On January 4th 2014, the news was swiftly plastered over every mainstream and ‘alternative’ media outlet imaginable; as of January 4th 2014, the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which coalition forces (predominantly US troops) had so painstakingly fought to secure (twice) in 2004 (at a cost of over 100 lives of US and coalition troops, and untold thousands of innocent civilians), had once again fallen out of the control of the Iraqi government, as a result of an offensive by militias composed (largely) of Sunni militants.

“Al-Qaeda linked militants” pose for the camera in Anbar Province. I’ve never known al-Qaeda to be such big fans of having fun. That is, if we’re to believe that they’re a homogeneous mass of al-Qaeda terrorists.

You can’t escape the knee-jerk narrative which was once again utlised from the media’s seemingly timeless bag of increasingly repetitive tricks; the city of Fallujah, in the province of Anbar (a majority-Sunni province) had fallen into the hands of “al-Qaeda” or “al-Qaeda linked militants” once again. The all-pervading saturation of the word “al-Qaeda” in the overwhelming majority of reports which covered the unfolding story, was dismally echoed by all manner of media outlets.

The language used, as well as the moral selectivity of the reports (especially those designed to pull at the heart-strings of the readers) has been, as it usually is when involving Muslims (especially Sunni ones) nothing short of falling into the very same category of discrimination and sectarianism which these same media outlets so bemoan. Vilification is implicit at least every few lines.

US soldiers drag a sniped comrade to safety during the Second Battle of Fallujah (November-December 2004). The battle caused relatively high casualties, and concern back home.

Here’s a taste of the coverage given to this story.

An article by TIME, published on January 5th:

Al-Qaeda Takes Over Iraqi City That Cost 100 U.S. Lives 10 Years Ago

“The Iraqi government that the U.S. put into power during eight years of war lost the key city of Fallujah over the weekend. While you weren’t paying attention, al-Qaeda has returned to western Iraq with a vengeance, in the guise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Sunni insurgents seem largely in control of Iraq’s Anbar province, where an estimated 1,500 of the nearly 4,500 American troops killed in Iraq perished. Fallujah, the province’s second largest city, is the latest prize in the long-simmering war between the Shi‘ite and Sunni strains of Islam. The conflict has now come to a full boil, two years after the last U.S. troops, whose presence kept a lid on such internecine fighting, left Iraq.

Within hours of the city’s fall, Americans who fought or covered the pair of bloody 2004 campaigns to keep Fallujah out of Sunni militant hands expressed concern via the Internet over whether their fallen comrades had died in vain.

An article by the Telegraph, published on January 6th:

Iraqi army in tense stand-off at Fallujah

Government has called on residents of Fallujah, one of two cities seized by al-Qaeda, to drive out militants themselves

Iraqi forces were engaged in a tense stand-off on Monday night outside two cities said to have been taken over by al-Qaeda as the government attempted to end its latest crisis without major bloodshed.

At least 200 troops, rebel fighters and civilians have already been killed in clashes and bomb blasts across west and north-west Iraq since fighting began last week between militants, the army and local tribes loyal to the government.

Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, on Monday called on the residents of Fallujah, one of the two cities seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, the local al-Qaeda group, to drive out the militants themselves. In the meantime, the army, which has surrounded the city, held off from a full-blown assault.

Al-Qaeda are said also to be partly in control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, where an attempt last week to break up an anti-government protest camp led to the current crisis.

Fallujah was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the insurgency against the American presence in Iraq after the allied invasion of 2003.

Then as now al-Qaeda forces, believed to have been initially bolstered by Sunni remnants of the regime of Saddam Hussein, were attempting to drive out what they regarded as foreign-backed forces.

An Article put up on the Daily Star (and various other outlets), also published on January 6th:

Iraq PM urges Falluja to expel Al-Qaeda-linked militants

 BAGHDAD: Iraq’s prime minister urged people in the besieged city of Falluja on Monday to drive out Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents to pre-empt a military offensive that officials said could be launched within days.

In a statement on state television, Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite Muslim whose government has little support in Sunni-dominated Falluja, said tribal leaders should help expel the militants, who last week seized key towns in the desert leading to the Syrian border.

“The prime minister appeals to the tribes and people of Falluja to expel the terrorists from the city in order to spare themselves the risk of armed clashes,” read the statement.

A provincial official said security forces had regained control of another town, Ramadi, forcing militants to the east where they were holding out in mosques and homes. Air raids would flush them out, he told Reuters.

“The airforce will end this battle in the next few hours,” said Falih al-Essawi, a member of the council running Anbar province, adding that government workers and students in Ramadi had been told to return to work and school on Tuesday.

