To Defeat Islamic State, America Wants to Reawaken Al Anbar
Sunni tribal fighters could help fight militants—but will Baghdad reach out?
Sunni tribal fighters in western Iraq were among the first to do battle with invading Islamic State militants early this year. And now these same tribal warriors could be the key to driving the militants out of Iraq.
At least that’s one possibility as the Pentagon refines its war plan for Iraq and Syria, nearly a year after fighting flared up again—and some six months after Islamic State attacked in full force, compelling a coalition of countries to race to Baghdad’s rescue.
The Pentagon announced in mid-November that it’s sending 50 military advisers to Al Asad air base in the western province of Al Anbar in order to work with local forces.
American forces have a long, complicated history in western Iraq. Now it could get a lot more complicated if U.S. advisers try to rally the Sunni tribesmen to the coalition cause.
For one, the Pentagon has said in no certain terms that the advisers in Al Anbar will fire if fired upon. Moreover, it’s not at all clear that the Americans can convince the Sunnis to fight for the mostly Shia regime in Baghdad.
Not after what’s happened in Al Anbar these past seven years.
Al Anbar province was the site of some of the bloodiest battles of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation. Much of the fighting took place in Fallujah, a stronghold of Iraqi government workers and military personnel.
Fallujah benefited from Saddam Hussein’s largess, but that doesn’t mean the late strongman was universally popular there … or elsewhere in Al Anbar. Many of the province’s tribes considered Hussein a tyrant and nepotist. The tribes weren’t necessarily sad to see Hussein go.
But U.S. administrator Paul Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi army—and fire pretty much any government officials with ties to Hussein’s Ba’ath Party—was even more unpopular in Al Anbar than Hussein was.
Bitterness swiftly turned to violence.
On March 31, 2004 in Fallujah, insurgents attacked a truck belonging to U.S. military contractor Blackwater. They killed four Americans—Scott Helvenston, Jerko Zovko, Wesley Batalona and Michael Teague. A mob mutilated the bodies and hung them from a bridge.
Within days, U.S. Marines and Polish commandos launched a massive operation to run insurgents out of the city. In May, the coalition decided to turn operations in the city over to the Fallujah Brigade, a militia group led by former Ba’athist general Muhammed Latif.
But by September, the Fallujah Brigade had dissolved. Many of its fighters turned their weapons over to the insurgency—or even joined the opposition. There were also widespread reports that Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leader, Abu Musawe Al Zarqawi, kept his headquarters in the city.
The second battle of Fallujah began in November. By the end of December, 107 coalition and Iraqi troops had died, along with as many as 1,500 insurgents and around 800 civilians.
In 2005, Shia politicians—many of them backed by radical Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr—dominated the country’s first national elections, propping up a largely Shia government. The government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki pursued sectarian policies that further fueled the Sunni insurgency.
But Al-Qaeda fighters outstayed their welcome in Al Anbar. Their brutal tactics angered many Anbaris. The jihadists—many of them foreign fighters—also took a holier-than-thou approach, constantly lecturing Iraqis on the “proper” ways of practicing Islam.
They banned music and soccer. They told Iraqis’ wives and daughters where they could and couldn’t go and what they could wear—and savagely beat them if they didn’t comply. Or worse. They imposed puritanical bans against tobacco in an area where cigarettes and hookahs are hugely popular.
They handed out death sentences for minor offenses.
But the holy warriors were hypocrites. While they expected purity of the Anbaris, many of the jihadists themselves abused drugs and frequented brothels. The double standard disgusted everyday Iraqis.
Fed-up Sunni tribes began fighting back alongside the Americans and the Iraqi government. It was “The Anbar Awakening.”
Washington and Baghdad legitimized the Sunni fighters—the so-called “Sons of Iraq”—with paychecks, and there was talk of integrating them into the Iraqi army and police. Soon Al Qaeda was on the run. It seemed the worse was over.
Guess who’s back
But Al Qaeda in Iraq wasn’t gone. Surviving members rebranded themselves as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and went to join the revolution in Syria.
Meanwhile back in Iraq, relations between Sunnis and Shias deteriorated further. After the Americans left in 2010, Al Maliki’s government resumed the same sectarian policies. The government was often late in paying members of the Sons of Iraq. Reintegration programs fell apart.
In December 2013, Iraqi security forces tore down a Sunni Arab protest camp. It was the last straw.
As Shia army troops and Sunni militiamen turned on each other, Islamic State forces took advantage of the chaos. The militants swept across the Syrian border, activated sleeper agents, recruited disillusioned Sunni tribesman and moved on Fallujah.
Many Sunni tribal fighters resisted. They begged Baghdad for help, but little arrived.
By the end of January, Islamic State fully controlled Fallujah and much of Al Anbar. And Islamic State’s advance didn’t end there. From their stronghold in Fallujah they marched on Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city—easily routing its defenders.
The militants slaughtered or enslaved thousands of Shias, Christians and Yezidis and demolished ancient religious sites. Amid the chaos, Al Maliki’s rule finally came to an end.
Taking back the north
Though many Sunni Arabs oppose Islamic State, they are still distrustful of Shia leaders in Baghdad, as well as of the Shia army that abandoned them in Fallujah and Mosul.
And then there are the resurgent Shia militias that have robbed, kidnapped and killed Sunnis. It’s hard to get Sunnis excited about fighting when their two choices are the hardline Islamic State and hardline Shia militias.
In August, Kurdish Peshmerga general Abdulla Musla Boor—known in Kurdistan as “The Dark Lion”—told War Is Boring that Sunni Arab forces opposed to Islamic State need more international support if the coalition wants to retake Sunni territory.
Now it appears the U.S., at least, is finally getting serious about doing that. The Pentagon has requested $24 million worth of equipment for tribal security forces. That aid package includes 150 M2 heavy machine guns, 50 mortars, first aid kits, helmets and body armor plus an array of small arms and light vehicles.
The deployment of 50 Americans to Al Asad air base is significant. They could help to reawaken the Awakening.
Having a credible Sunni alternative to Islamic State—one that works in tandem with other Iraqi groups—can help to win popular support in militant-occupied areas.
But while the Anbaris may be able to drive out the terrorists, there still needs to be a long-term political answer to their grievances. Unless Baghdad can truly include Sunnis in government, in a few years’ time we might see yet another militant takeover of western Iraq.