A status update on the province
The formation of the Sahawah Al Anbar, or Anbar Awakening, the grouping of Anbari tribes and former insurgents opposed to al Qaeda’s Taliban like rule, traces back to last year, when al Qaeda in Iraq conducted its campaign of murder and intimidation throughout Anbar province. Sheik Abdul Sattar Al-Rishawi and his allies among the tribes and anti al Qaeda insurgent groups began forming alliances in the spring and summer of 2006. In September, the groups established the Jazeera Council in Ramadi, and began working more closely with Coalition forces to begin securing neighborhoods in Ramadi. The Sahawah Al Anbar, which followed the success of the Jazeera Council, was formed in October. The Awakening provided the disparate groups with a political platform, and began to work closely with the Coalition and establishing ties with the Iraqi government.
“Sheikh Sattar is authentic to his culture, supports the tribal system in the confines of democracy, and despises al Qaeda in Iraq,” said Colonel John A. Koenig (USMC), the head of the II Marine Expeditionary Force G-5 (Governance and Economics), in a recent interview. Sheikh Sattar is also described as both a nationalist and a friend of America. “In Sattar’s office, there are two flags – one is Iraqi, the other American.” Sattar, according to Col Koenig and other sources in the military and intelligence establishment, wants to build a nationalist, non secular party.
This spring the Anbar Awakening decided to change name to Iraqi Awakening, Or Sahawah Al Iraq, in an effort to nationalize the movement. “The Awakening has contacts in Salahadin and other provinces,” said Col Koenig. Just this week, the Diyala Awakening was formed in the eastern province to counter al Qaeda’s rise. Other Awakening movements are being formed throughout Iraq.
Politics, but not as usual
An interesting dynamic is developing on the political front in Anbar province. While Sheikh Sattar’s Awakening movement is gaining in popularity, the Iraqi Islamic Party is firmly entrenched politically in Anbar. The Iraqi Islamic Party gained its provincial seats during the low turnout during the January 2005 election, so they are not necessarily representative of the Anbari people. Some tribes, like the Albu Nimr in Hit, are resisting the lure of joining the Awakening. Brought to power in the provincial elections in 2005, the Iraqi Islamic Party makes up the vast majority of elected officials in the province. The technocrats – many who rose through the ranks during Saddam Hussein’s rein, are largely from the Iraqi Islamic Party.
As the Awakening grows in strength, political frictions have arisen between the two parties. The members of the Awakening movement are deeply resentful of the Iraqi Islamic Party for allowing the security situation in Anbar to deteriorate, and for fleeing the province or going to ground as al Qaeda and other Salafist insurgent groups terrorized the tribes from 2004 to 2006. “The common view among the Awakening is the Iraqi Islamic Party sympathetic to Islamists,” said Col Koenig. Member of the Islamic Party often refer to Sattar’s group as bandits, militias and thugs.
Col Koenig expects the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Anbar Awakening will be rival political parties. But while the rhetoric between the rival parties may be heated at times, the differences have not led to political violence. The two parties are well aware of the dangers of infighting, and are cooperating in the security sphere.
“We don’t want to be like the Palestinians,” Col Koenig said is a common refrain among member of both parties, in reference to the fighting between the rival Fatah and Hamas groups in Gaza and the West Bank. “[The Awakening and Iraqi Islamic Party] are like two feuding brothers who ultimately want what’s best for their family, and unite against outside attacks,” referring to fighting al Qaeda.
A provincial meeting
The first full provincial council meeting was held on May 3. Of the 49 members on council, 40 were in attendance for the 8 hour meeting. The majority of the provincial council is made up of technocrats – lawyers, judges, engineers and educators. Most are aligned with the Iraqi Islamic Party, however an American military intelligence source informed us eight members on the council affiliated with the Iraqi Islamic Party have defected to Sattar’s Awakening party. Tribal sheikhs are also on the council, and the Anbar Awakening has been allotted eight seats.
Last week’s provincial council, which Sheikh Sattar attended, is viewed as a great success. “Up until one month ago, the focus of government meetings was on security and fighting al Qaeda in Iraq and extremists,” said Col Koenig. “Now the council is entering a transition phase, from fighting to governing.” The security situation was considered stable enough in most of Anbar the focus of the May 3 meeting was on governance and reconstruction.