Two local tribal leaders in Falluja said meetings were being held with clerics and community leaders to find a way to persuade fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to leave Falluja and avert further violence.

Can you see a pattern emerging?

You can find many such articles (or ones of similar orientation) from any number of similar sources, including the New York Times, Yahoo News, Channel 4 News, and many more.

All of them sensationalise the story by putting the allegation that al-Qaeda is spearheading the assault on Fallujah in the headlines, and giving little to no regard for a closer analysis of the story, or any other factors which could be driving the rebels’ recent gains. Even the Long War Journal, which is often a bastion of well-done research and hasn’t been as sensationalist as some other outlets, still dismisses the anti-Maliki regime fighters as al-Qaeda and their “tribal allies”, based on some dubious reports from Iraqi government officials.

Iraqi revolutionaries in a truck, amid carnage as a result of fierce clashes with the security forces.

The real story is not nearly as black-and-white, good-and-evil, as they attempt us to believe. This is not merely some sort of sporadic, surprise attack launched by Obama’s favourite bogeymen; what is going on in Falluja has much more long-term origins, stemming from the earlier days of the Iraq War and beforehand.

Before the 2003 Iraq War which toppled the longstanding strongman Saddam Hussein from power (Saddam had once been a longstanding US ally, before he got too big for his boots and invaded Kuwait), Iraq had been, as it is now, beset by sectarian tensions and strife, albeit reversed. Today, the Shiites dominate the levers of power, much to Sunni ire. Previously, stemming from at least 1920 onwards, it had been the Sunni minority (an estimated 35% are Sunni as of a 2009 census) which monopolised the leadership.

In the 16th century, Iraq had been under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire, and it remained so until the 20th century; World War One came around, and Mesapotamia was wrestled from their control by the British in 1917-18, as the Ottoman Empire rapidly disintegrated (falling apart in 1918). Eager to capialise on the huge territorial gains they had made, the Empire created the British Mandate of Mesopotamia as a result of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which insidiously divided the Middle East up between Britain and France, with Russia’s blessing.

Before this could happen, a huge revolution ignited in 1920, in opposition to British imperialism, uniting Sunnis and Shiites in cooperation against a common enemy – British imperialism. 10,000 were slaughtered (with poison gas, huge amounts of bombings, repression of civil liberties, and tyranny, in a manner eerily similar to that of a certain Bashar al-Assad) before the revolution was put down, and King Faysal ibn Husayn was installed as monarch in 1921. He was a Sunni, and thus deeply at odds with most of the Iraqi population (some 62% of Iraqis are Shiites).

This strategy was no doubt brought into being for uses related to the age-old divide-and-conquer mentality. It was no doubt deliberately done to drive a wedge between Sunnis and Shiites, who  had been so effectively working together against a common enemy during the revolt. Although both groups continued to fight a common enemy, and both generally despised the new puppet regime with equal measure, as Charles Tripp notes in  A History of Iraq, this cooperation soon ended once the revolt was over. Britain’s objective was clear; they needed a ruler strong enough to seemingly have some legitimacy (the king could allegedly trace his heritage back to Prophed Muhammad, and could appeal to Sunnis), but weak enough so as to need their backing.

The British mandate ran out in 1932, but the Sunni dominance  continued. The Hashimite monarchy was finally overthrown by a union of military officers in 1958. Iraq thus became a republic. However, despite coup and counter-coup (Baathists came to power in 1963, lost power nine months later, and re-claimed it in 1968), Iraq’s leadership remained Sunni due to the fact that the higher ranks of the king’s military had been filled with Sunnis in an attempt to consolidate the regime (the methods of Hafez al-Assad and the Bahraini royal family come to mind).  Under President Bakr and Ba’ath party secretary Saddam Hussein , Iraq’s economy flourished and the country was increasingly prosperous.

However, sectarian tensions were always close to the surface. Demonstrations by Shiites were repressed as always. When Saddam came to power in 1979, things got worse for the Shiite majority; hundreds of thousands of their young men died in the Iran-Iraq war (which Saddam started partly out of fear that Iran would become popular among Iraqi Shiites and create instability for his regime), and again in the Gulf War of 1991, and in the horrendous reprisals following the Shiite-dominated uprisings in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

When the US finally oustered Saddam in 2003, deposing the Sunni-led Ba’athists, the Sunni leadership went with them, the vacuum eagerly being filled by Shiites. The Sunnis began to feel increasingly disenfranchised amid the huge escalation in violence, especially when directed against their minority population (especially with the rise of Islamist Shiite militias such as the Mahdi Army) and increasingly turned to extremist Sunni factions in turn. Violence does after all, breed violence. After the violence peaked during 2006-2008 (especially in the Sunni-dominated areas around the ‘Sunni Triangle and provinces like Anbar) The coalition forces and Iraqi government pursued a strategy of sponsoring the ‘awakening councils’; groups of Sunni militants who defended their territories from terrorist groups, often paying and funding them to do so.

