As the Iraqi government is currently trying to free Fallujah it’s important to remember how the city originally fell to insurgents. Fallujah joined the protests that started in December 2012 against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It quickly became one of the more radical sites in the country highlighted by the preponderance of Saddam era Iraq flags and banners of the Islamic State of Iraq with different insurgent groups trying to exploit the demonstrations to turn people towards violence. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki played right into their hands when he shut down the Ramadi protest site. In response, armed men from a mix of tribes and militant groups immediately took to the streets of Fallujah and quickly seized power. That marked the return of Iraq’s insurgency.
The fall of Fallujah can be traced back to the 2012 protest movement. In mid-December Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made a move against Finance Minister Rafi Issawi by arresting some of his bodyguards and accusing him of involvement in terrorism. That happened a year after Maliki did the same against Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, running him out of office and then the country. Spontaneous protests began in several sections of the country against the government including in Fallujah. By the end of the year up to 60,000 were reportedly demonstrating against Maliki in the city. Confrontations quickly ensued in January 2013 when people threw rocks at the security forces resulting in them shooting into the crowd killing 9 and wounding 60. (1) Later 2 soldiers were killed in retaliation. Armed men took to the streets and it looked like a greater explosion could occur, but calmer heads prevailed. There was another clash in April after security forces killed protesters in Hawija, Kirkuk, which led to shootings in Fallujah with one policeman killed. A few days later gunmen attacked a police checkpoint killing 2 more police and wound 2 others. There were also calls in Fallujah to create an army to protect the protesters from the security forces (ISF). This was all helping the Baathist Naqshibandi, Islamic State and others that were hoping to turn the crowd towards violence. Maliki was ready to oblige them.
By the end of 2013 Fallujah was ready to explode and the prime minister lit the match with two moves. First, the government arrested Parliamentarian Ahmed Alwani who was a leader at the Ramadi protest site, and in the process got into a shootout with his guards that led to the death of his brother and others. In Fallujah, a sheikh gave a speech saying the Alwani incident meant war and called on people to take up arms. Just before that, a major military campaign was launched to try to clear out militants from the rural and border areas of western Anbar. During that exercise the entire leadership of the 7th Division was killed in a booby-trapped house outside of Rutba. On December 30, Maliki used that as an excuse to shut down the Ramadi protest area claiming that it was under the control of the Islamic State, which was not true. That immediately led to fighting in that city and Fallujah as well. By January 1 gunmen took the police headquarters and the mayor’s office and blew them up. That led the Counter Terrorism Forces to be sent in, but they were stopped. The Islamic State grabbed the headlines in the fighting, but in fact military council had been formed made up of local tribes, the Islamic State, the Islamic Army, Hamas al-Iraq, the Mujahadeen Army, ex-Baathists, and others. This was exactly what the militants wanted. They wanted to show people in Fallujah and other Sunni areas that peaceful protests would get them nothing, because the government would not only ignore them, but also use force against them. They offered the alternative of taking up the gun as the only way to assert their rights. Maliki was only too happy to help by attacking the Hawija site, and then taking advantage of the 7th Division tragedy to shut down the Ramadi protests igniting open fighting in Anbar.
The response to the Fallujah take over was haphazard and chaotic, and only let the militants solidify their control over the city. At first, Baghdad called on local leaders to restore security. Various efforts were made to open up dialogue with those running Fallujah to try to negotiate the fighters’ departure, but all of those failed. At the same time the army began surrounding Fallujah, and shelling it. By the end of January, the first of many operations was launched try to expel the insurgents, but that didn’t work either. What ended up happening was that the militants were able to hareden their hold on the city, while the security forces increasingly turned to a loose cordon around Fallujah firing mortars, artillery, rockets, and dropping barrel bombs on it. By the middle of March 2014, the Fallujah hospital claimed that 870 people had been killed and wounded from the indiscriminate shelling of the city. That practice continues to the present day.
The final act in the Fallujah uprising was the ascendency of the Islamic State over all of the other armed factions. After the city fell more and more insurgents moved in, and IS was just one of many. As it did in the past however, the Islamic State never believed it was one amongst equals. Instead, it believed that it should be in control with all the others giving it allegiance or being eliminated if they didn’t. By March there were the first stories that IS was attempting to assert itself, and by the end of the summer they appeared to be fully in charge with news that other groups were leaving the city because they refused to be under their leadership. It was like the Islamic State had pulled off a coup after the revolution. All these different groups from local sheikhs to national militant groups had come together to expel the government from Fallujah. They far outnumbered IS, but it was still able to maneuver itself into co-opting or expelling all the others due to its organization, ruthlessness, and use of force.