As security situation is improving, representative have left hiding or self imposed exile, and are now claiming government funding and performing their functions as government employees. The economic situation is “picking up speed like a flywheel gaining momentum… as security improves,” said Col Koenig.
The rise of the Provincial Security Forces
A critical aspect of the recent success in Anbar province on the security front is the ability of the Anbar Salvation Council to secure some of the most dangerous regions in the province with tribal levies. The early manifestations included groups like the Thuwara Al Anbar, small bands of tribal fighters and former insurgents that both hunted al Qaeda and worked with U.S. and Iraqi forces to identify al Qaeda cells in the cities and towns. I encountered one such unit in Khalidiya in January of 2007.
These units have been augmented by more formalized paramilitary units of tribal fighters. Originally called Emergency Response Units, or ERUs, are battalion sized formations manned by about 750 tribal volunteers each. The ERUs have since been renamed Provincial Security Forces, or PSFs [we have been able to identify 2 of the units, PSF-1 and PSF-2, in the reporting]. All together, there are over 10,000 PSF and Iraqi Police serving in Anbar. Over 2,600 additional recruits are expected this spring, with a total of 14,000 police expected on duty by the end of 2007.
The PSFs fall directly under control of the Ministry of the Interior, and are controlled by the Provincial Police Chief. While the media reporting often refers to the PSFs as “militias,” they are officially sanctioned by the government of Iraq. There are currently 8 PSFs formed, with discussions of forming 2 more units, pending the approval and funding of the Ministry of Interior. Currently the PSF recruits receive five days of formal training, and receive light weapons, vests and other equipment. The goal is to push the units through more formalized training given to the Iraqi Police. Additional funds from the Interior Ministry have not been allotted to this project at this time.
Ramadi, AO Denver on the rise
The political and security developments have had a dramatic impact on the situation in Anbar. The success in Ramadi, which used to be the most deadly city in Iraq, has been well documented. Attacks, which averaged 25 a day last summer, and spiked to as much as 50 a day according to a U.S. military intelligence source, have been reduced to 4 per day. In AO Denver, the expanse of Anbar from Hit westward to Husaybah on the border, the entire region is averaging 5 attacks per day. “The quality of these attacks are generally poor,” said Colonel Koenig.
The U.S. and Iraqi militaries are finding more IEDs that are being detonated against their forces. While weapons caches are being discovered, the security forces are finding few new caches, indicating the insurgency doesn’t have the time or capacity to restock or create new ones.
Haditha, once one of the most violent towns in the Euphrates River Valley, is essentially quiet. The Souks are now open in Ramadi. The markets in Hit and Husaybah, which sits directly on the Syrian border and once was declared an Islamic State by al Qaeda, are thriving. “I am tempted to take off my vest & walk around,” the open market of Hit and Husaybah, said Col Koenig. The government in Husaybah has been so effective that the CMOC [Civil Military Operations Center], which provided services to the civilians, has been closed. “We can sit on the roof in Ramadi and watch the sunset without fear of snipers,” said Major Jeffery Pool, the lead Public Affairs Officer for Multinational Forces West.
Captain Eric Coulson, an Army officer in the Army Reserve commanding an Engineer Company in the Fallujah – Ramadi corridor, discussed the success in securing Ramadi in a posting at his blog, Badgers Forward. “When we arrived in the Fall, the entire city was sectioned off by barriers, much like the ones in Baghdad that have caused so much teeth gnashing in recent days,” said Captain Coulson in Michigan. “Back then no shops were open, people hardly moved about the streets. The streets were filthy; the debris of city dwellers eking out a survival existence. The city landscape nothing but rubble, the product of the insurgents who wanted to bring sharia law to the people of Iraq.”
“Today the streets are much cleaner; large amounts of rubble have been removed,” Captain Coulson remarked. “What were once the remnants of buildings have been cleared and turned into vacant lots ready for a new existence.”
Specialist Gordon Alanko, a blogger in Captain Coulson’s company who writes at Acute Politics, agrees. “I’ve personally seen this,” said Specialist Alanko, in an email communication. “West and Central Ramadi are alive with people and small markets in a way I haven’t seen since I’ve been here. Eastern Ramadi is still stagnant until you reach the city outskirts.”