When Iraqi security forces themselves took control of the country, there was a “dramatic  reduction in war-related violence of all types”, as they weren’t seen as an overt symbol of occupation and repression, as the US troops had been among most segments of society. The granting of some relatively autonomy to Sunnis was also a welcome measure which turned many prospective sympathisers away from al-Qaeda and other factions (who thus vindictively condemned many who worked in the awakening groups as helpers of “filthy crusaders” and singled them out for attacks).

The origins of the (ongoing) Sunni insurgency itself can decisively be traced to 2009-2010 and onwards. After the US withdrawal in 2011, violence naturally increased slightly, but not substantially. The fault seems not to have originated with the US (although it definitely could have been said to have done in invading Iraq in the first place), but with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s aloof, condescending, sectarian attitude towards the Sunnis, which alienated them as allies. In 2009, the defense minister stated that “We completely, absolutely reject the Awakening becoming a third military organization.” The government thus moved to disband the militias, and their ranks have shrunk from 51,000 in early 2011, to a mere 30,000 by mid-2012.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki frequently promotes a sectarian Shiite narrative, despite ostensibly representing the Iraqi people regardless of sect.

Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government was thus shooting itself in the foot by homogenising the Sunnis as potential terrorists, imposing harsh anti-terrorism laws which are clearly directed against their sect, and disenfranchising them from mainstream society. To make matters worse, the Maliki government had also been very vocally and very openly pushing Sunni ministers and political figures out of the political process (thus also depriving the Sunnis of any meaningful representation in the government). Maliki even openly, and without presenting evidence, accused the deputy prime minister of being connected to al-Qaeda only hours after the US soldiers had left US soil, and issued a warrant for his arrest.

The increasing Sunni anger at the government repression, combined with ostracisation and clear discrimination, only served to push more young men into a resurgent al-Qaeda, which had been made all the more powerful as a result of Obama’s dithering in his approach to Syria, which had given jihadists and assorted al-Qaeda franchises time to put down roots in Syria, and extend them once again in Iraq. Violence has now returned to 2008 levels as a result of popular anger, notably in Sunni-majority areas. That includes all-manner of disgusting attacks; car bombings, shootings, kidnappings, suicide attacks, and so on. A combination of a power vacuum in Syria, and the Iraqi government’s discriminatory policy towards Sunnis, is breathing life back into al-Qaeda, hence the resurgence. In one disturbing online video, people can be heard chanting “Long live the Islamic State of Iraq!” The activist who posted the video simply stated: “Maliki is making them popular again.”

HOWEVER, it has to be said at this point that this is still simplifying the situation. The fact remains that a large proportion of the Sunni insurgents (and a majority in many areas) fighting in Iraq are not al-Qaeda at all; merely, they are normal people who have taken up arms against Maliki’s regime, unable to cope with being brutally repressed under the facade of a fight against terrorism (an all too common tactic of nascent despots). There is only so much people can take, and the government was swiftly pushing them to the limit.

When peaceful protests erupted in 2011-2013, Maliki’s government had a key chance to reach out to the Sunnis once again. But Maliki reverted to type and did what many foolish leaders only seem to know how to do; he used repressive measures. In total, 235 prisoners were shot dead by his ‘security’ forces, hundreds were injured (many of them seriously) and arresting protest leaders.

This alone may not have been enough to cause an armed rebellion. But the line was finally crossed on December 28th 2013. Protesters had a key protest hub in the majority-Sunni city of Ramadi, in western Iraq. The camp had been around for some months; Maliki and friends had long been shooting withering rhetoric about it, accusing the protesters (yes, you’ve guessed it) of being tied to al-Qaeda. A peaceful protest camp was suddenly condemned as having been “turned into a headquarters for the leadership of al-Qaeda”, and the Iraqi army was deployed to tear down the protest camp.

Maliki’s tanks are sent to crush Sunni opposition members, deliberately provoking and taunting them with sectarian banners and slogans. Photo via @IraqiWitness on Twitter.

The stage was set for chaos; the Sunni tribes were angry and armed; protesters’ tempers were running high, and the army was bearing down upon them with sectarian Shiite slogans openly painted on Maliki’s tanks. This isn’t, and wasn’t, going to end well for many people involved, especially the Iraqi government.

