Sheikh Aifan Issawi of the Albu Issa tribe was an important leader in the Anbar Awakening. While most of his tribe joined the insurgency and worked with Al Qaeda all the way up to 2007, he followed his own path trying to cooperate with the Americans in his hometown of Fallujah. He went on to turn his exploits on the battlefield into a seat on the provincial council in 2009. He was later appointed to parliament as part of the Iraqi National Movement in 2011. Unfortunately, in 2013 insurgents caught up with him and assassinated him. Issawi was one of the prominent sheikhs in Anbar that turned his role in the Awakening into a successful political career until his untimely death.
Sheikh Khamis Hasnawi Issawi pictured here in 2007 was the paramount sheikh of the Albu Issa tribe, and the uncle of Sheikh Aifan Issawi (Long War Journal)
Sheikh Aifan Issawi was from one of the leading families of the Albu Issa tribe. His father fled to Saudi Arabia in 1967 after killing a man, and found refuge there under the protection of King Faisal. Issawi was born there in 1972. In 2001, he returned to Iraq to take care of his mother. His uncle Sheikh Khamis Hasnawi Issawi was then the head of the tribe, but due to his old age Aifan Issawi often represented him. His life and tribe was turned upside down in 2003 after the U.S. invasion.
After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein Sheikh Issawi was faced with the decision to join the resistance or not. He was called to a meeting with the director of security in Fallujah who had 50 armed men with him. Some of them were from the Fedayeen Saddam, and others were foreigners. They wanted to fight the Americans, but Sheikh Issawi thought that the war was over, and resistance was senseless. He then had a conference with other leading sheikhs of Anbar at his house. They decided to make a deal with the U.S., and allow them to peacefully enter the cities. This would set a precedent for the sheikh. He did not believe in the insurgency from its start. Instead, he wanted to find some kind of compromise with the Americans. That would prove to be very difficult as the U.S. lost the good will of the people.
Issawi was immediately disappointed with the U.S. military. He was part of a delegation of tribal leaders that negotiated with the Americans to allow them into the province. He told them of a huge weapons depot that needed to be secured, but they did nothing, and it ended up being looted. He then felt that the U.S. mistreated the people of Anbar with arbitrary arrests. He himself was shot by mistake by the Americans. After he returned from surgery, he was detained and sent to Abu Ghraib prison for nine months with no charges. Iraq President Jalal Talabani secured his release by appealing to President Bush. That didn’t end his problems as he was placed under house arrest for the next six months. Many others in Anbar saw these same actions, and that was what led so many of them to join the militants. The governorate quickly became a center for the insurgency as a result. Issawi however did not join them despite his own misgivings about the Americans.
Instead of joining the fighting, Sheikh Issawi decided to start working with the U.S. When it set up an office in Fallujah to compensate people for damages it had caused, the sheikh offered his services as a liaison with the public. That made him a target of the insurgents, and there was at least one attempt on his life at this time. That might have been the work of his own tribe who had been one of the first to join the militants. It aligned itself with Al Qaeda in Iraq, and remained loyal to them for quite some time.
Sheikh Issawi decided to not only take on the insurgency, but his own tribe (Long War Journal)
With security deteriorating in Fallujah and it becoming a hotbed of the resistance, Issawi decided to fight the militants. In 2004 he called a meeting of notables in the city including sheikhs, clerics, and some insurgents. Afterward several of those who attended were killed. By the next year, he had declared war on Al Qaeda. Violence got so bad that he was forced to flee with his family to Amman, Jordan. The Americans visited him there, and asked him to return and help fight the insurgents. When Sheikh Abu Risha formed the Awakening in 2006, he too asked for Sheikh Issawi’s help. That led him to make a deal with the U.S. to come back to Fallujah and create an Awakening unit there if his men could openly carry weapons. The Americans acquiesced, and Issawi went on to form the Emergency Response Units in the Fallujah area. All of this brought the sheikh into direct confrontation with his tribe, which was still with the Islamists. They remained so all the way to 2007. In May 2007, they tried killing him again with a chlorine bomb. Issawi claimed things did not really turn around until the rest of the insurgency, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Islamic Army, and the Mujahedeen Army, revolted against Al Qaeda. Even then, things remained tense as Issawi claimed the 1920 Revolution Brigades attempted to assassinate him. Sheikh Issawi and his Emergency Response Units were one of the major factors in Fallujah’s turn around. The city remained a center for insurgents even after the two battles for the city in 2004, and Issawi was one of their few opponents. Even after he was run off, he didn’t quit, and was able to lead a successful revolt against them.
After the defeat of the insurgency, Issawi became involved in politics. In 2009 he was elected to the provincial council as many Awakening members wanted to run the province they had helped secure. In August 2011 he was appointed to parliament as a member of the Iraqi National Movement after a lawmaker was killed. He became the head of the important security committee. In January 2013 he was killed outside of Fallujah by a suicide bomber. Many tribal leaders had larger aspirations then just being in the Awakening. Few were able to successfully carry them out however. Issawi was one of the rare ones who found his way into the government. His prominent positions kept him a target with militants who were eventually able to kill him.
Sheikh Issawi went from a local sheikh in Anbar to being a national politician, but he could never escape the militants he once fought. Many other Anbar sheikhs wanted to follow the same path and turn their local revolt into power in Baghdad. Very few were able to do it, making Issawi one of the exceptions. The problem was the Awakening was never able to put the insurgency to rest and the sheikh remained under constant threat. Militants eventually caught up with him just as they were witnessing a rebirth and killed him. Today Anbar is in desperate need of men like Issawi. Many in the province have rejected Baghdad, and are in the protest movement or are backing the insurgents. The breakdown in politics is the main reason why violence is increasing in the country. Issawi on the other hand wanted to find a way into the new Iraq despite its many problems. He saw participating in national politics as a way to serve his tribe and Anbar. That spirit is now lacking in the province, and the people are suffering for it.
Ardolino, Bill, “Suicide bomber kills Iraqi lawmaker who was prominent Awakening leader, and 5 others,” Threat Matrix, Long War Journal, 1/15/13
Baram, Amatzia, “Who Are the Insurgents? Sunni Arab Rebels in Iraq,” United States Institute of Peace, April 2005
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
Roggio, Bill, “The Sunni Awakening,” Long War Journal, 5/3/07
- “Al Qaeda, the Anbar Salvation Council and the Amiriya Battles,” Long War Journal, 3/20/07
- “The Sunni Civil War,” Long War Journal, 3/27/07