RAMADI, Iraq — Clashes between Sunni insurgents and Iraq’s Shia-led security forces in the western Iraq province of Anbar have displaced up to 300,000 people, according to the United Nations.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its Sunni tribal allies seized control of parts of Anbar’s two largest cities in late December 2013 after security forces from Iraq’s Shia-dominated government dismantled a year-old Sunni protest camp in Ramadi, Anbar’s provincial capital.
The takeover of Ramadi and Fallujah precipitated the current round of fighting, which pits Iraqi security forces and Sunni tribes that have allied with the government against ISIS fighters and their tribal allies in Fallujah.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR,) the clashes between the two sides have displaced up to 300,000 Iraqis, or 50,000 families. The majority of the displaced are now living in outlying communities in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, while about 60,000 have fled to other provinces, the UNHCR said on its website. Those displaced by the fighting have been forced to take up residence in schools, mosques and other public buildings.
Militants from al-Qaeda-linked ISIS and Sunni tribal fighters opposed to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-controlled government took over the two cities after Iraqi security forces raided a Sunni protest camp in Ramadi on December 30, 2013.
The dismantlement of the year old Sunni protest encampment, which killed at least 17 people, enraged Anbar’s Sunni’s and came two days after Iraqi security forces raided the home of Ahmed al-Alwani, a prominent Sunni member of parliament, sparking a two-hour gun battle that killed the lawmaker’s brother and five of his bodyguards. Al-Awani was arrested on terrorism charges following the raid on his Ramadi home, becoming the latest Sunni politician to be charged with terrorism-related offenses by the country’s Shia government.
ISIS’s takeover of Fallujah was facilitated by the city’s Sunni tribes, who sided with their Sunni brethren in ISIS and helped their co-religionists in the extremist group to take control of Anbar’s second-largest city. In the provincial capital of Ramadi, Sunni tribes have opposed ISIS and its efforts to seize control of their city and have taken up arms against the group.
Iraq’s security forces and their Sunni tribal allies have managed to wrest control of some areas of Ramadi from ISIS, but have not yet launched a campaign to retake Fallujah, which continues to be held by ISIS militants and the tribesman with which the extremist group has aligned.
Ahmed al-Dulaimi, Anbar’s governor, said last weekend that the insurgents had a week to surrender and vowed not to negotiate with ISIS, which is also battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in neighboring Syria.
The Sunni extremist group aims to establish an Islamist state covering Iraq and Syria, where rebels drawn from the country’s Sunni majority are fighting a government controlled by the country’s minority Alawite sect and backed by Shia Iran and Hezbollah. Syria’s sectarian conflict has fueled tensions between Sunnis and Shias across the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, where the country’s once-powerful Sunni minority complains it is marginalized by Iraq’s Shia-dominated government.
– Eric Erdahl