On December 28th, Maliki’s security services again vi0lently arrested another high-profile Sunni dissident. MP Ahmed al-Alwani was a vocal critic of Maliki and advocated against the government’s brutal measures. He had thus been branded a terrorist, and was keeping a low profile after terrorism charges were (in an all too common pattern) filed against him. His whereabouts were discovered, and a battle ensued between the ‘security’ forces and his guards at his home, killing his brother and five of his men. This caused widespread outrage among Sunnis; armed rebels and tribes alike demanded he release Alwani. Ultimatums were delivered. Members of his tribe attacked and burned government armoured vehicles. Armed demonstrators took to the streets. This anger was clear, as was the implicit threat of sectarian conflict. Not that it woke Maliki up from his sectarian slumber.

Emotions run high as armed demonstrators take to the streets of Ramadi, Anbar Province, to defend themselves against Maliki’s repression and put on a show of force. Photo via @IraqiWitness on Twitter.

The security forces moved on the ‘al-Qaeda’ protesters on December 30th. Maybe Maliki was genuinely ignorant enough to think that the Sunnis and his repressed opponents would continue to bow their heads and cow before his sectarian troops. Maybe he was hoping for this sort of a reaction, to justify further repression against the Sunnis. Either way, 10 people were killed by the police violence.

Ali al-Alwani, the brother of the anti-Maliki MP, murdered by Iraqi ‘security’ forces on December 28th 2013.

But it didn’t end there. Disenfranchised Sunnis who had armed themselves as a precaution shot back at Maliki’s men, resulting in gun battles which culminated in several people being killed, apparently including members of the security forces. The tribes had had enough. Fallujah, Ramadi and other towns quickly fell out of government control as a combination of tribal militias and rebel groups took advantage of the situation to attack government military posts, police stations, government offices, and anything associated with Maliki’s regime.

Maliki’s response was shrewd, apt, and wise as usual. His forces arbitrarily shelled the city, killing some 30 people (some of whom were civilians). As history has shown us, such events only increase popular anger, and do nothing to address the fundamental issues which need to be solved if this is to end. Namely, anti-Sunni sectarianism. How does killing people do any good?

Some elements of the media reported that the army had ‘joined forces’ with the tribes to fight the omnipresent bogeymen in al-Qaeda. In reality, Maliki began to utlise  what’s left of the awakening councils as a tool of his sectarian war; using them to fight and kill their fellow Sunnis. Again, how is this anything but a short term solution, and an extremely cynical one at that?

The reality is that much of Anbar province has fallen out of Iraqi government hands, not because of the power of al-Qaeda, but because the government has simply made itself hated. Those fighting the government are largely local tribesmen and civilians who have taken up arms to defend themselves and fight for their rights. As history has shown, from Yugoslavia to Syria; no matter how large or how powerful your military is, it is very difficult to hold densely populated areas when the population despises your leadership. They will fight, and that’s exactly what the Sunni tribes are doing in the Sunni areas of Iraq. They have rejected the government, and they refuse to let it oppress them again. It is no wonder that they have driven the army out, as this report illustrates:

“They’ll only enter Fallujah over our dead bodies,” said Khamis Al Issawi, who said he’s part of a 150-strong brigade in the city 64-kilometres west of Baghdad.

“We are ready and prepared to fight Maliki forces if they decide to begin their offensive on the city.”

Mr Al Issawi said most of the region’s tribes are fighting in his brigade, without saying whether it had any connections with Al Qaeda. Government officials say Sunni tribesmen are also fighting on the army’s side.

In a bid to win support, Iraq’s cabinet said families of tribesmen who die fighting “terrorists” will receive government benefits, while those injured in combat will receive free medical treatment.

Yet, in Garma, a city north-east of Fallujah, Sheikh Rafei Mishen Al Jumaily, head of the Jumelat tribe said thousands of his fighters evicted the military from the town after fierce fighting. The Al Jumaily are one of the biggest tribes in Anbar.

“The Iraqi army began entering the cities and humiliating the people instead of protecting them,” he said. “The government is accusing us of terrorism to justify the war against us — that’s why we decided to defend our people.” He said his fighters have captured about 100 government soldiers.

Both Mr Al Issawi and Mr Al Jumaily said they were fighting against Iranian influence over Iraq.

The street battles in Anbar add to the turmoil caused by the daily car bombs that have complicated Mr Al Maliki’s struggle to assert control over the country following the withdrawal of US troops. The premier also faces political unrest, with 44 members of parliament resigning last week because the government used force to dismantle Sunni-led protests in Anbar, an event that was a catalyst for the current violence.

