Masked anti-government gunmen hold their weapons as they stand guard in Fallujah, Iraq. (Str/AP)

In offices above busy commercial streets here in the Jordanian capital, Iraqi tribal and religious leaders are plotting a revolution in their own country.

“It is a war,” said Muthana al-Dari, surrounded by satellite maps of flash points in western Iraq, where government security forces, tribes and al-Qaeda-inspired insurgents are engulfed in a complicated clash.

Neighboring Jordan, long a haven for dissident Iraqi Sunnis, has quietly emerged in the past two years as a base for tribal leaders who say they have launched a new battle to topple Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and to roll back Iranian influence in the region.

In recent months, the influential Association of Muslim Scholars of Iraq, led by a group of Sunni clerics, has forged close links to a military command that emerged after Iraqi security forces moved in January to try to reclaim the western city of Fallujah from Islamist fighters, who had captured it in December.

With an increasingly sectarian war in Syria rippling throughout the region and Iraqi political alliances unraveling, the battle for Fallujah is now more complex than it was 10 years ago, when U.S. troops essentially destroyed the city to wrest it from al-Qaeda. Today, as the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces strive to expel the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from the surrounding Anbar province, they are also struggling to win the loyalty of the region’s Sunni tribes.

“Tribes are really torn between different groups,” said Iraq’s deputy national security adviser, Safa Rasul Hussein. “We’ve seen in some tribes, the father has a position and his son has a different position. . . . Some from the tribes are fighting with ISIS, but some are also fighting against them.”

The new command, the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries, emerged as a unified leadership of what it calls regional military councils coordinating attacks against Iraqi security forces and officials. The councils include tribal leaders and former insurgent leaders but are headed by former senior army officers — among the thousands of Sunni generals cast aside when the United States disbanded the Iraqi army after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Muslim scholars association said it is not a wing of the military council. But it says it coordinates closely with the council, and some of its officials acknowledge that they are in a temporary alliance with al-Qaeda, which disowned ISIS in February.

“We consider the Iraqi government illegitimate because it is a result of [the U.S.] occupation,” said Dari, head of the association’s information office and the son of its leader, Harith al-Dari, who is accused by the United States of links to terrorist groups.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, several tribes in Anbar formed alliances with al-Qaeda. The group’s brutality alienated many Iraqis, and al-Qaeda retains little popular support, but long-held Sunni grievances against the Shiite-led government — including mass arrests, executions without fair trial, and a lack of jobs and government services — are helping to fuel the current fighting in Anbar.

“Maliki has attacked the people, so the people defended themselves, rose up and revolted. So it has now been transformed into a revolution,” Dari said.

Fragmentation and cohesion

Since the start two years ago of widespread Sunni protests, Iraq’s Sunni leadership has fragmented, and many have become more radicalized. Many Sunni tribal leaders are still allied with the government, and the scholars association and those fighting government forces are thought to represent a much smaller constituency.

Nonetheless, it is posing one of the biggest challenges to central government authority since U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of 2011.

Baghdad views the Sunni military council’s daily communiques, which assert responsibility for shooting down Iraqi army helicopters and burning tanks, as exaggerated. But Iraqi and Western officials acknowledge that the uprising in Anbar is militarily more proficient than the insurgency that gripped Iraq during the U.S.-led war.

“They have improved 100 percent,” said an Iraqi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the Iraqi forces’ campaign in Anbar. Iraqi officials and Western security analysts say that those fighting Iraqi special forces include skilled snipers and that they possess the explosives expertise that has been the hallmark of al-Qaeda.

The fighters are armed with rocket launchers, machine guns and explosives, Dari said, and their targets are Iraqi security forces and government installations, including the Baghdad airport and the fortified Green Zone.

“Today we are in the midst of an armed rebellion with a central command. Because of this, the whole thing has become much more organized and less random,” said Sheik Mohammad Bashar Faidhi, a key figure in the Muslim scholars association.

The military council, he said, increasingly has “the footprints of a professional army.”

Iraqi forces have been able to push back anti-government fighters, but officials say they have been unable to hold the territory they have won. The Iraqi army is so loathed in Anbar that commanders have not sent troops in to secure those areas, and large-scale desertions of local police have left almost no other Iraqi security presence.

Faced with the prospect of the government losing control of the province, where more than 1,000 U.S.troops lost their lives trying to drive out al-Qaeda, the United States has recently stepped up its assistance to the Iraqi government, offering intelligence help as well as small arms, missiles, drones and attack helicopters.

“The Americans are helping more,” Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said. “They are haunted by Fallujah.”

In Baghdad’s Green Zone, officials in the prime minister’s office say they see the talk of revolution as vindication of their long-held warnings of a coup attempt emerging from Anbar.

“Anyone who engages in any military actions is showing solidarity” with ISIS, said Ali al-
Mussawi, an adviser to Maliki. “They are considered one and the same.”

The battle in Jordan

Some of the battle is being waged from across Iraq’s western border, in Jordan, a kingdom that opposes any attempt to topple the Baghdad government but allows Iraqi anti-government groups to operate within its borders.

Much of Jordan’s almost exclusively Sunni population holds a deep suspicion of Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Some Jordanian politicians remain sympathetic to Hussein’s pan-Arab Baath Party ideology. And there are tribal links between Iraq and Jordan, particularly with the tribes of Anbar province.

But the Jordanian government has also fought its own battles with Islamist terrorists, including the Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006.

The Iraqi government has previously asked Jordan to extradite Harith al-Dari, a request the Jordanians have refused. The United States six years ago accused Dari of ordering and directing the kidnappings and killings of Iraqi civilians as well as Iraqi and U.S. security officials.

“There is a view among the Jordanian intelligence services that they prefer to have these people where they can keep an eye on them,” said a Western diplomat who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. Jordanian officials declined to comment.

Bashar, the Muslim scholars association figure, said the aim of the tribes fighting Iraqi government forces is to “liberate” the country from the influence of Iran — like Iraq, a Shiite-majority country — and form a non­religious government that incorporates Sunni interests.

It is a very different vision from that of the Islamist fighters of al-Qaeda and ISIS, who believe that Muslims should live in one Islamic state governed by sharia law.

But some Sunni tribal leaders appear to have entered a marriage of convenience with al-Qaeda, deeming it a lesser evil than the Iraqi government — for now.

“Sometimes [al-Qaeda] joins in the fight, and sometimes it doesn’t fight — it just watches,” Bashar said. “We expect there will come a day when we will have to fight with this group.”