The Fallujah Ramadi corridor was the scene of some deadly chemical suicide attacks against the Anbar Salvation Council, supporting tribes and U.S. and Iraqi forces in the winter and early spring of 2007. “Multinational Forces West truly believes the chlorine attacks are designed for maximum IO [information operations] impact,” said Col Koenig. “The IPs [police] and the U.S. public are number one targets. Al Qaeda wants to frighten police and influence events in the U.S.” These attacks have been largely contained for the time being, as the Iraqi government and Coalition hopes to build on the recent success in the region.
Despite the progress in large swaths of Anbar province – from Fallujah in the east to Husaybah on the Syrian border, and Rutbah to the south – the regions north, south and east of Fallujah remain a battleground. The towns and cities of Amiriya, Ferris, Zaidon and Karma are the focal points of al Qaeda and allied Sunni insurgent’s power bases in Anbar province.
The Amiriya/Ferris region has been the scene of intense battles between the Anbar Salvation Council and Iraqi and U.S. forces on one side, and al Qaeda and its allies on the other. Amiriya was the scene of two major battles between opposing forces in the month of March. “The Amiriya/Ferris region is typical Iraqi farmland, bound on one side by the river, and the other side by barren desert,” said Specialist Alanko. “The region has been the scene of much fighting between the Anbar Salvation Council and al Qaeda in Iraq, and is home to a recent, ongoing push by US Army and Marine troops” to secure the area.
On March 2, over 300 al Qaeda attacked the the town of Amiriya in an attempt to assassinate a prominent leader of the Anbar Salvation Council. The leader of the Anbar Salvation Council was to attend the funeral of one of those killed in the February 24 suicide bombing against a mosque in Habbaniyah, where the cleric preached against al Qaeda. The Iraqi police in Amiriya held off the attack, radioed for backup from Iraqi Army, police and the Anbar Salvation Council. U.S. air support also engaged in fighting. At least 50 al Qaeda were killed and 80 captured in the largest battle in Anbar province this year.
On March 20, in the second major battle in Amiriya in less than three weeks, a force of over 100 al Qaeda clashed with the Anbar Salvation Council, backed by Iraqi Security Forces. Thirty-nine al Qaeda were killed and 7 were captured during the battle. Again, the target is believed to be a senior leader of the Anbar Salvation Council.
Zaidon is a town where Saddam Hussein allowed Islamist extremist to thrive during his time in power. Religious leaders preach hate and jihad, and provide the ideological underpinning for the jihad, according to a senior military intelligence analyst. “Zaidon is the canal-laced farmland north of the Euphrates on the south side of Fallujah,” said Specialist Alanko. “Many of the insurgents holed up in Fallujah before the Army and Marines cleared the city in November of 2004 escaped across these same canals, and the area continues to be a problem to this day.”
Perhaps the most insurgent infested region is Karma, where Task Force 145 – the hunter killer teams that target al Qaeda leaders and operatives – conduct near daily raids. “Karma was a nasty town when I started working in Fallujah, and if anything, it has gone downhill since,” said Specialist Alanko. “More and larger bombs appear in the roads, and the faces in town have gone from indifferent to angry. Many AQI fighters have been killed or captured in the area, but it seems that, for now at least, Karma remains one of the hottest holdouts of the AQI insurgency.”
Karma was the scene of the shoot down of a Marine Ch-46 helicopter in February. Capitan Coulson’s company lost three soldiers in Karma after they attempted to recovery the helo. Several al Qaeda anti aircraft teams have been destroyed in the region. JD Johannes, an embedded independent journalist, witnessed a complex suicide attack on the Army outpost at OP Omar in early April.
A process, not an event
More work needs to be done to push al Qaeda from its havens in eastern Anbar, as well as build on the gains in Fallujah, Ramadi and the western regions. Al Qaeda’s havens in Karma, Amiriya, Ferris and Zaidon have a direct impact on the security situation in Baghdad, as these regions are used as suicide bomb factories and al Qaeda training camps and refuges.
The progress seen today in Anbar would have been unthinkable just one year ago, when al Qaeda began to reassert itself after taking large losses during the joint U.S. and Iraqi campaign to clear the western portions of the province. The turning of the tribes against al Qaeda is a crucial piece of the puzzle, but so was the perseverance of U.S. forces in the region. “We are standing on the hard work of the Marines and soldiers here last year who worked to build the Iraqi police,” said Colonel Koenig.