As the evidence clearly shows when it is much more closely scrutinised; ISIS (AKA an offshoot of al-Qaeda) has a presence in these events, which is inevitable. In every walk of life, especially in the context of an unstable country like Iraq, extremism will inevitably flourish. However, ISIS is by no means the dominant force in this instance; locals spearhead the fight. If you read any of the aforementioned articles in both ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ media outlets, you would get the impression that every single Sunni Muslim who dares to raise a weapon is a terrorist.

Which is, of course, the intention.

Social media is also awash with evidence, if anyone requires more proof. @IraqiWitness on Twitter is an invaluable source of evidence, publishing media which clearly shows the true nature of the Iraqi revolution. Here are some images and tweets illustrating this:

An Iraqi militant from the “Army of Anbar” resistance movement prepares an explosive. Note the Sunni iconography and the local settings, especially the home-made nature of the explosives.
The popular nature of the uprising/revolution is clearly emphasised by the huge, angry crowds who are enthusiastically chanting in support of the armed fighters. Al-Qaeda could not galvinise such support; they may be seeing a resurgence, but local popularity is still not, shall we say, their thing.
A local Iraqi fighter addresses huge crowds of people who have turned out to support the local resistance (late-December 2013). Still think this is al-Qaeda?
Protesters in Ramadi, Iraq, December 30th 2013. Note the large crowds and the Iraqi patriotic iconography used on this image. The caption reads: “The greater Iraqi revolution”. Al-Qaeda’s familiar black flags and symbols are not present. Instead, patriotic symbolism is used. showing the local and nationalistic character of the rebellion.
Iraqi gunmen at a captured checkpoint, presumably around December 30th. The same iconography is used on these social media posts, and these men display no signs of jihadist symbolism.
A rebel fighter in Ramadi, presumably around December 30th. The same social media iconography (the use of the Iraqi flag, and symbolism of a shouting demonstrator) is utilised.
Heavy police vehicles in the hands of the Anbar rebels.
Rebels in Anbar on January 3rd 2014. This group has commandeered a police vehicle.
Iraqi swat teams apparently arrested prominent Sheikh Farouq al-Muhamadawi in Misan (around late December/early January) after he expressed his backing for the revolutionaries of Anbar.

Here are some videos, further emphasising the local, popular nature of the revolution in Anbar.

Iraqi revolutionaries take control of the highway near Fallujah, and send defiant messages to Maliki.

Rebels in Fallujah say that they came onto the streets to defend and their brothers in Ramadi (from the Maliki regime), as well as themselves. The video was posted on January 3rd of this year.

Large crowds of demonstrators can be seen. Maliki’s ‘security’ forces fire into the air in an attempt to scare off the masses (seemingly dating to around December 30th 2013).

Iraqi revolutionaries in full control of Ramadi. The video was uploaded on January 5th of this year.

More evidence of the presence of revolutionary forces in Ramadi (presumably also from around January 5th).

Iraqi revolutionaries release an internet announcement, announcing the formation of a military council in Baghdad to take the fight to Maliki. The announcement was uploaded on January 8th.

The Alboo Haatim revolutionaries announce that they are joining the Military Council of Fallujah, a rebel organisation tasked with protecting Fallujah from Maliki’s troops, a clearly local phenomenon which illustrates the nature of the revolution. Note the makeshift battle gear. Presumably also dating from January 8th.
One of Maliki’s convoys being ambushed by local Iraqi revolutionaries (on the Fallujah highway). Video (presumably) filmed around January 7th.
Fallujah revolutionaries say that they will reach Maliki in Baghdad. Video uploaded on December 31st, and probably taken on or around that day.
The Iraqi Army (or rather, Maliki’s sectarian Shiite army) abandoned their positions in Abu Ghraib, leaving them to the revolutionaries. Video uploaded on January 3rd, and presumably taken on that date.
The revolutionaries show off a deserted military outpost near Baghdad ( Abu Ghraib). The video also dates from January 3rd.
An Iraqi mufti issues a fatwa saying that it is permissible to wage a jihad (jihad means struggle, not ‘holy war’ as some seem to think) against Maliki, due to his repression of the protesters and Sunni opposition. This announcement may have been made on December 30th.

