Thursday, January 23, 2014

Anbar Before And After The Awakening Pt. IX: Sheikh Sabah Aziz Of The Albu Mahal

Sheikh Sabah al-Sattam Fahran al-Shurji Aziz is the primary sheikh of the Albu Mahal tribe located in western Anbar that stretches into neighboring Syria. After the 2003 invasion the tribe joined the insurgency to fight the Americans and was actually allied with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In 2005 it decided to turn on the Islamists for a number of reasons making it the second tribe in the province to do so. Its revolt was short lived, however. Sheikh Aziz’s story not only highlights the change in Anbar from rebellion against the U.S., to fighting AQI, but also the beginning of a new Sunni sectarian identity that emerged after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Sheikh Aziz and his Albu Mahal are based in Qaim along the Syrian border (Wikipedia)

After the removal of the Baathist regime in 2003, Sheikh Sabah al-Sattam Fahran al-Shurji Aziz and his Albu Mahal tribe joined the insurgency. He believed people had the right to oppose the foreign invader, and so he took up arms against the Americans. Sheikh Aziz believed that the U.S. came into Anbar and used the wrong people, and humiliated and scared the locals. More importantly he felt like the tribes were ignored by the occupying power. This led the Albu Mahal to join the fight against the Coalition. Anbar was one of the first areas of Iraq to rise up against the occupation, and the sheikh gave a good explanation for why that happened. The province was actually overlooked during the invasion and U.S. forces didn’t enter until afterward. When they did there were a number of incidents involving demonstrations and firing into crowds that quickly angered people and created an impetus for people to become insurgents. There were also those that had a nationalist reaction to the invasion from the start and wanted to fight the Americans.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Tawid wal Jihad, which would become Al Qaeda in Iraq, portrayed itself as defenders of the Iraqis against the occupation. Aziz said that when AQI came to Anbar it tried to win over the people. It claimed that it wanted to fight the invaders, and handed out money to the tribes to gain their loyalty. However in the following years Anbar turned on the group because it humiliated people, tried to impose their foreign ideas, and were violent and distrustful of Iraqis. A local police chief from Qaim who was from the Albu Mahal was assassinated by AQI for example, which started a blood feud between the two. The Islamists also tried to take over the tribe’s smuggling business. Many others in Anbar eventually turned on AQI, and all had the same complaints. Al Qaeda claimed it came to help Iraqis, but it really wanted to take over. Its heavy handed tactics eventually wore out its welcome. The sheikh came to believe that Al Qaeda was controlled by Iran, and was being used by Tehran to destroy Iraq. This was an opinion that became very popular amongst some Sunnis. Faced with the fall from power after 2003, the rise of Shiite and Kurdish parties, and the U.S. occupation, many Sunnis were at a loss to describe the new status quo. Given this new situation many turned to what they knew which was Iran to explain things claiming that Iran was not only behind Al Qaeda, but the new ruling parties, and the Americans. Sunnis came to believe that they were victims of this triumvirate of powers.

In the spring of 2005 the Albu Mahal decided to turn their guns on Al Qaeda in Qaim. The tribe created the Hamza Brigade along with the Albu Nimr in Hit. The Brigade had a tough time of it, because the insurgents outgunned them. Anbar Governor Sheikh Faisal al-Gaood who was from the Albu Nimr went to the Americans for help, but didn’t get much. For instance, the U.S. launched Operation Matador in Qaim in May, but did not include the Hamza Brigade, and actually killed some tribal elements. Nevertheless, by the summer the Brigade had expelled AQI from Qaim. By the end of August, the Americans had finally begun working with the two tribes. That didn’t stop the Islamists from fighting their way back into Qaim, and almost destroying the Brigade by September. The Albu Mahla and Albu Nimr were only the second group in Anbar that tried to fight Al Qaeda. The Americans at the time were still not sure of how to work with the tribes, and many were more concerned with protecting their own forces than making allies with Iraqis, especially ones like Aziz’s that had once been insurgents. The Coalition eventually did start working with the Brigade, but not enough to allow them to stand up to AQI.

