The Anbar Tribes vs. al Qaeda, Continued

Sunnis continue to turn on al Qaeda in the heart of the Sunni Triangle

Iraq. Click map to view.

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.



  • Anand says:

    Very hopeful.

  • bristlecone says:

    Gosh, this can’t be true, or else the mainstream media would be reporting it!
    If they intentionally sat on a true bit of good news like this, wouldn’t that make them agents for the enemy?

  • Dan says:

    To a certain degree this is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Yes they figh AlQ, but will this police turn into death squads later and go after Shia? Is this merely an alliance of convinience

  • Rancher says:

    “If they intentionally sat on a true bit of good news like this, wouldn’t that make them agents for the enemy?”
    Rhetorical question of the year!

  • Shaun says:

    This is good news because long after the last Shiite has blown up the last Sunni, Al Qaeda and other terrorists will still be doing their thing.
    The bad thing is that successes like this one have a way of becoming defeats because of that momentum thingie: The focus of U.S. commanders shifts or there simply are not enough troops and other resources.
    You do not address this conundrum — what the U.S. and Iraq security forces must be allowed to do to keep the momentum going.
    Could you try to do so in a subsequent post or addition to this one?
    Many thanks.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Folks, this isn’t a forum to bash the media. Let’s discuss the topics at hand. Please read the comments policy.
    I have, but elsewhere. Here is the most recent take, with a summary. You’ll have to listen to the podcast for more:
    Increase the number of troops to clean al-Qaeda out of Ramadi & secure Baghdad, take on Sadr, increase the number of the adviser and put embedded military/police transition teams at the platoon level for every unit, and secure the borders, particularly with Iran.

  • Surtyey says:

    Well, this looks like Afghanistan and the Taliban. CIA, Green berets, and Peace strategy from the Kennedy era. The US support, like in, ‘soap makers’ in Afghanistan will turn on the tribes and the leaders of the government and feed them to the ‘Taliban.’
    Who’s the Taliban in Iraq? Iraq looks like it’s moving ahead with it’s own government and 30-50,000 US troops hanging around that nice embassy someone thought ahead to build. So maybe it’s better than we hope, but, maybe, we should be writing checks to the tribes like the warlords in Afghanistan after the invasion? Wait, the soapmakers are going to throw it all away when we figure out they were writing checks to the Taliban.

  • Anand says:

    “increase the number of the adviser and put embedded military/police transition teams at the platoon level for every unit, and secure the borders, particularly with Iran.”
    100% right. How many advisors are needed? Fareed Zakaria says that we need 16,000 advisors.” We also need to spend as much money as required to ensure that there are enough quality translators.
    We need to close all the borders. How many bad guys are coming over from Kuwait/Saudi Arabia/Jordan/Syria? I don’t think we are applying enough pressure on Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Is Kuwait playing as positive a role as it could?

  • Tom Holsinger says:

    I suspect that fear of ethnic cleansing by the Shiites provided more convincing motivation than Al Qaeda did. And it may be too late for Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to change sides. Too bad for them – it’s a tough neighborhood.

  • Anand says:

    Tom, you mean that they were motivated by Sadr and Iran? Did Iran encourage the Sunni Arabs to attack Iraqi Shia so that Iran could use Shia militia (Mahdi and Badr) and the ISF to destroy Iraqi Sunni Arabs.
    There is deep antipathy to say the least between Iran and Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. Iraqi civil war destroys Iran’s enemies, keeps Iraq weak, and keeps Iraqi Shia and to a lesser degree Iraqi Kurds dependent on Iran; which portrays itself as the good guys to Iraqi Shia and Iraqi Kurds. Afterwards, Iran can play Badr on Mahdi and Shia on Kurd as needed.
    Civil war in Iraq, and the sense of crisis and urgency this generates within Iran to support Iraqi Shia, also helps Ali Khamenei hold on to power within Iran.
    Everyone, is this a part of Ali Khamenei’s master strategy?

  • GK says:

    I am very worried about the outcome in Iraq.
    Sure, the Anbar tribes are doing this now, but what about the bigger picture.
    If the US is going to withdraw in the next 24 months, what is to stop the various factions from simply waiting until then, and resuming their terror?
    Is there any conceivable way in which we can still win in Iraq?

  • Alan Furman says:

    Two years ago, the force that took on Fallujah’s terrorist infestation was up in the many thousands. Now there are all of THREE HUNDRED MARINES in Fallujah to back up the Iraqi army and police.
    Not enough troops?
    Or, not enough patience?

  • GK says:

    Not enough patience on the home end.
    There is no war we have ever fought where we have achieved this much at so little cost, except perhaps Afghanistan.
    Yet, the consensus in Washington is that we will withdraw within the next 24 months. It is quite easy for the Jihadis to simply wait until then.