Of course, the presence of ISIS must be achnowledged. Mainstream media reports hysterically stating that al-Qaeda (or rather, this al-Qaeda linked group, given the fact that the Emir of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has badly fallen out with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri) has taken control  of half of Fallujah must be cautiously approached, but cannot be discredited by any means, especially given some pro-ISIS chants and shows of support. Here’s some more social media evidence via @IraqiWitness. Note the clear differences between images showing nationalist revolutionaries, and images which show jihadists:

ISIS jihadists in Anbar, led by commander Abu Waheeb (picture probably taken around December 31st).
This social media post shows ISIS fighters cruising down the street on a captured Iraqi security force hummer (presumably around January 1st).
Another picture of ISIS commander Abu Waheeb, seemingly wearing a SWAT helmet during a raid on a government office. Location unknown, but possibly Anbar. If so, the picture was likely taken around January 2nd or 3rd.
Yet another image of Abu Waheeb, flanked by imposing-looking jihadists, studying documents in a captured government building. Note how clean and presentable the building looks in comparison to the neglect in other areas of the city. Maliki’s discrimination against Shiites, and the corruption of his regime, is all too clear. That said, ISIS is by no means a force for good either.
A new picture (at the time of posting, on January 6th) showing an ISIS training center around Mosul. Note the huge number of fighters in this area alone; a true indication of the catastrophic consequences of both Maliki’s sectarianism, and Obama’s dithering.
Another picture of the training facility, also seemingly new. ISIS men chillax around Mosul, without a security force member in sight.
Abu Wahib calmly gestures to the destruction he’s presumably wrecked on anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way (presumably taken around January 7th).
Members of the Iraqi special forces. No, they’re not just at a solemn occasion. They’re in ISIS custody, hence the black flag in the background. The picture was probably taken on either January 8th or 9th.

Some video evidence:

As I said before, the presence of ISIS and affiliates cannot be discounted. This video could potentially indicate this; it shows jihadist fighters speaking to the camera. The speaker declares: “We fight in Iraq and our eyes are on Jerusalem.”

In addition to all this previously shown evidence, this analysis by csmonitor should dispel any doubts, especially in the minds of those tempted to lump the Sunni insurgents all into one category, a homogenisation which is no doubt tempting to some, due to the complexity of the situation. Here’s an extract:

So what’s really going on here? A review of some common assertions.

Al-Qaeda has taken over Anbar Province.

No. It hasn’t.

The first challenge is defining “Al Qaeda.” Since the moment that a group calling itself Al Qaeda in Iraq was established in the country, shortly after the US-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, there’s been a lot of confusion about the precise nature of the connection between the Sunni jihadis fighting inside the country and the original Al Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri saw the US invasion as a great opportunity and got in contact with the group, which was then run by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (killed in a US airstrike in 2006). By 2004, Mr. Zarqawi had given an bay’a, an oath of allegiance, to bin Laden, and in the media narrative the two groups became intertwined.

But Zarqawi rarely followed orders from Al Qaeda central in Pakistan and Afghanistan – and a string of communications between his group and Zarqawi recovered by US forces during the war showed an enormous amount of frustration from Al Qaeda central over how its supposed Iraqi affiliate wouldn’t do as it was told.

Part of the problem was that the militants fighting in Iraq had to cooperate with local Sunnis angry at the US occupation of the country – and the Shiite rise it was enabling – and less interested in Al Qaeda’s mission of global jihad to create a multinational caliphate.

The fact that the Iraqi group’s goals were largely national was clear as early as October 2006, when the group changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq. It has also been made clear by the lack of any plots targeting the US or its European allies – something that would be a top objective if bin Laden and Zawahiri had control over the organization.

Ok, but Al-Qaeda’s fellow travelers have seized control of Fallujah and Ramadi, right?

Well, again, not exactly.

The Sunni Arab tribes along the Euphrates River in Syria and Iraq’s Anbar Province have strong cultural and familial ties, and many Syrians flocked to Iraq to fight the US and its allies in the area in the mid-2000s. That’s a key reason that the Islamic State in Iraq was able to merge relatively seamlessly with Syrian jihadis to become the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) last year.

But while the group has been on a high the past few weeks, roaming relatively unhindered and prompting the Iraqi police to abandon their posts in both towns, “controlling” is something else.

During the US war in Iraq, the group quickly wore out its welcome with the major local tribal confederations and the general public. Summary executions of locals for violating Islamic law, floggings, and general contempt for tribal practices and authority saw to that – as did the direct threat they posed to the economic interests of powerful figures in the region, who had long controlled lucrative smuggling routes and didn’t appreciate the interference of the so-called mujahideen. That opened the door for the Sahwa, or “awakening,” in which Sunni Arab tribes took up arms against the jihadis in exchange for money and political influence promised by the US military.

The same dynamics are in place today. Anbar hates and fears the central government in Baghdad since, after all, the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has treated the region and its leaders like dirt. But many leading tribal figures don’t much like the jihadis either. They may passively support them, or even join forces with them against what they see as a greater enemy – the fighting in Fallujah and Ramadi was touched off by Mr. Maliki’s decision to use the military to violently clear year-old protest encampments against his government on Dec. 30. But longterm, they don’t want to be run by any outsiders.

