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The campaign to remove elements loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) from the province comes about three weeks after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki promised to launch an offensive to rid the country of what he called “terrorists”.
However, Washington, Sunni tribal leaders, and some members of his political bloc convinced Maliki not to launch an all-out attack in which many innocent Iraqis could be killed and instead rely on the help of local militia – known as Sahwa or Awakening brigades.
Sunday’s campaign relies heavily on the anti-ISIL Sahwa for intelligence and has seen cooperation between the Iraqi army and the brigades to bring security to Anbar province.
But the situation has remained very tense since security forces arrested a prominent Sunni member of parliament, accused of supporting terrorism, killing his brother and several of his security guards in the process.
In late December, security forces also forcibly ended a year-long protest in Ramadi which began when Sunni tribes there called on the Maliki government to release detainees and deliver on promises made to politically and militarily integrate the sahwa and their leaders.
The fact that Maliki has had to rely on the sahwa – as did US forces in 2006 and 2007 – means that his government is now going to have to make political concessions to Sunni lawmakers.
In recent months, Sunnis in Iraq had accused the prime minister of trying to marginalise and intimidate them, and of failing to provide assistance as many of their members were gunned down in Al-Qaeda revenge attacks.
But the current military operations in Anbar province could ensure a Maliki political victory. However, his forces – and those of his Sunni militia allies – appear to be outmatched for the moment.
The US said on Friday that it would deliver certain types of armaments – including air-to-surface missiles and tank munitions – to help the Iraqi army quell the Al-Qaeda resurgence.
Further worsening the crisis, Sunni tribes are divided with some backing the army while others are openly sympathetic to ISIL.
ISIL’s Al-Qaeda precursor militia was never fully routed from Anbar province. In 2006, they moved northward into the ethnically mixed province of Nineveh and have since destabillised the city of Mosul, carrying out attacks on police and the army, and assassinating public figures.
When the civil war broke out in Syria, these militia rebranded themselves as ISIL and moved much of their operations into Aleppo and other cities in the north east.
Buoyed by their successes in Syria, ISIL was emboldened enough to carry out brazen attacks in Iraq, including a jailbreak of 500 inmates in July and routing Iraqi commando operations against them.
Maliki is under pressure to end their threat once and for all before Iraqis head to the polls for fresh elections in April.