Sunnis continue to turn on al Qaeda in the heart of the Sunni Triangle
The Anbar tribes’ turn against al Qaeda has developed significantly since the end of the Anbar Campaign late last year, which swept al Qaeda and the insurgency from the major towns and cities west of Ramadi. Over the past year, the majority of the tribes have denounced al Qaeda and formed alliances with the Iraqi government and U.S. forces operating in the region. Numerous ‘foreign fighters’ have been killed or captured by the tribes. The tribes are working to restore order, and are providing recruits for the police and Army, despite horrific suicide attacks on recruiting centers. These attacks have not deterred the recruiting, but in fact have motivated the tribes to fight al Qaeda.
The Anbar tribes have also taken an active role in fighting al Qaeda. In March, several tribes and Sunni insurgent groups formed the Anbar Revenge Brigades to hunt al Qaeda operatives in western Iraq. At the end of the summer, 25 of the 31 Anbar tribes banded together and created the Anbar Salvation Council to openly fight al Qaeda, and pledged “30,000 young men armed with assault rifles who were willing to confront and kill the insurgents and criminal gangs.”The Council has killed and captured numerous ‘foreign fighters’ and has provided hundreds of recruits for the police and Army, despite horrific attacks designed to terrorize new volunteers.
The Times’ Martin Fletcher, who is embedded in Ramadi, provides an account of the progress being made in Anbar province, the fight in Ramadi, and the splits between al Qaeda and the Sunni tribes.
While the world’s attention has been focused on Baghdad’s slide into sectarian warfare, something remarkable has been happening in Ramadi, a city of 400,000 inhabitants that al Qaeda and its Iraqi allies have controlled since mid-2004 and would like to make the capital of their cherished Islamic caliphate.
A power struggle has erupted: al Qaeda’s reign of terror is being challenged. Sheik Sittar and many of his fellow tribal leaders have cast their lot with the once-reviled US military. They are persuading hundreds of their followers to sign up for the previously defunct Iraqi police. American troops are moving into a city that was, until recently, a virtual no-go area. A battle is raging for the allegiance of Ramadi’s battered and terrified citizens and the outcome could have far-reaching consequences.
Ramadi has been the insurgency’s stronghold for the past two years. It is the conduit for weapons and foreign fighters arriving from Syria and Saudi Arabia. To reclaim it would deal a severe blow to the insurgency throughout the Sunni triangle and counter mounting criticism of the war back in America.
Mr. Fletcher provides a look at the fight in Ramadi that is not seen in the news reporting, and should be read in conjunction with Michael Fumento’s account from Ramadi.
Again, the tribal leaders have openly gone on record against al Qaeda, signaling their willingness to fight and exposing themselves and their families to attacks and intimidation. Coalition forces discovered a detailed al Qaeda in Iraq assassination program in the spring of 2006. Tribal leaders are high on the list.
Sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, the leader of the Rishawi tribe, among other sheiks, has been quite vocal in his rejection of al Qaeda. He has openly opposed Harith al-Dhari, the leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars, after al-Dhari criticized the Anbar Salvation Council for working with the government and U.S. forces. Al-Dhari has called “resistance… a legitimate right upheld by all heavenly and man-made laws and regulations,” and has been linked to al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency.
The turning of the Sunni tribes is directly related to al Qaeda in Iraq’s attempts to install a Taliban like rule in the region. Al-Qaeda looks upon the tribal system with open contempt, and has killed, intimidated and humiliated tribal leaders during the past three years under the leadership of the slain Zarqawi.
A map of the rump Sunni Islamic State from the al Qaeda video. Image from MEMRI.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq recognized its failures and has attempted to rebuild ties to the tribes and the Sunni insurgent groups. In February, al Qaeda in Iraq created the Mujahideen Shura in an attempt to Iraqify its foreign face, and appointed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi, as its Emir. Since Zarqawi was killed by Task Force 145 last June, and taken over by Abu Ayyub al-Masri (an Egyptian), Al-Qaeda in Iraq formed the “Mutayibeen Coalition,” made of of six Anbar tribes and small insurgent groups. Al-Qaeda in Iraq then declared the Islamic Emirate of Iraq, which is made up of Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, Ninawa, and in other parts of the governorate of Babel. Al-Masri pledged 12,000 troops to al-Baghdadi, but these are from the 6 opposing tribes. Despite all this, there are serious divisions inside al Qaeda in Iraq and between various insurgent groups and the tribes.
Lost in the current debate over Iraq – civil war or sectarian violence, success or failure, increasing troops or strategic redeployment, victory or defeat – is the sea-change occurring in western Iraq. The U.S. military has coaxed a large majority of the Sunnis of Anbar province, perhaps one of the most sympathetic groups to al Qaeda in the Middle East, to turn on al Qaeda. The choice wasn’t difficult after the tribes saw what al Qaeda had to offer – death, torture, Taliban like sharia, humiliation, destruction of commerce. The relationship and intelligence gained form operating in western Iraq will benefit the west during the Long War – if the U.S. doesn’t withdrawal precipitously and leave the Anbar tribes to the predations of al Qaeda in Iraq.