There is a great deal of hysteria about al-Qaida militants taking over Fallujah. Is the organization resurgent in Iraq, or is the allegation unfounded?

According to The Guardian’s Ross Caputi, the answer is no. It’s not al-Qaida. Far-right Islamist groups are present, but that is less because of al-Qaida and more a broader result of the Syrian civil war.  Additionally, Saudi Arabia is less shy about expanding its influence in the restive, Sunni-dominated western province of Anbar now that U.S. forces are no longer occupying Iraq.

But the unrest in Anbar, and the U.S.-backed Iraqi assault to retake the city (bolstered by a fresh shipment of Hellfire missiles) should be understood within the larger Anbar protests against Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki‘s increasingly sectarian rule.

With the Anbar protests,  Al-Maliki had an opportunity to invite Sunnis into the political process more substantively. This would have involved overcoming the protesters’ disdain for institutional politics (especially their own Sunni representatives) but it was possible, and remains so, although the window is closing.

However, that would also involve reexamining the nature of Iraq’s parliamentary experiment. Al-Maliki’s careful posturing makes this unlikely without significant pressure, especially since his previously-banned Islamic Dawa Party has seized a historic opportunity to monopolize power as much as possible. But it is far easier for al-Maliki to cast the protest movement as Al-Qaida, and for the U.S. to use it as a public justification to maintain his increasingly dictatorial rule, then it is for him to reevaluate Iraqi politics and push it towards a new pluralism.

The result is that many previously non-violent protesters have met his crackdown with an armed backlash, particularly tribal groups. This, in turn, has allowed Islamist veterans from Syria to make significant gains. But the resistance is indigenous. Anbar’s impoverished, and predominantly Sunni, population feels disenfranchised from the political process for a number of understandable reasons. That has also made them lose faith in liberal democracy to adequately represent their interests. The results can be violent, but we are also seeing a general disillusionment amongst the Iraqi electorate. Recent elections saw voter turnout drop to 51% from 72% in 2009, with the decline being most dramatic in Sunni areas.

The risk is that sectarian excesses of contemporary Syria may become manifest in Iraq as well. Even Shi’a militant leader Muqtada al-Sadr has been demanding a new arrangement in recent years, and called on al-Maliki to visit the Anbar protest sites last week. Many Iraqis agree with him, particularly in major cities like Baghdad, where citizens would prefer that different sects work together to meet pressing issues such as the energy crisis. Al-Maliki and the Dawa Party can be a part of this desire to overhaul Iraqi politics in a big way. Otherwise, they may be the target of a larger movement that desires to do just that, and not necessarily through peaceful means.

Photograph courtesy of Idaho Sagebrush. Published under a Creative Commons License.