After the tribe’s defeat in Qaim it was able to make a comeback only to lose out once again. U.S. Special Forces eventually arrived in western Anbar and organized the Desert Protectors. Most of the recruits for this new unit came from the Hamza Brigade, and it was used in Operation Steel Curtain. Together with the Americans, the two tribes were able to retake Qaim. The U.S. then used the Protectors to recruit Sunnis into the army and police. That cooperation fell apart when the Coalition told the new members of the security forces that they would serve throughout Iraq. The tribesmen only wanted to do their tours in their areas of Anbar. This disagreement eventually led the Albu Mahal and Albu Nimr to stop working with the U.S. Again the Americans misread the situation, and failed to effectively use their Iraqi allies. Without the help of the Americans there was no hope that the tribes could take on the Islamists themselves. They had already been defeated, and now they were once again. This was the same fate of several other tribes in Anbar that tried to rise up against AQI in 2005. It wouldn’t be until 2006 and the Anbar Awakening that Iraqis in the province were able to muster enough forces to take on the militants.

After the Awakening and the turning around of Anbar, Sheikh Aziz was still not happy with the state of affairs within his country. First, he did not like the Iraqi government. He believed it was full of people who were either not from Iraq or were not loyal to it. He was mostly talking about the Shiite parties that took power that he claimed followed Iran. Not only that, but because they were installed after the U.S. invasion he did not consider them the legitimate rulers. At the same time, he wanted the Americans to stay in the country long term to deter Iran and keep the Kurds in line as well. Aziz was no less forgiving when it came to Iraqi democracy. He said that it would take ten to twenty years for the public to understand it, and until then the politicians would manipulate the situation to stay in office. Instead, he advocated for the Sunnis to resume their natural role in Iraq, and rule the country in some type of autocracy. Many others in Anbar felt the exact same way as Aziz. They thought of the Shiite as either Iranians or controlled by them. Likewise, the Kurds were not Arabs and therefore not really Iraqi. Finally, democracy was a foreign idea brought by outsiders, which had empowered the Shiite and Kurdish majority to rule over Sunnis. The end of the civil war in 2008 did not change those opinions, but rather transferred them from the battlefield to politics. Many Sunnis feel that attempt failed, and they are taking up the gun once again, because their new sectarian identity does not allow them to accept the current situation in the country.

The Albu Mahal tribe went from insurgents to counter insurgents, but remained opponents of the new Iraq. Sheikh Aziz and his tribe saw the U.S. invasion as ushering in not only a foreign occupation, but also empowering Shiites and Kurds, which he never saw as real Iraqis. That was what led the Albu Mahal to initially join the militants and work with Al Qaeda. AQI turned out to be a bigger threat, and the tribe was one of the first to try to fight the Islamists. Despite two tries, it didn’t have the numbers or support to take on the group. It would not be until the Anbar Awakening in 2006 for the Albu Mahal to have any success. Afterward Iraqi politics became the main area of competition, and Aziz was not happy with that either. In the current fighting in Anbar the Albu Mahal have not been mentioned. That’s probably because it is off by the Syrian border rather than in the center of the province where the combat is going on. Still it would not be surprising if Sheikh Aziz and his men rejoin the insurgency given its views of the country.


Allam, Hannah and al Dulaimy, Mohammed, “Marine-led Campaign Killed Friends and Foes, Iraqi Leaders Say,” Knight Ridder, 5/17/05

Biddle, Stephen, Friedman, Jeffrey, and Shapiro, Jacob, “Testing the Surge, Why Did Violence Decline in Iraq in 2007?” International Security, Summer 2012

Carroll, Rory, “Al-Qaida in Iraq seizes border town as it mobilises against poll,” Guardian, 9/7/05

Castaneda, Antonio, “Exiled tribesmen turns to Marines for help after trouncing by insurgent clan,” Associated Press, 3/30/06

Economist, “I want to kill you, but not today,” 10/4/07

Long, Austin, “The Anbar Awakening,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 4/1/08

McCary, John, “The Anbar Awakening: An Alliance of Incentives,” Washington Quarterly, January 2009

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

Perry, Tony, “Tea and tribal conflict in Iraq,” Los Angeles Times, 1/22/08

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Sanders, Edmund, “Draft charter leaves many tough issues unsettled,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8/31/05

Shallal, Azhar, “Iraq border town ready to repay debt to Syrians,” Daily Star, 2/22/12

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