In 2009 the United States Marine Corps interviewed dozens of people from Anbar about their perspective on the Awakening that occurred there. Among them were several generals from the Saddam era. That included General Haqi Ismael Ali Hameed, General Jassim Mohammed Salah Habib, General Khadim Mohammed Faris Fahadawi Dulaimi, General Raad Hamdani, General Abdul Aziz Abdul Rahman, General Ghazai Khudrilyas, and General Mohammed Azawi. Together they explained how Anbar went from being relatively peaceful following the 2003 invasion to being the heart of the insurgency, and then eventually the Awakening. They all agreed that the United States’ mistakes alienated the population and led to armed resistance, but then Al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) excesses led to a similar turn against them. This parallels recent developments within the country as the policies of former Premier Nouri al-Maliki turned much of the Sunni population against the government, but already AQI’s successor the Islamic State is carrying out many of the same practices that lost it support the last time around.
The generals interviewed by the Marines had an extensive history of service in the Iraqi armed forces under Saddam Hussein, and some afterward as well. General Hameed was in the air force and Defense Ministry under the former regime. He left the military in 1995, but then rejoined after the 2003 invasion. General Habib was a former high-ranking Baathist and commander of the 38th Division. He fought in both the Iran-Iraq and Gulf Wars. In 2004 he was called in to help form the Fallujah Brigade after the first battle for the city, and then headed a research center made up of former high ranking officers that advised the new Iraqi army. General Dulaimi was commander of the 16th and 31st Special Forces Brigades and took part in the Iran-Iraq War and the invasion of Kuwait. In 1991 he helped put down the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq, and in 1995 he was called on to put together the Fedayeen Saddam. In 2000 he was made commander of the 15th Division. After 2003 he joined the Civil Defense Corps and then the Iraqi National Guard, which became the new army, and left in 2005. General Hamdani was commander of the 2nd Republican Guard Corps and founder of the Association of Former Officers of the Iraqi Armed Forces post-03. General Rahman was commander of the 4th division, and then went on to head the Scientific Board at the Bakr University for Higher Military Studies. General Khudrilyas fought in the Iran-Iraq War, advised the Interior Ministry from 1986-89, and then was the director of the National Joint Operations Center from 2004-06. Finally, General Azawi was in the Republican Guard Special Forces and then in the Special Police Commandos within the Interior Ministry. Not only did this group of men represent the security forces, they were also part of the former elite that once ruled Iraq. Saddam relied upon people from his tribe and home area in Salahaddin, but there was also a second coterie that was in part made up of some of the tribes and military officers in Anbar. These generals were part of that latter group.
These former officers all had much to say about how the United States mishandled Anbar after the 2003 invasion, which set the groundwork for the insurgency. General Dulaimi said things were relatively peaceful in Anbar for around six months after the invasion.
General Hameed had high hopes during this period. He thought there would be major changes and instant progress in the country. Instead, the Americans ended up losing the support of people due to how they mistreated them. He mentioned people getting killed at checkpoints and arbitrary arrests by the U.S. forces. The reconstruction effort never quite materialized either, and Hameed believed that the money ended up being stolen by corrupt contractors. General Dulaimi spread the blame to the new Iraqi government, the sheikhs and the U.S. who he said all made mistakes in 2003. General Hamdani added that the Americans left the borders open, which allowed foreign radicals into the country, and also disbanded the army under the Coalition Provisional Authority. These were all common complaints amongst a range of Anbari notables interviewed by the Marine Corps. According to all of them the United States spoiled what could have been a positive situation in the province by their mistakes. It wasn’t just one or two either but a whole slew of missteps. They ranged from firing thousands of people who used to be in the military, to not providing them new jobs when the country was not rebuilt, and then considering all fighting age men potential enemies who needed to be detained. The U.S. made few friends in the governorate, and they would pay for it immediately.
To some of the generals the insurgency was a legitimate form of resistance to the American occupation, but they all agreed that it was hijacked by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and that his excesses eventually created a second rebellion in the form of the Awakening. General Hameed felt that insurgency was a right of Iraqis in the face of the abuses of the Americans. General Habib on the other hand said it was foreigners brought in by Saddam to fight the U.S. invasion that made up the backbone of the armed factions. He claimed they were backed by Syria and Iran, two of Iraq’s long time rivals. All agreed that Zarqawi changed everything. General Hameed told the Marines that Al Qaeda in Iraq wanted to destroy the country. Both General Hameed and Habib mentioned indiscriminate violence by the group against Iraqis that they disliked or disagreed with them was a game changer. This led to widespread resentment, which eventually helped create the Awakening in 2006. The officers made an important distinction in their recollections of Anbar after 2003. When the insurgency was Iraqi led, many of them did not have a problem with it. The Americans invaded the country, mistreated the population, and although not mentioned, got rid of people like themselves. When Zarqawi stepped in and attacked Iraqis many in Anbar were just as angered. This general mistrust of foreigners was a leading element in the views of all the men interviewed.
The similarities between 2003-2006 and today in Anbar and Iraq are striking. The American’s political missteps and security tactics helped create resistance to the new Iraq within Anbar. Likewise Prime Minister Maliki’s centralization of power and going after his opponents, along with the Iraqi Security Forces who acted just like the U.S. in recent years with mass arrests, indefinite detentions, etc. alienated a large number of Sunnis. This led to the original insurgency and its current revival. Al Qaeda in Iraq eventually asserted itself as the leading group amongst the different resistance groups, while its current manifestation the Islamic State (IS) is the largest and deadliest armed faction. Just like then, IS is imposing its harsh rules upon the society and attempting to eliminate its competition. That includes executing hundreds of members of the Albu Nimr tribe recently that fought against it to killing government workers to members of the security forces to civilians found guilty in their sharia courts. It has also had clashes with other insurgent groups in Anbar and other provinces that refused to pledge allegiance to it. Many tribes are fighting it again in Anbar, including some that were with the armed opposition. It’s yet to be seen how far this will spread, and whether it will gain the government’s support, which is necessary to turn it into a real force that could improve security like the Awakening did several years ago.
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