  • UNCoRRELATED says:

    Forbidden News On Iraq

    You won’t be reading this in the Washington Post. 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 allie…

  • The Anbar Tribes vs. al-Qaeda, Continued

    Courtesy of The Fourth Rail:
    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 an…

  • Usa says:

    The Afghanistan cost was farmed out to the CIA. It was a ‘Kennedy’ model with ‘Green Berets and Peace Corps Volunteers.’ Rural pacification.
    CIA began to throw Afghanistan away a couple of months ago and the ‘insurgency’ began. Iraq cost more. but had better planning. It wasn’t farmed out to a bunch of old Kennedy nuts. It did fall apart after people figured all the fighting was there and not here, like WWII. Maybe it’s okay they come over the border. Saudi is building a fence like Mexico and Canada.

  • The Mideast, 214 (November 22, 2006) — Lebanese Tense Following Assassination – Mass Funeral Set for Thursday

    Saying Goodbye to Pierre Gemayel: “As the procession made its way to Gemayel’s family home, women on balconies threw rice and flower petals. Hundreds scrambled to touch the coffin as it passed. “‘What can I say? They killed the hero…

  • Michael Ledeen says:

    Anand: good question. I think the answer is yes, this attempt to provoke all manner of internal conflict in Iraq is certainly Khamenei’s strategy and has been from the beginning. The Iranians will support anyone against anyone, so long as mayhem results. Dontcha think?

  • dlp says:

    The Time is part of the mainstream media in case this needed pointing out.
    I’d like to know how the fight between tribal leaders and al Qaeda relates to religion. Are the tribes Islamic? If so, do they not follow an ideology that wishes in the long term to have an Islamic caliphate? If they are Islamic and do not wish for a return of the caliphate does this mean they are moderates, or just with different political aspirations? Would be good to hear what Bill has to say on this, as well of course, Walid Phares and Robert Spencer.

  • Tom Holsinger says:

    I take it you are unaware of what Iraq’s Sunni Arabs did to the Kurds and Shiite Arabs during the Baathist regime. And since.
    Not only is it payback time, but the Shiites aren’t safe while Iraq has a significant Sunni Arab minority who help outsiders, aka Al Qaeda, butcher the Shiites. This was true of most to almost all of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs until recently.
    Iraq’s Arabs are perfectly capable of murdering and torturing each other without outside help or encouragement.
    But the Sunni Arabs chose to be our enemies until the Shiites got strong enough to do to them what they had done to the Shiites. So many of the Sunni Arabs want to change sides.
    Too late.

  • Alan Furman says:

    is (unsurprisingly) a less rosy view of the situation in Fallujah than my post suggested.

  • ECH says:

    Some of the people here seem very happy and eger to take the side of the Shia over the Sunni.
    Have any of you actually read Zarqawi’s late 2003 letter to Bin Laden? He makes very clear in that letter that support for the insurgency amoung the Sunnis was not strong and the only way to mobilize the Sunnis was to attack the Shia thus causing them to respond and attack Sunnis in general. This Zarqawi believed would force the Sunnis to either back the insurgency or die.
    Zarqawi in 2004 and 2005 got alot of suicide bombers into southern Iraq by paying off Shia to help them get down there, yes you heard that right Shia.
    Because Iraq had open borders that we did very little to try to close down or wall up as the Saudis are now doing and because Iraq is a country with 50% unemployment it was quite easy for the jihadists to get in and find people to bribe (both Sunni and Shia) to help them get suicide bombers to their targets.
    Blaming all Sunnis for al-Qaeda in Iraq is as stupid as blaming all Shia because Iranian Revolutionary Guard killers have been operating in large numbers in Iraq.

  • Starling says:

    I found the line in your conclusion about the “destruction of commerce” very intriguing. Can you elaborate. I ask because I did back in May entitled “Economic Indicators of Progress in Iraq” and it is due for an update. Anything you can provide on al-Qaeda in Iraq’s impact on commerce would be welcomed.

  • Shaun says:

    Thank you for the additional info. Be safe.

  • Matt says:

    Alan: 300 in Fallujah? I suspect that that number is incorrect (by several factors, if not an order of magnitude). Quite possibly, it’s a misinterpretation of an accurate statement (e.g. there may be, at any given moment, 300 Marines patrolling the streets of Fallujah, but that doesn’t reflect how many Marines are there. There’s a MEF HQ and full reinforced regiment in the area… the MEF staff alone is more than 300).
    Not to say more troops wouldn’t be better, but 300’s a tad hyperbolic.
    My personal views of Anbar (having just come from there last month) align very closely with this article. A real problem is that, constitutionally, non-state militias are forbidden… and it’s a thin line between helping patriots expel Al-Q and helping one bunch settle a generational feud over turf.
    Thanks for the great report!

