As fighting continues in Iraq’s western Anbar province, the various tribes there have found themselves in a precarious situation. Some have aligned themselves with the central government against insurgents, some are opposed to both the federal forces and the militants, while still others have joined the gunmen. Anbar was always a very divisive place in part because of the deep-seated tribal rivalries. Those are all being exasperated by the current rebellion in the governorate.
Anbar’s various sheikhs are taking sides in the brewing conflict in their governorate. The two brothers Sheikh Mohammed al-Hayes and Sheikh Hamid al-Hayes were aligned with Baghdad before the fighting started. The Hayes brothers were opponents of the Anbar protests and accused the Ramadi site of harboring the murders of Mohammed’s son in December 2013. When the prime minister began threatening to shut down the demonstrations the Hayes’ were enthusiastic supporters. On December 27 for example, Mohammed al-Hayes met with delegations from the Albu Diab, Albu Jaber, Albu Ali al-Jassim, Albu Fahd, Albu Shaban, and Albu Hamza tribes, and they pledged to support the central government, while Hayes called for Maliki to burn down the protest camps. Then when the Ramadi site was closed Hamid al-Hayes called for all the rest to be shut down as well saying they were connected to terrorism. When fighting broke out, he wanted the army to be sent to Anbar’s cities to secure them from the Islamic State of Iraq and The Levant (ISIS). Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha is another tribal leader who has been moving towards Baghdad in recent months. In January he said that the people of Anbar should fight the Islamic State. His men have created joint patrols with SWAT forces in Ramadi, and claimed to have killed 62 ISIS fighters. Sheikh Wisam Hardan is a third local leader who has thrown in his lot with Baghdad. All three of these sheikhs have different reasons for working with the central government. Some wanted the money that came along with cooperating with the prime minister, which could then be used in their patronage networks to maintain their followers. Some wanted to use their ties with Maliki against their rivals in Anbar. Others were concerned about the rise of the Islamic State and the increasing violence in the province, because they fought them during the Awakening, knew about their past crimes, and could be targeted by the Islamists in the future.
A second group of sheikhs is holding a middle position. They want the insurgents and especially ISIS out of their areas, but are just as opposed to the federal government. They have been cooperating with the local police, but refuse to do so with the army, Federal Police or SWAT. Sheikh Majid Sulaiman called on other sheikhs to take up arms against the Islamic State, and said they would protect local police stations. A member of the Anbar Tribes Council Sheikh Naji al-Dulaimi stated that he supported the local police, and opposed the armed groups trying to take over the province. The Albu Bali tribe worked with police to retake some stations in the Jazeera area outside of Ramadi that had been taken over by insurgents. The Albu Ghanim arrested three Islamic State fighters in Ramadi as well. Two unknown tribes have come to the aid of the police in Haditha. These tribes want to maintain their local power bases, and see both the militants and Prime Minister Maliki as threats. Many Anbaris feel that the Shiite led government is sectarian and only interested in oppressing Sunnis. The federal security forces are seen as an extension of the premier, and are therefore rejected. The insurgents are considered just as dangerous, because if they gain a foothold they will try to take away the tribesmen as fighters, charge taxes, and in the case of the Islamic State impose its harsh form of Islam, and kill anyone that opposes it. Almost all of the Anbar sheikhs were involved with the Awakening and remember the excesses the Islamic State’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq perpetrated in the province, and don’t want to see it return.
A third collection of sheikhs has joined the militants. The Albu Alwan tribe has supposedly split in half. One part has fought both the Islamic State and SWAT forces. The other is working with security forces to fight the insurgents. While ISIS is constantly mentioned as being in control of Fallujah and moving into Anbar in general, most of the fighters seen in the governorate’s cities are not aligned with them. Some are tribesmen who have taken up arms, because of their opposition to Baghdad. They see the security forces conducting mass raids and carrying away dozens and dozens of people without warrants as part of a sectarian campaign by the Shiite led government against Sunnis. That led some to the protest movement, and they were angry when Maliki shut down the Ramadi site. In general, they do not see a way to have their demands met by legitimate means, and are now taking up the gun instead.
The sheikhs in Anbar now find themselves in the middle of a conflict between the insurgents and the government. Depending upon their position vis-à-vis Baghdad some have supported the central government, some have joined the insurgency, and others want both the militants and the federal forces out of Anbar. This is similar to what happened before following the U.S. invasion. Like then, some tribes decided to join the insurgency, and some were opposed to it. They were eventually all brought together under the Anbar Awakening, but then split apart in 2007 over how to enter politics. The sheikhs have been divided ever since then, and that’s what’s behind the various positions they are taking on the current fighting. That will make it all the harder for Baghdad to secure the province, because its forces can cause just as much conflict as end it. The tribes may not have the manpower, and definitely don’t have the firepower to take on the militants by themselves either. A positive result could be that more of them see a common enemy in the insurgency and decided to take some kind of assistance from Baghdad. The worse case is that Anbar descends into increasing violence and the sheikh’s rivalries fuel the fighting. Their short sightedness will be one of the biggest barriers to overcome to turn things around in the province.
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