The Sunni Civil War

A map of al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq.

Al Qaeda ‘s campaign against the Sunni tribal and insurgent leaders who oppose al Qaeda, or are considering it

Al Qaeda in Iraq is pressing hard with its assassination, terror and intimidation campaign against Sunni tribal leaders and insurgent groups who refuse to join the Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaeda’s political front designed to give the Sunni insurgency an Iraqi face. Today, al Qaeda conducted a suicide attack against the home of Sheikh Thahir al-Dhari, the leader of the al-Zuba’a tribe. Thahir was not killed in the attack, however his son, Harith al-Dhari, was killed along with two aides.

Harith al-Dhari, (who shares the name with the infamous Harith al-Dhari, who is his uncle and head of the insurgent-supporting Muslim Scholars Association), was a leader in the 1920s Revolution Brigades, a nationalist Sunni insurgent group. Elements of the 1920s Revolution Brigades are actively cooperating with the Anbar Salvation Council, the political and military front consisting of tribal leaders and insurgent groups.

As of last September, the leadership of 25 of the 31 Anbari tribes were cooperating with the government, while 6 tribes, know in some military intelligence circles as “The Sinister Six,” were aligned with al Qaeda. Two of the Sinister Six are the Albu Issa and the al-Zuba’a.

The Iraqi government, the Coalition and the Anbar Salvation Council are actively working to split off the Albu Issa and the al-Zuba’a from al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq. The efforts are showing progress. The Albu Issa are turning on al Qaeda in the Fallujah region, while the al-Zuba’a, which have a strong presence in Abu Ghraib, Zaidon and Fallujah, have begun to fight al Qaeda, along with the 1920s Revolution Brigades.

The assassination attempts against Sheikh Thahir al-Dhari and Salam al-Zubaie, one of Iraq’s two Deputy Prime Ministers. Ministers, as well as the chlorine strikes against the Albu Issa must be viewed in this context.

Al Qaeda is attempting to remove the leadership of the insurgent groups such as the 1920s Revolution Brigades and the leadership of these two tribes. Without leadership, the rank and file of the tribes and insurgent groups can be absorbed by al Qaeda’s Islamic State. Al Qaeda was successful in doing just this in 2006, which led to the dominance of al Qaeda over the insurgency in Anbar province.

Al Qaeda is waging a very real war against the Anbar Salvation Council and the tribes that are looking to join the political front. The major battles began this year in mid February, and include a suicide assault on the home of Shiekh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the head of the Anbar Salvation Council; chlorine gas attacks; pitched battles in Amiriya; and an assassination attempt against Salam al-Zubaie.

Below is a list of the major al Qaeda attacks against the Anbar Salvation Council over the past month:

February 19:

Al Qaeda conducted a multi-pronged suicide attack and assault on the home of al Qaeda in Iraq targeted the home of Shiekh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the head of the Anbar Salvation Council. Eleven were killed in the attack but Sattar escaped.

February 24:

Al Qaeda in Iraq destroyed a mosque in the Anbar city of Habbaniyah. opponents. The target was an imam who “had spoken out against Sunni al Qaeda members during prayers.” Sunni Sheikhs and insurgent leaders, including members of the Anbar Salvation Council, were present. The suicide bomber killed 39 and wounded 62. The explosion destroyed a nearby market, and many women and children are said to have been killed.

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 in Habbaniyah. The Iraqi police in Amiriya held off the attack, radioed for backup from Iraqi Army, police and members of the Thurwa al-Anbar, the tribal militias assembled by 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 battles between al Qaeda and Iraqi police, Army and the Anbar Salvation Council in Anbar province this year.

March 16:

Al Qaeda conducted a triple suicide chlorine gas attack in Amiriya, Fallujah and Ramadi. The Ramadi attack was stopped at a checkpoint, but the Fallujah and Amiriya attacks were aimed at civilian neighborhoods. The Fallujah attack aimed at the Albu Issa district. The target in Amiriya was a senior member of the Anbar Salvation Council. Al Qaeda successfully carried out two other chlorine attacks in Anbar, while two others were foiled. It is not known if these attacks were aimed at leadership targets.

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.

March 23:

Salam al-Zubaie, one of two Deputy Prime Ministers, was wounded after a suicide bomb was detonated in the courtyard of the mosque he was attending. Eight Iraqis have been reported killed including 5 of his bodyguards and a senior adviser. The lead suspect is a member of his security detail, a relative of Zubaie who was detained as an insurgent and subsequently released at Zubaie’s request. Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack.

March 28:

Al Qaeda conducted a double chlorine gas suicide attack on the Fallujah Government Center. The Anbar Salvation Council is on the rise inside Fallujah, and members of the Albu Issa tribe are in prominent positions in the Fallujah Police. “Today’s attack coincided with yesterday’s appointment by the Fallujah City Council of a new mayor, Saad Awad Rahid Al-Dulaimi,” Major Jeffery Pool, the Public Affairs Director for Multinational Forces West informed us via email. “A Fallujah social studies teacher was elected in a democratic vote of 11 to 15.”

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



  • ECH says:

    I watched in late 2005 and 2006 the tribal alliance against al-Qaeda fall apart in Anbar after the killings of many tribal leaders like Sheikh Osama al-Jadaan.
    al-Qaeda quickly and skillfully put down their enemies.
    I am worried that without heavy US and Iraqi government support the same thing will happen to the Anbar Salvation Council and Sheikh Sattar will suffer the same fate as Sheikh al-Jadaan. I fear the US and Iraqi government’s reluctance to arm and equip the Iraqi Police and ERUs could doom them like it did last time. Sheikh Sattar has said that the ERUs and police only have 10% of the equipment and weapons they require from the Interior Ministry.

