Sheikh Aifan Sadoun Aifan al-Issawi in 2011. Photo by Saif Ahmed / Mawtani.
A suicide bomber killed a prominent Iraqi parliamentarian and five others near Fallujah on Tuesday afternoon. Sheikh Aifan Sadoun Aifan al-Issawi, a member of the secular, Sunni-backed Iraqiya political bloc and one of the leaders of Iraq’s Sunni tribal Awakening, was attacked as he inspected a road construction project south of the city. Two civilians and three of the sheikh’s bodyguards were also killed in the explosion, and at least four others were wounded.
The suicide bomber, who was likely a member of al Qaeda in Iraq and its political front, the Islamic State of Iraq, had posed as a construction worker, according to a number of witnesses.
“The moment [Aifan] stepped out of the car to check out this road between Fallujah and Amriyah, at this moment, there was a man. He came to him, hugged him, said Allahu Akbar, and blew himself up,” said Sohaib Haqi, the lawmaker’s office chief, quoted by Agence France-Presse.
“One of the workers at the site went toward him, he thought he wanted something. The worker hugged him and then blew himself up,” said Sadoun Ubaid, deputy head of the Anbar provincial council, in a statement to Reuters.
In addition to being a member of Iraq’s national parliament, Aifan was a sheikh of the Albu Issa tribe and one of the founders of Fallujah’s tribal “Awakening” movement during 2006 that was largely responsible for the improvement in Iraq’s security over the subsequent two years. Known to many American military personnel from that period by his nickname, “Dark,” Sheikh Aifan was the first Fallujan to form and lead an American-allied militia against al Qaeda on the rural peninsula south of the famously restive city.
After his role in improving security, Aifan reaped significant political and financial benefit from his enhanced stature and his relationship with American forces prior to their departure from Iraq. He was a member of Anbar’s provincial council, followed by his appointment as a national parliamentarian after a lawmaker was assassinated in August 2011. Aifan held important security positions at both levels, including his last post as the national parliament’s security and defense committee chairman.
Target of multiple assassination attempts
Aifan has survived numerous attempts on his life since his public opposition to radical insurgents allied with al Qaeda in Iraq and their shadow government, the Islamic State of Iraq. On March 16, 2007, al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents detonated a dump truck filled with explosives and chlorine gas canisters in his village of Albu Aifan, in an attempt to kill him and other tribal leaders who had defied the Islamic State of Iraq. Several civilians were killed in the chemical attack, including three children and Aifan’s mother. The event is widely regarded as an atrocity that galvanized widespread tribal support against al Qaeda in the Fallujah area.
“They killed a lot of kids and innocent people,” Aifan told the Long War Journal in a 2011 interview. “I told my people, you see, they killed the kids, they killed the women. Why did they send the big tank with the chlorine? And a lot of people when they saw these bad things happen, they stopped sitting in their house, they felt they should fight, or at minimum, they should support us to fight al Qaeda. And thankfully, the people Awakened.”
Sheikh Aifan survived at least three additional assassination attempts that year, including a roadside bomb attack on May 5, 2007 that maimed two of his bodyguards. In the second of two attacks in October 2007, a suicide bomber attempted to detonate a vest filled with explosives as the sheikh attended Friday prayers at a local mosque.
When asked about past and continuing threats on his life, Aifan told the the Long War Journal: “Every day when I woke up in the morning I thought, ‘maybe I won’t stay alive for the [whole] day.’ A lot of people around me were killed, they lost their hands, their legs, because they fought. But we were fighting because … al Qaeda killed any good people, they made rules, they kidnapped people, they were [earning] money from kidnapping and killing. Because of this we fight, because of this we believe. And I am happy because we fight al Qaeda.”
Led the fight against al Qaeda
Despite numerous assassination attempts, Aifan led a largely successful campaign against al Qaeda in Iraq that significantly improved security in Fallujah, and he continued actions against the insurgent group until his death. Iraqi security forces have pressed a campaign against AQI, catching one of Aifan’s main enemies, “Mullah” Fallah Hamadi, the insurgent group’s emir for the Fallujan peninsula during the height of the war, near the city of Abu Ghraib in 2011. Aifan was recently quoted at length by Mawtani al Shorfa after Iraqi National Police caught six al Qaeda leaders in Kirkuk province on Dec. 28. The sheikh expressed his confidence in the security forces and reasserted his commitment to defeat the insurgent group.
“It is expected that the six terrorists and the details of the daring raid launched by the Iraqi forces will be shown on television to inform the public of the scope and horror of the crimes committed by the terrorists,” Aifan told the Iraqi news outlet. He asserted that the news report would demonstrate “the security forces’ ability to confront terrorism, as well as the importance of co-operation between citizens and security forces in defeating al-Qaeda in this country.”
Despite Iraq’s relative stabilization — largely attributed to success of the Awakening movement — security has deteriorated after the withdrawal of the US military at the end of 2011. While the terror group does not openly control territory as it did in 2007, before US and Iraqi forces drove it from strongholds throughout the country, al Qaeda in Iraq can still organize and execute large-scale attacks, such as a March 2012 raid in Haditha that killed 27 Iraqi policemen, including two commanders. The group has also launched a number of coordinated attacks, including large-scale bombings, in multiple cities throughout Iraq. Furthermore, AQI has been empowered by recent unrest in Syria, regenerating under a new banner, the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, one of the most prominent rebel groups fighting the regime of Bashar al Assad.
The sheikh’s death comes at a time of political unrest in Iraq. A coalition of Sunni politicians and tribal leaders is leading protests against Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s Shia-led government, claiming that Maliki has targeted leading Sunni figures as part of a campaign of sectarian revenge.
In December 2011, Aifan told the Long War Journal that al Qaeda in Iraq had become less of a problem than sectarian policies pursued by the Maliki government, asserting that formerly competitive Sunni political parties had put their differences aside because “we are all Ahl as-Sunnah” (Sunni).
Despite Iraq’s current sectarian political conflict, the assassination is almost certainly a reflection of Aifan’s longstanding feud with al Qaeda. The organization commonly employs suicide bombers as its assassins, and it has maintained a price on the sheikh’s head in light of his effectiveness against the organization.
Update: This article was updated to reflect that the lawmaker Sheikh Aifan replaced in parliament was assassinated in August 2011. The original version indicated that he was killed in September.