BAGHDAD, Iraq — From an over-stuffed, gold-rimmed sofa at his home in Baghdad’s wealthy Mansour neighborhood, sheikh Hamid al-Hayes has watched his home province of Anbar unravel.
A veteran of the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq during the US-led occupation, he was not surprised by the recent string of Iraqi government defeats in the province to the group which now calls itself the Islamic State. He saw it coming for months.
“From the first day that ISIS was appearing we were warning the government. We said all of Iraq is in danger and if Anbar falls, the rest of the country will follow,” he says.
While the battle for the Syrian town of Kobani has grabbed headlines in recent weeks, IS militants in Iraq’s vast western province of Anbar have been making steady progress for months. Securing supply routes and infiltrating urban centers, the group has laid siege to its largest military base and is making a push for the provincial capital Ramadi.
Ramadi native al-Hayes, once a power-player in Iraqi Sunni tribal politics before being denounced as a traitor for joining a Shia-led political coalition, says whatever happens in Anbar will have a dramatic impact on Sunni-Shia relations in Iraq for years to come.
“The people of Anbar are suffering from government treatment,” al-Hayes explained, “they need to be rebuilt as human beings.”
Sunnis across Iraq are still reeling from years of government neglect and abuse under former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Many Iraqis accuse Maliki's government of giving the country's Shia preferential treatment, generating deep frustration within the Sunni community.
That sentiment was felt particularly in Anbar province, Iraq’s Sunni heartland. Earlier this year, anger at the central government boiled over into a protest movement that triggered a brutal government crackdown.
The crackdown, which included barrel bomb attacks on civilian areas that left hundreds dead, created an opening for the return of extremist groups. Many Anbaris, including prominent tribal sheikhs, became so alienated by their own government that they embraced the extremist Islamic State as an alternative to central government rule.
Al-Hayes argues that while most Sunnis blame Maliki for Anbar’s current state of affairs, all eyes will now be on the newly appointed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and how he deals with the historically restive province.
“The situation is in Abadi's hands,” he says.
Many will be watching to see if the government reaches out to disaffected Sunnis, a point that most analysts agree will be crucial to defeating the Islamic State.
Hisham al-Hishami, a military analyst in Baghdad, drawing maps on slips of notebook paper to illustrate his point, believes that while the government has managed to maintain a hold on some parts of Anbar, they are failing strategically.
Iraq’s federal police, he says, are “acting like firemen” — reacting to events rather than going on the offensive. “They don’t have the initiative, they’re just waiting like a defender.”
Government forces there are also outgunned, he adds. While Shia militias battling Islamic State militants in Diyala province are being inundated with heavy weapons and government resources — and playing a key role in government gains — al-Hishami says the Sunni tribes in Anbar feel like they’re being short changed.
“Everything right now depends on the central government. If they give the support, the funds, resources, equipment, this is what has the power to reverse the current events in Anbar.”
So far, Iraqi military and security forces in Anbar report they are receiving supplies and light arms from the government, but not the heavy artillery and tanks they say they need to push back Islamic State gains.
“The general perception is that the Iraqi government doesn’t believe Anbar as a whole to be important,” says Ahmed Ali, an Iraqi researcher with the Institute for the Study of War based in Washington. “It sees parts of Anbar to be important, but it’s clear the government’s priority is to secure the [outskirts] of Baghdad first.”
Similarly, US-led airstrikes have shifted away from targets in and around cities in Anbar in recent weeks. Instead, coalition planes are more often protecting key points of Iraqi infrastructure like the Mosul Dam and Bayji oil refinery.
Ali says beyond the province’s symbolic value, there will be dramatic strategic consequences if Anbar falls out of government control. One of those consequences will be that Islamic State militants will be better positioned to launch attacks on Shia holy sites in Karbala. One such devastating attack, Ali argues, could spark an all out civil war in a manner similar to how the 2006 al-Askari Mosque bombing in Samarra unleashed a torrent of sectarian violence.
Watching the battle in Anbar, Sunnis in the capital Baghdad say their neighborhoods are becoming more and more tense.
“The mood right now, its just kind of unstable,” explains a young man from Dora who asked to only be referred to by his nickname, Moe. He says security has been so tight at the entrance to his neighborhood it take two hours just to get through a single checkpoint.
Moe, 25, who worked with American forces during the US occupation of Iraq, says while Sunnis in particular are watching Anbar closely, he doesn’t see it as a purely sectarian issue.
“Every Iraqi wants this to end, you know why? Because if ISIS takes Anbar, what do you think they will just say ‘that’s good enough for us’?” he asks. “No, they’re gonna try harder to take more provinces and Baghdad will be next, I promise you.”
Back at Al-Hayes’ Mansour villa, the sheikh dismisses talk of tribal politics, a long fight and complex battle strategy in Anbar.
“If only the Americans would give us apaches, we’d be done with ISIS in one month,” he says.