  • Michael says:

    “Folks, this isn’t a forum to bash the media. Let’s discuss the topics at hand. Please read the comments policy.”
    Paint me guilty. I’ll try not to in the future Bill. You provide a good forum here.
    For me, it is frustration with the bias that I see daily. They are largely omitting much truth which you cover here. I’m not asking for cheerleading on behalf of MSM. Just balanced facts of our soldiers successes. Without this balance, the public cannot make informed choices.
    Happy Thanksgiving to all and our soldiers who have served and are serving, God Bless and protect them.

  • Anand says:

    The sunni arabs as a whole have treated the Shia horribly, not just in Iraq but in many other places for 6 centuries. Kurds have been treated horribly for a millenium. The last prominent Kurd was Salahadin. If push comes to shove it is still better that the Shia win (and that we are seen to ally with them since they are almost certain to win anyway). Most Iranians want nothing to do with Khomenei and his craziness, so within 10 years Iran and Iraq would emerge as prosperous free democracies.
    But this year, especially since the Sammara bombing, I have been negatively surprised by the negative IRGC role in Iraq. I have also been surprised by the complete failure of Khomenei’s opponents to use his support of Al Qaeda and sunni arab extremists against him (we in the US are part of the problem). I have also seen prominent supporters of Russian and Indian strategic engagement with Iran becoming concerned about Shiite fundamentalism since 2005. (I think this is the real reason why India has voted against the Iranian nuclear program.) I think all of us need to be less sanguine about Shia victory. It matters which Shia in Iraq win . . . better for us that SCIRI, Fadheela (Virtue) Sadrists and Dawa win versus Mahdi.
    Starling, what economic statistics does the Iraqi government publish (which ministry collects them), and how to get access to them.
    Matt, glad you were able to return safe and sound from Al Anbar. Are you a GI? Please share your assessment of the 1st and 7th Iraqi Army divisions. They, rather than tribal militia–great though they are to have on board–are our long-term ticket out of Al Anbar.
    How popular is the Iraqi army among the locals (relative to GIs?) What is the morale within the Iraqi Army. Are the insurgents scared of the 1st Iraqi Army division? Is the 7th Iraqi Army division improving quickly enough?
    All of us are looking forward to hearing first hand from Bill about this soon.

  • Anand says:

    I just saw Bill’s post about 145 people dying in Sadr city, and the raid on the health ministry. This is terrible. Sadr will want revenge.

  • ECH says:

    al-Qaeda struck big in Sadr City and the Health Ministry.
    Expect alot of Shia blood.

  • ECH says:

    Actually Fallujah does have only 300 US troops, alot were taken out of Fallujah to secure Baghdad.
    “To illustrate Fallujah’s progress, Nicholson pointed to the reduced number of U.S. troops stationed in the city. In March 2005 at the end of his previous duty tour in Iraq, the colonel recalled, about 3,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers were operating in Fallajah. Upon his return to Iraq this February, Nicholson observed, about 300 U.S. troops were operating in Fallujah.”


    While I have long admired Bill Roggio for being one of the very few peo…

  • Tom Holsinger says:

    Al Qaeda has not been able to successfully attack in areas controlled by the Kurds, or areas controlled by the Shia of southern Iraq, for a very long time. Almost all of Al Qaeda’s successful attacks have been made possible by support from Sunni Arabs, specfically by support in areas controlled by Sunni Arabs.
    This is because Kurdish and Shiite security measures are so effective in areas they entirely control.
    So getting rid of the Sunni Arabs will solve two problems – terorism by Sunni Arabs, and terrorism by Al Qaeda. Which is almost all terrorism in Iraq.
    I.e., ethnic cleansing of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs by the Shiite Arabs is winning the war for us.
    Tough for the Sunni Arabs. They had a choice and chose wrong. No one will mourn them.

  • ECH says:

    Tom Holsinger,
    We captured a high ranking AQ operative in Basra last month.

  • Glen says:

    I would be interest in peoples’ comments about this post and Major E’s efforts to promote a more vigourous anti-insurgency in Iraq.
    One of the big suggestions is that US forces be concentrated in Anbar and other Sunni majority areas as those are the areas (cited by several here already) where AQ can operate freely. By focusing on pushing AQ out of Anbar they will be forced to go to far less hospitable areas where the Shia and Kurds can identify and annihilate them without our help.
    I have also suggested elsewhere that expand the Ramadi strategy by dividing up the largest Sunni cities into sectors with Iraqi Army units posted in the sector to develop intelligence and gain control of their sector however that can be done. U.S. forces would be in the FOB’s as a heavy reserve and as advisors, reducing the footprint of the US and the use of roads that attract IED’s like flies. As soon as the sector has been purged of insurgents, locals FROM THAT SECTOR are recruited for police work and the IA shifts back to the FOB’s previously occupied by US forces and the US forces move on to the next city and start over with another IA unit. This puts the onus on the Iraqis to get the job done while maximizing the effectiveness of US strengths– our logistics, air power, armor and intelligence/special ops.


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