Iraq Sheiks Prepare to Strike Back

Eli Lake
Iraq Sheiks Prepare to Strike Back

The Iraqi leader of the coalition of Sunni sheiks who helped defeat al Qaeda between 2006 and 2009 in western Iraq now says tribal fighters are preparing for a second act.

On Saturday evening, Sheik Ahmed Abu-Risha shared a post on his Facebook page that said Iraqi security forces and other tribesmen were surrounding the city of Fallujah, ready to take back the city from al Qaeda, who earlier this week overtook the city’s police stations and government buildings

In an interview with Al-Arabiya, Abu-Risha said, “we know their homes (in Fallujah) and we want them to come out so we can fight them.”

In some ways the pending battle of Fallujah is reminiscent of the U.S. led counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq known as the surge. Back in 2007 and 2008, the U.S. military aligned with the tribal sheiks that turned on al Qaeda in the Anbar province and began to methodically destroy the organization that was waging a campaign of mass murder throughout Iraq.

But much has changed since then. America’s military is out of Iraq. Until a few months ago, nearly all contact between the U.S. embassy and the anti-al Qaeda sheiks had ceased. In the last year, Al Qaeda’s affiliate staged a jailbreak in Abu Ghraib, freeing many top leaders, and appeared this week to be on the verge of gaining control of Fallujah.

Marie Harf, the deputy spokeswoman for the State Department, said in a statement to reporters Saturday, “We are working with the Iraqi government to support those tribes in every possible way. We are also in contact with tribal leaders from Anbar province who are showing great courage as they fight to eject these terrorist groups from their cities.”

The State Department’s contact with the Iraqi tribal leaders increased significantly in November, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. Indeed, in a 2012 interview, Abu-Risha told The Daily Beast that he was frozen out of contacts with the U.S. government, which preferred to deal directly with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Maliki himself had put out an arrest warrant for abu-Risha, a warrant that appears now to have been rescinded. Maliki in the last two months has held meetings with the Anbari leader as the threat from al Qaeda has grown.

“It has only been in the last few months that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad has been in contact with sheiks in Anbar,” said Sterling Jensen, an analyst at the National Defense University who served as the main translator for the U.S. Army in Ramadi at the beginning of the Anbar Awakening.

Jensen has remained in contact with many of the tribal leaders, including abu-Risha, since leaving Iraq. In an interview, he said al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, known as the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL) has taken advantage of political protests that have been waged for more than a year against Maliki’s government. The protests galvanized a year ago after Rafi al-Issawi, a Sunni politician, announced he was resigning as finance minister and the Maliki government announced an investigation into alleged financial fraud and connections to Sunni death squads.

Maliki is now attempting to work with the tribal leaders who opposed al Qaeda and whom he had opposed until recently. The change in his position can be traced to his visit to Washington in late October and early November, when Obama pressed Maliki to work more closely with the tribal leaders arrayed against al Qaeda. Obama also pledged more weapons and equipment to Iraq’s military to fight al Qaeda’s presence in Anbar and the western part of the country.

But the influx of weapons and new support are no guarantee of victory. “It’s a repeat of 2006, but this time the Iraqi government is the lesser of two evils,” Jensen said. “They are also reluctant to take support from the Iraqi government but they don’t want al Qaeda to take over in Ramadi.” In Fallujah, however, Jensen said any military success against al Qaeda will also have to be matched by political reforms that give the Sunni Arabs living there a sense that they will no longer be targeted by the government in Baghdad.

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