This conflagration of events was what led to the fall of Fallujah. What started as peaceful protests against Maliki’s political persecution was quickly radicalized, and then exploited by different insurgent groups who wanted things to move towards violence. The premier thought he could put down the demonstrations, but that backfired and the militants who had been waiting for that moment restarted open fighting in the country in Fallujah. The incoherent response to that let the different armed groups solidify their control of the town, while the Islamic State was planning all along to seize the opportunity to become the paramount and sole group. Things quickly degenerated to a siege of the city, which was never effective as the outlets from Fallujah were never secured, and thousands of civilians ended up being killed and wounded by the indiscriminate shelling by the Iraqi forces. Even when the Hashd unilaterally decided to assault the city in the summer of 2015, it quickly ground to a halt and reverted back to lobbying shells into the urban area. It took 28 months for the government to finally launch an organized assault to retake the city. Fallujah will eventually fall, but the lesson is events did not have to play out the way it did. A series of political mistakes and hubris were what led to Fallujah being seized. Maliki was a master politician able to play divide and conquer with his opponents, but that eventually led to such anger within sectors of the Sunni population that it allowed the insurgency to make a comeback.
1. Aswat al-Iraq, “Fallujah toll reaches to 9 killings and 60 wounded,” 1/25/13
Abbas, Mushreq, “Iraq: Four armed groups fighting in Fallujah,” Al-Monitor, 1/8/14
Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Iraqi troops battle in west with al-Qaida,” Associated Press, 1/3/13
Adnan, Duraid and Arango, Tim, “Arrest of a Sunni Minister’s Bodyguards Prompts Protests in Iraq,” New York Times, 12/21/12
Agence France Presse, “Iraq militants free prisoners, burn police stations,” 1/1/14
- “Iraqi forces, tribesmen battle Qaeda-linked militants,” 1/2/14
Aswat al-Iraq, “Fallujah toll reaches to 9 killings and 60 wounded,” 1/25/13
Al Forat, “Fallujah Police Headquarters, Mayor Office detonated by terrorists,” 1/1/14
Ghazi, Yasir and Arango, Tim, “Deadly Shootout and Arrest in Iraq Set Off Sunni Protests,” New York Times, 12/28/13
Habib, Mustafa, “Inside Fallujah: Crowded Cemeteries, Flattened Buildings And Potential Revolution,” Niqash, 8/28/14
Human Rights Watch, “Deter Attacks With Investigations, Not Harassment,” 11/15/13
Jawad, Haider Ali, “Anbar..Maliki issued an amnesty for wanted..And half of the Albu Alwan tribe organized into Awakening..Al Qaeda seized money from banks,” Buratha News 1/5/14
Al Jazeera, “Fallujah pact in the making to keep army out,” 1/11/14
Al-Mada, “Anbar: officers “hold truce” with the militants .. And the targeting of 3 train stations “cut supplies” for the army,” 11/17/13
- “Anbar provincial council declares “collapse” of agreement by tribes and the government The Iraqi List calls for the evacuation of Fallujah before the attack,” 1/17/14
- “Daash concerned with its rivals..Sharia courts and the fate of those who refuse allegiance,” 7/27/14
National Iraqi News Agency, “870, including women and children, the victims in Fallujah since military operations started two months ago,” 3/13/14
- “Armed clashes erupt again in east of Fallujah,” 12/31/13
- “Assistant General Chief of Staff leads a campaign to clean Anbar’s western desert from Qaeda elements,” 12/21/13
- “BREAKING NEWS. The declaration of formation of “ Alizah wa-Akharamah/pride and dignity/ army by the protestors in Anbar province,” 4/26/13
- “BREAKING NEWS. Gunmen dominate two police stations in Fallujah,” 1/1/14
- “Urgent…Two Army Brigades’ leaders, among the victims of Anbar bombing,” 12/21/13
- “Wide Security Campaign to Clear Fallujah of Gunmen,” 1/26/14
New Sabah, “Anbar Council: army needs to enter,” 1/4/14
Radio Free Iraq, “Anbar Residents Await Anxiously As ‘Clan Revolutionaries’ Take On Al-Qaeda,” 1/9/14
Al Rafidayn, “The majority of the armed factions leave Fallujah after refusing to swear allegiance to Islamic State,” 7/8/14
Reuters, “Tens of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis protest against Al Maliki government,” 12/28/12
Salaheddin, Sinan, “Iraqi police dismantle Sunni protest in west,” Associated Press, 12/30/13
Schreck, Adam, “Iraq on edge after deadly raid on protest camp,” Associated Press, 4/23/13
- “Violence erupts at Iraq rally; 5 protesters killed,” Associated Press, 1/25/13
Schreck, Adam and Salaheddin, Sinan, “Iraq fears rise as clashes spread to northern city,” Associated Press, 4/25/13
Shallal, Azhar, “Clashes kill 10 as Iraq forces clear Sunni protest camp,” Agence France Presse, 12/30/13
Sowell, Kirk, “Inside Iraqi Politics No. 60,” 5/3/13
- “Iraq’s Second Sunni Insurgency,” Hudson Institute, 8/4/14
Tawfeeq, Mohammed, “Mayor gunned down, 24 others killed across Iraq,” CNN, 11/13/13
Van Heuvelen, Ben, “Next door to Syria, an al-Qaeda-linked group is also gaining ground in Iraq,” Washington Post, 12/7/13
Yacoub, Sameer, “Iraqi soldiers retake control of Sunni town,” Associated Press, 4/26/13