Once more, Fallujah dominates the headlines. For several years after the US invasion of Iraq, the Sunni town was a hotbed of insurgents, where Baghdad regained control only after the tribes took up arms and drove out the insurgents in 2008.
Over the past three years, however, the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki began persecuting the Sunnis. Random arrests became common, senior Sunni leaders and officials -- including the former vice president Tariq al-Hashmi and former finance minister Rafie al-Essawi – were charged with terrorism, forcing them into exile or resignation.
The Sunni populations feel marginalized by lack of public services, high unemployment and unfair treatment by Baghdad.
All these pushed the Sunnis to start wide-scale demonstrations in the Sunni areas of the country against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad in the winter of 2012. It started from Ramadi and Fallujah and then spread to Diyala, Salahaddin and the ethnically-mixed provinces of Nineveh and Kirkuk.
While negotiations occurred between the government and protestors from time to time, Baghdad never meant to address the underlining issues and demands of the Iraqi Sunnis. Rather, it was working to weaken the protestors and the Sunnis by the traditional tactic of “divide and rule.” The government empowered some tribal chiefs, while making threats and issuing arrest warrants against others.
This hide-and-seek game between the government and protestors culminated in the deadly attack by the Iraqi security forces on the sit-in protests in the town of Hawija last April, where more than 60 protestors were killed and hundreds more wounded. None of the security officials have been held accountable by the courts or the government for this massacre.
Instead of addressing the Sunni grievances through political and economic means, Baghdad continues to apply security solutions to bring the Sunnis -- and alleged al-Qaeda elements among the protestors -- under control.
This strategy of Baghdad to tackle the security concerns in Anbar province, have also pushed the Sunnis and Islamic extremists into a single front against the central government. Now, there is a huge deficit of trust between the Sunnis and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. The Sunnis believe Baghdad’s Shiite government has betrayed them and forgotten their role in siding with Iraqi troops against the al-Qaeda insurgents in 2008. They complain that their salaries have been cut and their leaders shut out of the political process.
At the moment, there is a three-way clash going on in Anbar province, one among the Sunni tribes themselves, another between the Sunni tribes and al-Qaeda and the third between the tribes and the government.
Some Sunni tribes have allied with the government again, while others have become allies of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). When the war is over, Maliki has to remember the Sunnis and their demands, because this is where things fell apart the last time. The government will have to bring the Sunnis into the political process, offer jobs and public services and stop random arrests.
It is hard to predict the outcome of this crisis. What is clear, however, is that the situation will only continue to worsen if the government persists in using only military force to face the Sunnis.
Yerevan Saeed is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston