — we thank you both. 

Bing West, to you first.  What is going on in Anbar province? 

BING WEST, Author, “The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq”: Well, I think, Judy, that al-Qaida has made a big mistake.  They went into the cities, believing the cities would uprise with them, something equivalent to what the Vietcong did in 1968 in the Tet Offensive.

And the people have no intentions of uprising with them.  And the major tribes led by a sheik by the name of Abu Risha have turned against them.  And so I think al-Qaida actually has overplayed its hand. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Ryan Crocker, do you see it the same way, al-Qaida moving in, trying to get a foothold, overplaying its hand? 

RYAN CROCKER, Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq:  We have seen this before, Bing and I.

And, Judy, Bing, I think, is exactly right.  Al-Qaida overplayed its hand in the ’05-’06 period that had the population ready to turn to us in the Awakening.  And we’re seeing them overplay their hand again.  Raising the black flag of al-Qaida on Iraqi soil does not endear them to the Sunnis. 

And the advent of foreign fighters is particularly anathema to the tribes.  These tribes will and are fighting to secure their own cities, and we have seen the government finally do something sensible, which is quit antagonizing the Sunnis, give them money, give them arms and fight shoulder to shoulder. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  What is it that al-Qaida wants here, Bing West?  Do they just simply want territory?  What is this about? 

BING WEST:  No, I think, honestly, Judy, they convinced themselves that the tribes would come over to them and that they could split away Anbar as an entire province, put it together with the western part of — eastern part of Syria and begin to have their own state. 

But, as Ambassador Crocker was just indicating, they did it exactly wrong, because these tribes in Anbar hate them.  They really hate al-Qaida because they killed so many of the sheiks in 2004 and 2005.  And I’m flabbergasted that al-Qaida thought that they could go into these cities. 

Fallujah is a trap.  Fallujah only has five entrances.  That’s not a smart idea to go in there.  You have to ask how you’re going to get out.  The second city, Khaldiya, it’s just a small city.  Ramadi is the key battle.  And it appears that they’re losing in the Ramadi to the tribes. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  What is the value of this territory, Ambassador Crocker?  What is the — what is strategic value for al-Qaida to gain it and for the Sunni tribal leaders to hold onto it? 

RYAN CROCKER:  Judy, for al-Qaida, the aim has always been to gain and hold a significant amount of Arab territory.  That, for them, is the base from which they would seek to reestablish the seventh century caliphate. 

So they are trying that in Syria.  They are trying it in Anbar, with limited success.  The setback there is going to be very important, I think, not only in Iraq, but also in Syria.  But that’s what they seek.  They seek the same kind of position they had in Afghanistan pre-9/11, except on Arab soil.  And we need to be very, very careful to do everything we can to see that they do not get it. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And as both of you are pointing out, Bing West, what al-Qaida didn’t count is these Sunni tribal leaders in effect allying themselves with the Shia-led government.  What is in it for them to keep al-Qaida out? 

BING WEST:  Well, I have to say that my source for this now is Twitter.  


I have tweets today coming from Ramadi saying that Abu Risha, who is the good guy, believes that Abu Abelrahman, who is the bad al-Qaida, has been killed in the battle.  He has been killed three times.  This may be the fourth time. 

But it does indicate that the problem here for al-Qaida was that the Sunni tribes that were handled very badly by Prime Minister Maliki have somehow cut some sort of deal with Prime Minister Maliki, probably for money, but definitely for some political power.  And this is Ambassador Crocker’s area, but I certainly hope that Prime Minister Maliki has learned a lesson from this. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  What is it — and on that point, Ambassador Crocker, what — how does all this affect the ability of the prime minister to have any sort of stability in this country?  We have been watching increased violence.  There have been suicide bombings virtually — we have been reporting on it every day in Iraq.  How does all this play into his ability to keep his country stable? 

RYAN CROCKER:  Two key points, Judy. 

First, outside of Anbar, the suicide bombings were almost exclusively the work of al-Qaida attempting to incite sectarian violence among Iraqis.  They have not succeeded.  It’s very important that the prime minister work with leaders around the country to see that they don’t.  And in Anbar, where there has been significant sectarian violence that sparked this whole thing off less than a week ago, a disaster for the prime minister is now a golden opportunity. 

As Bing says, they have forged a temporary alliance at least, facing a common threat, and it’s the prime minister’s opportunity, working with individuals like Ahmed Abu Risha, to make that alliance much more permanent now that they have seen what al-Qaida will try to do. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Bing West, what is in the U.S. interest here?  What — what leads to the kind of stability we were just talking about with Ambassador Crocker?

BING WEST:  Well, as the ambassador indicated, it would be terrific.

And our — our equities in this are definitely to help the Sunni tribes in Anbar because they helped us and because they are a stability in that region.  If we can get the tribes and Prime Minister Maliki working together, then we can seal off that border and prevent al-Qaida from expanding its area in eastern — in eastern Syria.

We can seal that off if there can be a relationship between the prime minister in Baghdad and the Anbar tribes out in Ramadi. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Well, we thank you both, both Bing West and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, for helping us understand more about what is going on there.  We thank you. 

RYAN CROCKER:  Thank you, Judy. 

BING WEST:  Thank you.