Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha was not the first in Anbar to challenge Al Qaeda in Iraq’s hold upon the province, but he was the most successful at it. He proposed the Anbar Awakening in 2006, which eventually helped re-take the governorate away from the militants. It was a dramatic transformation for a place that the American forces had almost written off. Abu Risha had far more goals than that, but he wasn’t able to see them come to fruition as he was assassinated a year after he formed the Awakening. His brother, Ahmed Sattar al-Rishawi Abu Risha took over the movement after his brother’s death. He followed through with Abdul’s plans and transformed the movement into a political organization. To Ahmed Abu Risha the Awakening was an initiative that only Iraqis could have come up with, as only they had the ability to sway others away from the insurgency and transform Anbar.
Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha foresaw his Awakening movement as a way to enter Iraqi politics (AP)
Anbar went from good to bad in Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha’s view after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In 2003, sheikhs negotiated a deal for U.S. forces to enter the province, and they set up a new local government. Abu Risha claimed that things were going fine, until some started talking about fighting the Americans. They condemned those who cooperated with the occupation, and slowly but surely gained more followers as the insurgency began. It quickly moved from attacking the Americans to the Iraqi government and police. Eventually Al Qaeda in Iraq and foreign fighters arrived, and they intensified the violence by going after schools and teachers and anyone involved in politics. Many professionals ended up fleeing the province as a result going to places like Jordan and Syria. Eventually the militants had free reign in Anbar, and seized control of institutions such as the Ramadi hospital, the governorate’s Education Department, universities, and others. Abu Risha claimed that his tribe was not involved in any of these activities at this time, but there are plenty of other accounts that would say otherwise. Most claimed that Abdul Abu Risha cooperated with Al Qaeda in Iraq, and even tried establishing his own nationalist armed group in 2005, but failed. Either way, his account is a common one where Anbar became a hotbed of anti-American and anti-government sentiment, which quickly turned violent. Al Qaeda and other foreign groups took advantage of this situation, and eventually gained control of large sections of the province. The hope for a normal life ceased as a result.
The tribes in Anbar went from accepting this situation to challenging it. According to Ahmed Abu Risha many sheikhs set up their own local security around their compounds, but did little else as their province went up in flames. The insurgency then began challenging the tribes to usurp their power. This affected Abu Risha personally as his father and three brothers were all killed by Al Qaeda in Iraq for disagreeing with it. The tribes were split over what to do. At first, they blamed each other, but then some decided to stand up to the militants. Abu Risha acknowledged that the Albu Mahal tribe had risen up against Al Qaeda before the Awakening in 2005, but there were several others. Those included the Albu Nimr who fought the Islamists along the Syrian border in, and elements of the Dulaimi tribe in Ramadi. The Abu Rishas like to take credit for the tribal revolt, but they were following in the footsteps of several others who had made a decision to challenge the militants the year before. They each had their own motivations ranging from coming under attack by the Islamists to having their businesses taken over to disagreeing with their extremist views, but the point was by 2005 there was a steady change in opinion amongst some sheikhs and clerics that they had enough of the chaos in their governorate, and they needed to do something about it.
Abdul Abu Risha decided to lead his own revolt against Al Qaeda in 2006. Abdul had run a construction and import-export business, but he was also involved in criminal activities such as smuggling. In the fall of 2006, he decided to talk to other tribes to get them organized against the insurgents. In September several sheikhs held a meeting where they announced the formation of the Anbar Awakening. It included 25 of the 31 tribes in Anbar, with around 30,000 armed men. The main plan was to take on the militants, gain American assistance, be accepted by the central government, and then assume power in Anbar through control of the local security forces and the provincial council. These bold ideas showed that Abdul Abu Risha was thinking far ahead of just securing Anbar, and had aspirations to become a national leader in Iraq.
The Awakening started operating in Abu Risha’s home of Ramadi, but then spread across central Iraq. By November 2006, the group had gained control of much of Ramadi. By the summer of 2007 it was sending units to Salahaddin, Diyala, Babil, and Baghdad to organize groups there, as well as the south as many Iraqi tribes have both Shiite and Sunni members. The U.S. began pushing the government to accept the tribesmen in the army and police, and made sure they were trained, armed, and paid on time. In Ramadi for example, the number of police went from around 150 before the Awakening to 1,500 by December 2006, to 3,000 by February 2007. The Awakening eventually broke the back of Al Qaeda in Iraq in Anbar, which was one of its main bases in the country. They played upon the public’s increasingly hostile view of the Islamists who were pushing their foreign ideas and using violence against anyone that opposed them.
When security was restored in Anbar, the Awakening then moved to become a political party. First, Abdul Abu Risha tried to prove his bona fides with Baghdad by meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki three times, and getting the premier to visit Anbar and see the success of the Awakening. They then began challenging Anbar Governor Mamoum Sami Rasheed al-Alwani and the Islamic Party that ran the province, claiming that it was working with the insurgents. By 2007, Abu Risha got some of his followers onto the provincial council, started considering candidates to run in the next elections, set up offices across the country, and registered 400,000 members. Unfortunately, Abdul Abu Risha was killed in September 2007 by Al Qaeda, and was succeeded by his brother Ahmed. In the 2009 vote, he led his party to victory, winning the most seats in Anbar. By that time, the Awakening had men throughout the local security forces, was recognized by both the Americans and Baghdad, and now had control of its home governorate. This was all part of Abdul Abu Risha’s vision to assume power, and spread his influence throughout Iraq. Unlike the Sons of Iraq, which the Americans put together during the Surge, the Awakening was accepted by the central government, because it was seen as an indigenous movement. Baghdad had no problem with them joining the security forces or running in elections. The Abu Rishas emerged as a success story in Iraq, rising up from a minor tribe to being a force in politics.
Ahmed Abu Risha told the Americans that the Awakening could have only come from Iraqis. He rejected the idea that it could have originated with the U.S., because it would not have been accepted. Only locals in Anbar understood the situation, how the tribes and insurgents worked, and could convince others to join them in challenging the militants for power. Abdul Abu Risha also had an expansive vision. He did not just want to rid Anbar of Al Qaeda in Iraq, he wanted that to be his springboard to gain national acceptance into the country’s elite. The Abu Rishas were able to gain power in Anbar, but only found a small voice in Baghdad. In the 2010 elections he joined the Iraqi Unity List along with former Interior Minister Jawad Bolani’s Constitution Party. It only won four seats in parliament, and eventually joined with the Iraq Accordance Front in the Centrist Alliance, which then became part of Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement (INM) in 2011. That series of events showed that the Awakening had lost much of its standing after the 2009 vote. Its alliance with the INM didn’t work out either as it came out on the losing end of its long running battle with Premier Maliki. By 2012 Ahmed Abu Risha joined the Anbar protests, and became one of its main leaders. That has now run its course with few results, so Abu Risha will have to find a new way to fulfill his aspirations of transforming his local movement into a national one.
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