When thinking in the context of Iraq, it is always important not to marginalise the hugely significant role of Iran in all of this. Since the US toppled the Saddam regime and since Maliki became leader of Iraq, Iranian influence with Iran has only grown and grown; both in malign and official ways. Again, this could be contained, if it were not for the fact that the Obama administration has pursued a policy of disengagement and ‘leading from behind’ in the region; a policy which has not only proved catastrophic in Syria, but has ensured Iranian supremacy over Iraq, further marginalising the Sunnis:

Overall, Iraqi officials and analysts say, Washington has pursued a policy of near-total disengagement, with policy decisions largely relegated to the embassy in Baghdad. Some tribal leaders complain that the Americans have not contacted them since U.S. troops left in late 2011.

Iraq’s political atmosphere has deteriorated. Maliki has ordered the arrest of his former finance minister, a Sunni. Disputes in the north between the central government and leaders of the semiautonomous Kurdish region are unresolved.

“The Americans have no role. Nobody listens to them. They lost their power in this country,” said Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq, a Sunni, commenting on the disappearance of the Americans as a broker for most of Iraq’s disputes.

The vacuum has been filled in large part by Iran and by Iraq’s Sunni neighbors, each intent on wielding maximum influence in a country that stands as a buffer between Shiite Iran and the largely Sunni Middle East.

“At the moment, Iran has something akin to veto power in Iraq, in that Maliki is careful not to take decisions that might alienate Iran,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

An Iraqi Shiite politician who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, described Iran’s objectives this way: “Controlled instability in Iraq and a submissive or sympathetic Islamist Shia government in accord with Iran’s regional interests, most importantly regarding Syria.”

Given Iran’s long history of repressing their own Sunni minority at home, and of sending thousands of soldiers to Syria to aid Assad in his slaughter of the majority Sunni population, it should come as no surprise that such a stringently pro-Iran (at best pro-Iran, at worst controlled by Tehran) regime in Baghdad should eventually prove to be so hostile to Sunnis. But Iran’s influence doesn’t end there; it sends millions of dollars and advanced weaponry to Shiite militiamen in Iraq, so as to consolidate unofficial influence on the ground. It has even shuttled them into Syria to do their killing for them. Any government so extensively funded by such a malignant regional cancer as the Iranian government would hardly turn out to be liberal and tolerant, especially when society is infiltrated at all levels. Iraqi government workers have even been too afraid to remove outrageously overt symbols of Iranian supremacy and rule over Iraq, for fear that Iranian puppet militias will come down savagely upon them.

Iraqis are now made to constantly see who their masters are, thanks to a campaign by the pro-Iranian militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (the ‘League of the Righteous’, a Shiite extremist militia) to distribute up to 20,000 images of Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei throughout Iraq.

An oft-overlooked fact (which will no doubt be extremely awkward for some) is the fact that the ostensibly anti-American Iran (which has garnered much support among leftists thanks to tapping into a well of anti-imperialist posturing) gave the US carte blanche to invade Iraq in 2003; namely because Saddam was their greatest enemy in the region. By removing Saddam, the US also removed Iran’s gateway to domination in Iraq via sectarian and diplomatic forms of influence. This largely explains much of the brutality and discrimination against Sunnis; Maliki’s sectarian agenda has joined forces with Tehran’s to oppress them. This was shown to certainly be the case in recent days, when Iran swiftly offered Maliki extensive military support in assistance of the repression of the revolution in Anbar.

It may also surprise some (again, especially leftists/anti-imperialists, notably the skin-deep posturers) to realise that not only has Iran come out on the side of the Maliki regime, but the US has too. America, the ‘Great Satan’, the ‘imperialists’ which Tehran allegedly so heroically resists, is working for the same objectives as Iran. Iran even  In effect, they are working side by side; sending Maliki rapid arms shipments and expressing solidarity with his regime. After so dismally failing to support the Syrian revolution, on the grounds that the weapons may fall into the hands of al-Qaeda (yes, my eyes are rolling too), Obama has shown absolutely no reservations about showering arms onto a sectarian despot. Now that’s a change I can easily believe in.

In their eagerness to reach a deal with Iraq over their nuclear weapons, not only has the US  agreed to give Tehran a green light to continue their slaughter and dominance in Syria (and thus sold the Syrian people down the river), but they are increasingly working together in something of a de facto alliance of expediency, helping to fulfill each other’s regional interests. Tony Badron of NOW Lebanon:

“The alignment of US policy with Iran’s interests extends beyond Syria to Iraq and Lebanon – a fact that Iranian and Hezbollah messaging does not fail to highlight. Pro-Hezbollah pundits now talk of a “front against terrorism” that intersects with US efforts and priorities, stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.

