Sheikh Jassim Mohammed Salah al-Suwadawi of the Albu Soda tribe and Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Janabi of the Albu Mahal tribe were two prominent tribal leaders in eastern Ramadi. They found themselves unemployed after the 2003 invasion, but unlike many of their compatriots they did not turn that frustration into armed struggle against the Americans and Iraqi government. Instead they attempted to reach out to Baghdad and the U.S., but their initial attempts were failures. Eventually they joined the Anbar Awakening and helped secure the province. Along the way they lost many relatives and followers to violence. Their story shows the early struggles and consequences of joining the tribal revolt in Western Iraq.
Sheikh Suwadawi and Sheikh Janabi were both military men who found themselves without jobs after 2003. Suwadawi was a non-commissioned officer in the Air Force who worked on jet fighters. Janabi was an officer in the special forces during the Iran-Iraq War, but left the army in 1991, only to be recalled in 2001. When the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the military in 2003 they both lost their jobs. They needed to decide what to do next. Many fellow soldiers became angry with the Americans for costing them their jobs, and were early recruits for the insurgency. Suwadawi and Janabi went in another direction.
Faced with their situation, the two sheikhs attempted to reach out to the new powers that be, Iraqi officials and the United States. In September 2003 Janabi got in touch with his uncle General Ibrahim Said who was afraid of an Iranian invasion after the downfall of Saddam. General Said wanted Janabi to help him organize the tribes of central Anbar into a protection force that was later called the Eagles Cell, which was to report on any Iranian or terrorist moves in the province. Suwadawi made friends with Electricity Minister Ayham al-Samarraie in November 2003 as a way to reach out to the new Iraqi government. Through that contact, Suwadawi began providing information to Baghdad and the United States about what was going on in Anbar. Despite these early moves, neither sheikh got any real support. At the time, the United States was only really concerned with protecting their own forces, and were unsure of which Iraqis to work with, while Minister Samarraie and General Said ended up only giving marginal support to the Anbar tribes. That left Suwadawi and Janabi on their own.
After a series of attacks upon their families Suwadawi and Janabi each decided to fight the insurgents. In April 2004, militants kidnapped Janabi’s brother and three children in Fallujah, and then in October his uncle was taken as well. By the end of the year Janabi was attempting a revolt against Al Qaeda in retaliation. He met with Electricity Minister Ayham al-Samarraie, who promised to get U.S. support for Janabi’s plan, but nothing came of it, and Samarraie was replaced in government after the 2005 elections. Suwadawi followed a similar path. In September 2006, one of his brothers and three of his tribesmen were kidnapped. That led him to declare war on the insurgents, and the two began working together. Janabi and Suwadawi went to the local Marine commanders in Anbar looking for support, but got nothing. Suwadawi thought that the Americans did not take them seriously because they only had a few fighters under them. The insurgents took Suwadawi and Janabi much more seriously. They immediately began attacking the two sheikh’s men with small arms and mortars. Later they called for a meeting with Suwadawi, but he felt like it was a trick to kidnap him and backed out. Al Qaeda in Iraq was notorious for using violence against those that did not agree with them. The Islamists victimized many tribes to get their support or allow them to operate in their area. Suwadawi and Janabi were just two of many that eventually had enough of this intimidation, and decided to take a stand. Unfortunately, the U.S. did not recognize the changing situation in Anbar. Starting in 2005 several other sheikhs tried fighting the insurgents, but received only sporadic help from the Americans.
By late-2006 Suwadawi and Janabi were prime targets of Al Qaeda. On November 25 they were attacked in Suwadawi’s compound in what became known as the Battle of Sufiya. He claimed that 850 fighters came after him, while only 17 men defending him. They were able to hold on for the entire day until U.S. forces finally came to their aid at night. This was a huge battle that would later make Suwadawi and Janabi famous. The numbers might be an exaggeration, as the two liked to embellish their stories as part of their propaganda campaign against the insurgency, and to gain more followers. That worked out for them, as the two were able to convince 12 tribes in East Ramadi to join them afterward. The two sheikhs also got more cooperation from the local U.S. commander, and began conducting joint operations and got their men recruited into the local police. At the same time the two felt like they were still in constant danger. They didn’t trust the local Iraqi officials and other tribes, because they were convinced that insurgents had infiltrated them. As a result, they would tell Anbar officials they were going to raid one area, and then go to another. They also would not discuss important information over the phone, as they believed militants were listening in. Suwadawi and Janabi eventually began working with Sheikh Abdul Abu Risha and joined the Anbar Awakening. Together they helped establish tribal security forces stretching from Ramadi to Fallujah. They still faced heavy losses as Al Qaeda conducted a series of assassinations against their men. By 2006 the U.S. had almost written off Anbar. Insurgents had free reign in the province and had co-opted many of the tribes there often through threats and murder. That caused a backlash that eventually created the Awakening. For those sheikhs who first decided to take on Al Qaeda life could be short as the group intensified their attacks upon those who defied them. Suwadawi and Janabi were not only personally targeted, but lost dozens of men in the process. That was the cost of turning around Anbar.
Sheikh Jassim Suwadawi and Sheikh Abdul Janabi became famous in Ramadi for their heroism in the Battle of Sufiya. It was a long road however from being unemployed soldiers after 2003 to being Awakening members. Despite their determined efforts they received little support from Baghdad or the Americans. Their families and tribes suffered kidnappings and murders by Al Qaeda in Iraq, which only increased when they decided to join the tribal revolt. They paint an important picture of what a difficult situation many Anbar sheikhs were going through from 2003 to 2006, and how that led a few to stand up to the insurgents, and finally secure the governorate.
Allam, Hannah and al Dulaimy, Mohammed, “Marine-led Campaign Killed Friends and Foes, Iraqi Leaders Say,” Knight Ridder, 5/17/05
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