  • DJ Elliott says:

    They did not expect the sudden recruit flood in Anbar.
    Go to Pentagonchannel and watch last CPATT brief.
    They expect to be at full equipping of IP by Jun (incl the unplanned 8x ERU Bns).
    He had just got back from Ramadi when he gave that Brief.
    Recent visits by PM, MOI and MOD was also a big push there…

  • ECH says:

    That is good news. The AP had this article up a few days ago about the Anbar police and the ERUs.
    “Sattar and other sheiks urged their tribesmen to join the police force, and 4,500 Sunnis heeded the call in Ramadi alone – a remarkable feat in a city that had almost no police a year ago. Also, pouring through the streets in police trucks fixed with heavy machine-guns are 2,500 Sunni tribesmen who have joined newly created SWAT team-like paramilitary units. Paid by the Interior Ministry with the blessing of U.S. commanders, the so-called Emergency Response Units are clearly loyal to local sheiks. Some wear track suits and face-covering red-checkered headscarves – looking startlingly like insurgent fighters. Others wear crisp green camouflage uniforms bought by Sattar.
    The ERU members were screened and sent either on 45-day police training courses in Jordan or seven-day courses at a military base in Ramadi – part of an effort to capitalize on the Awakening movement and make use of them as quickly as possible. “I’d say 20 percent of the credit for the change in Ramadi could be taken by U.S. forces,” said Strickland. “The vast majority of the turnaround is due to the sheiks.”
    Sattar complained the Interior Ministry had given police and ERU units “one-tenth” of the resources they needed – from equipment to guns to food, despite promises to do more. Some of the fighters use automatic weapons they brought from home. Strickland said the government was probably “hesitant to strengthen and supply something that might become a popular Sunni movement.”

  • DJ Elliott says:

    The problem is that they did not expect this large of a turnout for the IP. This turnaround in Anbar has been a surprise to the GoI and they do not trust it.
    Now they have to equip 8+ new unplanned Battalions. That and cycle them thru training.
    They are due to get a large shipment of personal arms and equipment next month. That will help.

  • DJ Elliott says:

    That zone of Ninawa (Tal Afar) is mixed.
    Shia are not a majority but, they are a significant percentage.
    Same with Kurd and sunni arab, none of the factions have a clear majority.
    Same is true of Mosul and Kirkuk.
    Many of the sunni arab there refuse to join IP, so the IP is local but heavily shia/kurd…
    As to the IA that came in to sort them out: 3rd IA Div is mixed but, with heavy former-peshmerga component and 2nd IA Div (Mosul) is 70% former-peshmerga…

  • DJ Elliott says:

    The Iraqi MoD decided to buy American. Personnel arms and equipment for over 40 Battalions. Some types of US weapons are going to be hard to get for a while. These are a few examples:

  • Getting the Sunnis to buy into the current Iraqi government, even grudgingly, is the key to the whole shooting match. The Sunnis have been unbelievably hardheaded, to their own detriment, about accepting their reduced status in the new Iraq. Their best long term course of action is to join the current Iraqi government and fight against the one foreign army that is really harming their interests, Al Queda.
    The seriousness of this threat to Al Queda is demonstrated by their quick and violent response.
    The almost incredible turn of events in the last few months makes me wonder why our generals held on to the old policy for so long last year.

  • crosspatch says:

    I’ll repost a link to a Fox story of police in Tal Afar going a little nuts yesterday. My original post was deleted for some marginal language on my part in reaction to the article. I suppose they are human and it looks like the Iraqi Army came in and settled them down but Iraqi police going on a shooting rampage isn’t good news.
    I knew Tal Afar was mixed with Turkman and Kurd along with Sunnis, wasn’t aware there was a significant Shiite population there. Interesting to know, thanks.

  • madconductor says:

    I agree with your assertion that the Sunni’s need to join the Iraqi government. But it is important to remember that until they saw the senseless murders by the AQ terrorists of their own tribes, they had little sympathy for the Iraqi government – since it, the new government, seemed a political risk to them. I think when thier focus is fighting and not governing, formulating a change of attitude is hard to come by. The COIN effort here has been difficult and tedious, IMO. But it is now beginning to show results. So congrats to those folks who have worked so hard at turning attitudes around – or we would still not be seeing Anbari tribes considering something other than fighting.

  • Mark Buehner says:

    Arent the other tribes fed up with their sheiks being assassinated? When do they turn on the Sinister Six and hold them accountable for abetting Al Qaeda? There are the making of a hundred blood feuds already on the books.

  • crosspatch says:

    “since it, the new government, seemed a political risk to them. I think when thier focus is fighting and not governing, formulating a change of attitude is hard to come by”
    Good points, I think. Until the Sunnis have a real investment in the success of the government, there isn’t going to be a lot of real support for it. Recent actions to re-appoint former Baathists to government positions and bringing them back into the Army are major steps. The people can then see the government as their government and the success of it having really impact. If there aren’t any Sunnis in government civil service, they aren’t likely to care much. The Sunnis need to be involved in the low and middle lever bureaucracy in addition to seats in the assembly. This gives them a real stake in the success of the government and its various departments. It can also act as a natural check and balance system on corruption.


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