Monday, September 9, 2013

Understanding Anbar Before And After The Awakening Part I, Thamir al-Asafi

The main narratives of the Iraq War tend to come from American and British sources. It has not been until recently that the Iraqi perspective has been added to the mix. One major difference between the two is what was the turning point in the conflict. According to the U.S. Iraq had fallen into a civil war by 2006, and things were not reversed until 2007 when the Surge began. That brought new counterinsurgency tactics, which focused upon protecting the population and turned many tribes and insurgents against their compatriots. Some in Anbar would disagree with that history. Thamir al-Asafi is the chairman of the Council of Muslim Scholars, a theologian for the Sunni Endowment, and a professor of religious studies at Al-Anbar University. He helped bring clerics on board for the Anbar Awakening, and was an early spokesman for the on-going Anbar protest movement. He was interviewed for a U.S. Marine Corps history of the Anbar Awakening, which was published in 2009. According to him, it was the people of Anbar who were faced with Al Qaeda in Iraq and foreign fighters on the one hand, and the Americans on the other, who decided to take a stand, and try to secure their communities before the Surge began. To Asafi it was the Iraqis who turned things around despite the Americans, not because of them.
U.S. Marines in Ramadi 2006. Asafi blames the U.S. for not protecting Iraqis and rebuilding Anbar (AP)

When Thamir al-Asafi talked to the Marines he stressed the conditions in 2003 that undermined security in Anbar. Two initial events were that Saddam Hussein released thousands of prisoners out into the general public, and asked foreign fighters to come help him repel the Americans. Then when U.S. forces entered Anbar they were met with protests in Fallujah on April 28, Saddam’s birthday. Shots were fired, and U.S. troops ended up killing 6-17 Iraqis. That created blood feuds and a desire for revenge killings by locals in Anbar. Finally, the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the military in May. That not only left thousands of unemployed, but munitions’ dumps unattended, which were then looted. Asafi claimed people in Anbar seized weapons to protect themselves from Iran. Whether that was a real fear of Iranian troops moving in after the fall of the former regime, pro-Iranian Shiite parties like the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq or a reference to Shiites overall is unknown. These elements, criminals, foreign fighters, unemployed soldiers, and those angry at the U.S. became the earliest recruits for the insurgency in Anbar. When violence started, the Americans only became concerned with protesting themselves, and not Iraqis. Since the U.S. had gotten rid of the Iraqi armed forces, and the police had largely disintegrated after the fall of the regime, that left the public unprotected. Not only that, but the Americans heavy-handed tactics of mass arrests and using overwhelming firepower made the situation worse by turning the people against them. Asafi felt like this was a crime against the country. He wanted the Americans to provide some type of leadership for Iraq since it was the occupying power, but there was none. By 2005, insurgents had control of most of Anbar as a result. Saddam Hussein did not plan an insurgency after the 2003 invasion, but some of his decisions beforehand helped give birth to one. The Americans then encouraged opposition to their presence by promising liberation, and then acting like an occupier by putting themselves before the Iraqis. This part of Asafi’s account generally follows many of the same points made by American observers of the war. He then diverges from them on what happened next.

The turning point for Asafi came in 2005 when he and others in Anbar decided to stand up to the insurgents. First, some sheikhs tried negotiating with the Americans to work out some sort of accommodation, but that went nowhere at first. Some people even voted in the December 2005 elections, and were later targeted by militants as a result. Asafi believed that the people of Anbar were receiving no help from anyone, and were standing alone. This sense of desperation led some sheikhs to decide that they needed to take matters into their own hands. That started with a proposal by Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha to form a local defense force, which became known as the Awakening. Asafi had a strong personal dislike for Abu Risha, but liked his idea. Asafi then tried to encourage some tribes to joint in the fight against the insurgency. Afterward some sheikhs were finally able to work out deals to start cooperating with American units. Asafi believed that real change came about when the clerics in Anbar came on board. They provided social and spiritual support, and would move into areas after they were cleared of insurgents to try to bring back a sense of normality. Asafi of course, is a religious man, so he wanted to emphasize the role of the clergy. It was also important to him to note that it was the Iraqis that decided to fight the insurgents with little to no encouragement from the Americans at the time. One common U.S. view of the Iraq War was that it that it was the Americans, and the 2007 Surge that changed the conflict. Asafi’s version of events provides an alternative story. According to him, Anbaris were taking about changing the status quo in 2005, and came up with the Awakening in 2006 months before any Surge troops and new tactics arrived in the country.

In the aftermath of the successful Awakening movement, Asafi was again disappointed. He was hoping for the rebuilding of Anbar, but that didn’t happen. He accused contractors and some sheikhs of pocketing most of the reconstruction money. Ironically he wished that the Americans were colonialists like the British were. The English who created and ran Iraq after World War I left behind institutions and infrastructure, which Iraqis still talk about to this day. Asafi compared that to the Americans who in his opinion contributed nothing to the country, but destruction. Again, Asafi was hoping for so much more from the U.S., but they consistently failed in his view. They didn’t secure the country, didn’t protect the population, and then when they finally came around and helped with the Awakening, there was no follow up.

Asafi’s main argument was that the Iraqis knew their country, and what was going wrong with it after 2003, but that it took the Americans years to figure it out. In the period following the invasion Iraq descended into chaos as militants took over Anbar, and could kill whomever they wanted. Asafi blamed the U.S. for this, because they only cared about protecting their forces at first. Out of this desperate situation came the Awakening, but it was the sheikhs and clerics, not the Americans that did the heavy lifting according to Asafi. Even when most of the fighting was over the U.S. could not come through with its promises for Iraq as the rebuilding of the province did not come about. This is a view probably shared by many people who thought that a superpower like America could have done a much better job governing and securing Iraq. Asafi continuously expressed high expectations for the Americans, but was always disappointed by them. That sense of alienation and anger at the lack of security and development has continued for Asafi to the present day as he has become involved with the Anbar protests against the central government.


Allam, Hannah and al Dulaimy, Mohammed, “Marine-led Campaign Killed Friends and Foes, Iraqi Leaders Say,” Knight Ridder, 5/17/05

Beehner, Lionel, “Is There a Rift in Iraq’s Insurgency?” Council on Foreign Relations, 1/12/06

McWilliams, Chief Warrant Officer-4 Timothy, and Wheeler, Lieutenant Colonel Kurtis, ed., Al-Anbar Awakening Volume I, American Perspectives, U.S. Marines and Counterinsurgency in Iraq, 2004-2009, Virginia: Marine Corps University, 2009
- Al-Anbar Awakening Volume II, Iraqi Perspectives, From Insurgency to Counterinsurgency in Iraq, 2004-2009, Virginia: Marine Corps University, 2009

National Iraqi News Agency, “Anbar Cleric Council demanding to declare civil disobedience,” 12/22/12
- “Delegation from Basra tribes joins protests in Ramadi,” 12/27/12

Ricks, Thomas, Fiasco, New York: Penguin Press, 2006

Schlesinger, Robert and Walt, Vivienne, “As attacks escalate, US troops no longer sole target,” Boston Globe, 8/20/03

Wong, Edward, “Turnout in the Iraqi Election Is Reported at 70 Percent,” New York Times, 12/22/05

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