To accentuate the alignment with the US across the region, the Iranians publicly offered to help the Obama administration in supporting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s campaign in al-Anbar province. Moreover, the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar disclosed that Majed’s arrest came as a result of a US intelligence tip to the LAF. It’s worth noting that it was the LAF’s Directorate of Intelligence – which is particularly close to Hezbollah – which made the arrest. Consequently, it’s hard to read Washington’s move as anything other than intelligence sharing with Hezbollah in a case involving an attack on an Iranian target in Beirut – precisely the idea Iran wants to drive home.

Selling this alignment in Beirut and Baghdad as support for ostensibly “national” central governments or militaries is convenient for both Iran and the US. In reality, however, Washington has glossed over Maliki’s overt sectarianism and effectively consented to a growing synergy between Hezbollah and the LAF. This could explain Hezbollah’s alarm at Riyadh’s $3 billion grant to the LAF, for fear it might eventually take away an increasingly necessary instrument for the Shiite party.

Whatever the cover, however, Washington’s emerging alignment with Tehran is at this point becoming an open secret. In any case, the enthusiastic endorsement of this realignment by US policy and media elites, who have bought the White House’s contention that disparate groups of Sunni extremists pose a graver strategic threat than a nuclear Iran, is making Tehran’s messaging campaign an easy sell.

Hassan Rouhani. This new, ostensibly ‘moderate’ leader of Iran has executed 560 people since he came to power, at a startling rate: http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Peace/2013/12/10/Executions-In-Iran-Skyrocket-Under-Centrist-Rouhani

Everybody wins but the Iraqi people themselves, the Syrian people, the Lebanese, and so on. But those who lose out the most are definitely the Sunnis. Already extensively demonised in both mainstream (and allegedly ‘alternative’ media outlets) as dangerous extremists, they are unable to rise up (as they are currently doing in Anbar) and challenge both their repression and this poisonous narrative without being accused of being ‘al-Qaeda linked rebels’ or ‘Sunni militants’. I’ll take these governments and news agencies seriously when they refer to Maliki’s regime as “the ‘Kataib Hezbollah-backed regime of Nouri al-Maliki”, or refer to Assad as “the Islamist Shiite-backed president Bashar al-Assad”. I’m not holding my breath. I’ll wrap this up with the words of a man who fled Syria due to Ba’athist oppression in 1966; M. Zuhdi Jasser:

In the Middle East, tribal politics and insidious power grabs are par for the course. Thus, the only effective way to deal with regional hegemons like Iran is from a position of strength, not appeasement.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry, however, have allowed Iran to drive the end game in Syria – and to drive America into irrelevancy.

This administration’s capacity for appeasement, weakness and dysfunction with regard to foreign policy – particularly on Syria – seems to know no limits. First there were meaningless red lines, followed by chemical weapons distractions, and now a deadly diplomatic dance with Tehran.

The crisis in Syria has become so severe that the United Nations is no longer even counting the dead, which at last tally was over 120,000.

Iran has been the puppet master behind Assad’s killing machine, and yet Secretary Kerry welcomes them to the table with open arms, saying that we are “happy” to have “Iran be helpful.”

Not only is this a peculiar assertion — as if he has only just tuned in to the regional crisis – but it is a slap in the face to all those who have given their all for freedom in Syria.

American foreign policy actions are never in a vacuum. Every comment and act sends a message to our enemies. In six years, the Obama Doctrine of appeasement has decimated the United States’ ability to present itself as an arbiter of freedom.

It stands to reason that regardless of the result, any Iranian involvement in the Syrian negotiations will strengthen the reign of Bashar Assad or his ilk and help to perpetuate the genocide of the Syrian people.  It will also strengthen the resolve of Sunni radical Islamists like the Al Qaeda affiliates of ISIS (Islamic State in Syria) and Jabhat al-Nusra the other side of the same fascist coin. (Continued here. Aside from his opinion on Anbar, he’s completely on the ball).

I wish the Iraqis (specifically the Sunnis) good look in their revolution, no matter how demonised it may be. I do not support al-Qaeda (before this accusation is typically thrown at me), I only support the Iraqi fighters who are trying to defend themselves.

(Many thanks go to @IraqiWitness on Twitter, for assistance in translating some Arabic, for bringing useful photographs and videos to attention, and so on).

Ben Allinson-Davies is a worker for Radio Free Syria, blogger, and film-maker, who spent over a week in Syria with the people there, including rebel forces. His documentary on the revolution (created to raise money for those who desperately need it) can be found here.