General Nouri al-Din Abdul al-Karim Muhlif al-Fahadawi was appointed the head of intelligence in Anbar in May 2007. Before that he worked with the local police in Anbar, and then the Defense Ministry in Baghdad. In 2009 the U.S. Marine Corps interviewed him about his experiences in the province. He talked about how the Americans initially mishandled the security situation in Anbar, but then how Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) lost its support as a result of its own mistreatment of the population.
In April 2003 U.S. forces entered Anbar without a fight, but in less than a year the province would become a center for the insurgency. Local tribes set up a delegation to meet the Americans so that they could enter the province peacefully. General Fahadawi said that the governorate was secure and quite at that time and escaped the looting that was taking place in areas such as Baghdad. A government was set up, and the tribes and police were keeping order. In the next eight months however things dramatically changed as the insurgency emerged. Many local clerics began calling for jihad against the Americans, and there were plenty of those willing to answer them. Fahadawi didn’t explain why things changed, but other Anbar notables such as clerics and sheikhs gave a laundry list of mistakes the U.S. made including not securing the border, which allowed foreign fighters in, not understanding the local dynamics and who to work with, dissolving the military and Baath party, and the shooting of protesters in Fallujah, amongst others. The problem was that the Americans continued to take similar actions after the insurgency emerged only making the situation worse. Fahadawi thought the mass arrests were the most egregious because they turned so many people against the U.S. forces.
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) eventually emerged as the most organized and best armed group in Anbar, but made its own set of missteps, which cost it dearly. AQI won followers using its money and military hardware. It then started demanding that other insurgent groups follow it or be attacked. Not only that it carried out indiscriminate killings of Iraqis. Together that led to resistance against the group. Some Anbaris began providing intelligence to the Americans on AQI. Fahadawi claimed that eventually 95% of the province were against the insurgency, and were just waiting for a cause that would lead them into action. That was what eventually led to the emergence of the Awakening in 2006.
In March 2006 General Fahadawi decided to stand up to the insurgency. He went to Baghdad to get weapons for the provincial police. He also began working with local tribes in what became known as the Anbar Revolutionaries. The group was formed in November 2005 after a meeting with the Americans, provincial officials, and local security members. (1) At first, there was only about 100 fighters in the group, and it claimed that it wanted to expel Al Qaeda so that the U.S. would leave the country as well. The general said that the Revolutionaries and the police were responsible for the heavy fighting in the province against the insurgency, and that brought him public support. That led to more recruits, and allowed for the opening of more police stations. He complained that the Interior Ministry did not acknowledge his accomplishments and would not pay for all the new policemen he brought in. Like many Anbar notables General Fahadawi liked to lay claim to turning around the security situation in the governorate. In reality, the Anbar Revolutionaries were too small a force to do much. The police were also under constant attack, and had largely fallen apart until the U.S. began supporting the Awakening and their effort to institutionalize their fighters into the local security forces. That was when the Americans began giving more backing and protection to the local police, helped open more police stations, and set up a program to send them to Jordan for training.
General Fahadawi’s remembrances are poignant today, because the mistakes the U.S. made are being repeated in Anbar right now by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). They too have carried out mass arrests and mistreated the locals, which have turned many against the central government. While Baghdad has some tribal allies in the province there are plenty of others who are now in open revolt against it. That’s largely because Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has played divide and conquer with the various sheikhs in Anbar. At the same time, the current manifestation of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is still capable of repeating its own missteps. Right now it is working with other militant groups in Anbar, but in Syria it has demanded the fealty of others and attacked those that have not followed its lead. It also continues to carry out bloody attacks upon civilians in Iraq. It appears that some Iraqis are angry enough with the Maliki government to now accept ISIS’s help. Others claim that ISIS is not in Anbar’s cities or say that they are not playing a large role in the fighting. The Islamic State however remains the largest, most well organized militant group in not only Anbar but the entire country. It may take a while but there’s every indication that history will repeat itself and those that now welcome the group will eventually turn on it. The question is whether Baghdad will be able to take advantage of it as the Americans once did.
1. Cahill, Lydia, “Anbar Revenge Brigade Makes Progress in the Fight Against al-Qaeda,” Terrorism Focus, Jamestown Foundation, 3/28/06
Anderson, John Ward, “Iraqi Tribes Strike Back at Insurgents,” Washington Post, 3/7/06
Cahill, Lydia, “Anbar Revenge Brigade Makes Progress in the Fight Against al-Qaeda,” Terrorism Focus, Jamestown Foundation, 3/28/06
McWilliams, Chief Warrant Officer-4 Timothy, and Wheeler, Lieutenant Colonel Kurtis, ed., Al-Anbar Awakening Volume II, Iraqi Perspectives, From Insurgency to Counterinsurgency in Iraq, 2004-2009, Virginia: Marine Corps University, 2009