The Anbar Awakening, which emerged in 2006 was a mix of sheikhs, clerics, and tribesmen, many of which were involved with the insurgency. Each was driven by their own motivation to give up the struggle against the Americans and the Iraqi government, and instead turn their weapons on their former compatriots. Sheikh Abdullah Jalal Mukhif Faraji was one such individual. He was the deputy head of the Sunni Endowment in Anbar, and a member of the Ramadi city council that later helped lead the Anbar Salvation Council along with Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha and others. To Faraji it was the extremism of Al Qaeda in Iraq that led to the formation of the Awakening, which later became a political force in Anbar.
Sheikh Faraji noted some early mistakes by the Americans, which allowed for the insurgency to begin in Anbar. One was leaving the border unattended after the invasion, which let foreign fighters flow into Iraq. The other was the Coalition Provisional Authority’s decision to disband the military in May 2003. The third was the heavy-handed military tactics used by the Americans that did not distinguish between the militants and regular Iraqis. That turned many people against the occupation. To Faraji, Al Qaeda and other outsiders came to fight the Americans, and unfortunately Iraq was their battlefield. The people in Anbar were the victims, as they had to suffer through the indiscriminate killings of both the insurgents and the U.S. That view tends to absolve Iraqis of much of the responsibility for the violence in the country, and puts the onus on foreigners.
In 2006, things began to change when Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha proposed the Awakening. It brought together the religious establishment and the tribes in Anbar, an issue that’s usually overlooked in American accounts that just stress the role of the sheikhs. The main motivation for the Awakening according to Faraji was the extremism of Al Qaeda in Iraq. He said that they were too dogmatic, and abused religion for their own goals, which was to take over and kill everyone who was not with them. The Awakening was also able to cut deals with other insurgents. Faraji for example was sent to Oman by Abu Risha to see Harith Dhari the head of the Association of Muslim Scholars. Dhari was working with the insurgency and giving anti-government and anti-Coalition speeches. Faraji convinced him that Iraqis would eventually rule their country again after the Americans left, and that therefore he should stop his remarks about the army and police. This was important for the Awakening, because they were getting their fighters to join the local security forces in places like Ramadi and Fallujah at the time. That was one sign of the importance of the clerics in the Awakening movement. Faraji also believed that it was the religious backing that the group received that made it popular in Anbar. Finally, the Americans came around, and learned how to work with the Anbaris. Together the two fought the insurgency, and turned around the security situation in the province. In Faraji’s view the murderous ways of Al Qaeda turned the people in Anbar against them. The Islamists were uncompromising and foreign led, like an alien body in the province. That eventually united the Anbaris, and got them to cooperate with the Americans.
The next big change was turning the Awakening into a political movement. Faraji pointed to the 2009 provincial elections as a turning point for Anbar. In the January 2005 governorate vote 58% of the electorate turned out nationally, but only 2% in Anbar. Four years later, the Awakening was demanding elections, and wanted to take power. This time there was a 40% participation rate in the province, and Abu Risha’s party took the most seats on the provincial council. This transition from boycotting the political system to taking part in it was a dramatic change not only in Anbar, but the entire country. By 2009, Sunnis had largely given up the gun, and were looking towards the ballot as a way to further their cause. The Awakening was one example of this transformation in thinking, and was another cause for a large decrease in violence across the country.
The Marines interviewed Sheikh Faraji with Thamir al-Asafi, both of the Sunni Endowment at the same time, but they had divergent views of what happened in Anbar. Asafi emphasized that Iraqis were caught in the middle between foreign fighters and the Americans. Stuck in that precarious situation Anbaris decided to form the Awakening to control their own destiny. Faraji had a similar view, but stressed that it was Al Qaeda and their foreign ideas and violence, which was the turning point that helped create the Awakening. Asafi also consistently blamed the U.S. for their misrule of Iraq, while Faraji praised the Americans for working with the Iraqis to fight the insurgents. Finally, Asafi said that the U.S. left nothing behind for Iraq after their occupation, while Faraji wanted a long relationship between the two countries, which he was hoping would help develop and modernize Iraq. Faraji turned out to be much more optimistic than Asafi. The former thought that the clerics provided an important leadership role in Anbar that not only helped decrease the violence there, but then led to political power. Unfortunately that has not worked out as Faraji hoped. Today, Anbar feels sidelined by Baghdad, and that has created not only the protests there, which Faraji is involved with, but the return of Al Qaeda in Iraq. That is making the province a battlefield once again both politically and militarily.
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