Anbar has a long history of being both a center for the insurgency and opposition to it. The many tribes in the governorate have gone back and forth over whether to oppose the government or not, and that continues into the present day. In fact there are many parallels between post-03 Anbar and today with authorities mistreating the population leading to armed opposition, and then turning on the Islamist militants. General Nouri al-Fahadawi who was the head of intelligence and security in Anbar and Colonel Said al-Fahadawi who was a SWAT commander explained some of this history in a series of interviews with the U.S. Marines in 2008.
The U.S. got off to a bad start in Anbar, which laid the foundation for the insurgency. Right after the 2003 invasion, a delegation from Anbar met with the Americans to negotiate the entry of U.S. forces into the province. The meeting did not go well, and some claimed that they were mistreated. In April soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division fired on demonstrators in Fallujah. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) then came in and many locals felt like they were ignored. This was especially true for the tribes as Paul Bremer did not want to work with them believing that they were anachronisms with no place in the new Iraq he was trying to create. Then when the fighting really started breaking out in Anbar the U.S. started carrying out mass arrests and there were charges of mistreating prisoners. This all closely mirrored recent history. Many in Anbar felt like they were being sidelined by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and resented the heavy-handed tactics of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). That all came to a head in December 2012 when the premier issued an arrest warrant for Anbar native Finance Minister Rafi Issawi. That led to spontaneous protests, which quickly spread to other provinces. That discontent helped lead to the revival of the insurgency.
In both 2003 and 2012 Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its later manifestation the Islamic State (IS) emerged as the dominant insurgent group in Anbar. In the earlier period AQI attempted to assert itself over Anbar society. It didn’t let girls go to school or work, made mosques follow its rules, and took over the provincial Education and Health Departments, and the Facilities Protection Service. It would also turn on other militant groups in an attempt to control them. This led to skirmishes with the likes of the Islamic Army, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Islamic Movement, and the Mujahadeen Army. Colonel Fahadawi claimed that 60% of the insurgents ended up working with AQI, while 40% resisted. Likewise, when IS started re-emerging in 2012 one of the first places it targeted was Anbar. It tried to take advantage of the protest movement and its flags began appearing at the demonstration site in Fallujah. By June 2013 it announced a new campaign in western Anbar targeting areas like Hit, Rawa and Qaim, and in December claimed that it wanted to annex parts of the province to territory it controlled in Syria. When open fighting broke out in the governorate, IS at first tried to cooperate with other insurgent groups, but then slowly but surely asserted its control over large parts of the province. That led to some disputes and clashes just like before with other groups such as the Baathist Naqshibandi and Mujahadeen Army. IS has once again become the dominant force in the province.
The abuses of Al Qaeda in Iraq eventually led some tribes to turn against it. One of the first was the Albu Mahal in Qaim along the Syrian border. In 2005 that tribe formed the Hamza Brigade, which later included the Albu Nimr in central Hit as an anti-insurgent force. It only lasted a few months before AQI destroyed it due to lack of support by the Americans. Several other attempts were made before the Awakening emerged in 2006. Similarly, in 2013 some Anbar tribes immediately sided with Baghdad against the new insurgency such as Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha and Sheikhs Hamid and Mohammed Hayes. All three had been trying to compromise with the Maliki government beforehand. As IS emerged as the main fighting force in the governorate other tribes decided to oppose them, some of which had been with the insurgency. Just like in 2006 there are deep divisions within the province’s tribes. Some have sided with the militants, some are neutral, and some are with the government. There are even divisions within groups making the situation even more complicated.
Then and now the local security forces were not in good shape to face the insurgency. Both Fahadawi’s claimed that Baghdad was against forming army and police units in Anbar. The U.S. pushed the idea and did the recruiting, training and arming of these local units. They were constantly targeted and faced heavy casualties. Eventually General Fahadawi met with the CIA and Iraqi intelligence and helped create the Office for Iraqi Intelligence in Anbar. He set up 15 cells based upon people from his own Albu Fahd tribe and sent them into the cities to collect intelligence on the militants. Colonel Fahadawi would later head an elite SWAT police unit. Today the ISF is again in disarray in the governorate. The army units have fallen back to their bases leaving most of the fighting to the police and tribes, but new forces have been sent in from Babil however. The Americans are once again trying to reverse the situation with the deployment of advisers to the Al-Assad base in the center of the province. It took years for the U.S. to turn the Anbar ISF into an effective force, and it may take just as long this time around.
General Fahadawi ultimately blamed the early mistakes by the Americans for the violence in Iraq, as many would blame Baghdad for the on going fighting in the province today. The U.S. quickly turned segments of the population against them providing fertile ground for insurgent recruiters, and Maliki did much the same. It was his decision in December 2013 to arrest parliamentarian Ahmed Alwani who was a fiery and sectarian protest leader and then close down the Ramadi demonstration site, which directly led to the outbreak of open fighting in Anbar once again. Today, the Anbar council, tribes and security forces are again complaining about Baghdad’s neglect. There are some that believe Baghdad has written off the province so that it might consolidate its hold on other parts of the country. That’s led to 80% of the governorate falling into the insurgents’ hand. The U.S. is once again in the middle of things with new advisers and Apache helicopters deployed to the center of Anbar. It seems like history is repeating itself in Iraq and today is much like those early days of 2005 when the insurgency was in the ascendency and the Americans and Baghdad were struggling to respond.
BBC, “Islamic state crisis; US troops sent into Iraq’s Anbar,” 11/11/14
Biddle, Stephen, Friedman, Jeffrey, and Shapiro, Jacob, “Testing the Surge, Why Did Violence Decline in Iraq in 2007?” International Security, Summer 2012
Habib, Mustafa, “dangerous times ahead: al qaeda plans to annex one-third of iraq,” Niqash, 12/27/13
Klein, Joe, “Saddam’s Revenge,” Time, 9/26/05
Kozak, Christopher, “ISF Withdraws to Defensive Positions in Anbar Province,” Institute for the Study of War, 10/29/14
Al-Mada, “Al Qaeda announces the launch of the “New Battle” for western Anbar and police decide on comprehensive curfew,” 6/24/13
Al Masalah, “Clashes between Daash militants and the Army of the Majahideen after the latter refused to swear allegiance to the Islamic State in Anbar,” 7/7/14
- “Organization “Naqshibandi” deny entry in an armed conflict with “Daash,”” 6/3/14
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
Al Rayy, “Differences between “Daash” and “Army of the Mujahideen” in Anbar,” 6/5/14
Sowell, Kirk, “Iraq’s Second Sunni Insurgency,” Hudson Institute, 8/4/14
Al-Tamimi, Aymenn, “Behind the Iraq Protests,” American Spectator, 4/18/13
Walt, Vivienne, “Civilian deaths stoke Iraqis’ resentment,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8/4/03