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Anbar’s Unfinished Tribal Revolution | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Iraqi tribal fighters take positions alongside police officers near Baghdad in Anbar province (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Iraqi tribal fighters take positions alongside police officers near Baghdad in Anbar province (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Iraqi tribal fighters take positions alongside police officers near Baghdad in Anbar province (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—With battles against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continuing to rage in both countries, Baghdad has welcomed the assistance of the air forces of the US and several of its European and Middle Eastern allies, equipped as they are with some of the world’s most advanced warplanes and weapons.

However, most analysts agree that air power alone cannot win back the territory that has been lost to ISIS and its allies, and it is on the ground that the picture is murkier. The corruption and morale problems dogging the Iraqi armed forces were exposed in a humiliating fashion with the fall of Mosul in late 2014, leading Baghdad to seek allies to combat ISIS from within Iraqi society while the army is retrained by US and allied advisers.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi recently called for a “tribal revolution” in the country’s western Anbar province, to rise up against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is in control of large areas in the region, and repeat the success of the US-backed “Awakening Movement” among Iraqi Sunnis against Al-Qaeda during the American occupation.

The tribes in the area, which make up an intrinsic part of the social fabric, are now being called into action by the government to help liberate their towns and cities. But they regularly complain of being sidelined by Baghdad. Weapons and ammunition promised to them have not arrived, they say, with Baghdad leaving them to combat ISIS alone, to tragic consequences.

Reports suggest once-thriving areas under ISIS control such as Fallujah have been transformed into “ghost towns.” Sheikh Rafi Abdul Karim Al-Fahdawi, the head of the Albufahd tribe, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “75 percent of Anbar’s residents have now left the province and 80 percent of its area is now empty of people.”

Fahdawi tells Asharq Al-Awsat Abadi’s call to the tribes was a “legitimate one, but not because the government has asked for this, but because Anbar is now in the heart of the storm in the fight against ISIS, and our fighting them now is a matter of life and death.”

Some members of the tribes who belong to the Sahwa (Awakening) movements which fought Al-Qaeda in the region following the US-led invasion 2003 are now fighting ISIS. As a result have been systematically targeted and killed by the group.

In October, the bodies of around 150 members of the Albunimr tribe were discovered in a mass gravesite near Ramadi, with another 48 discovered in Hit. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat in November, one of the members of the prominent tribe said ISIS had a “hit-list” of names of people from the tribe it wished to assassinate, and was now carrying out a “policy of genocide” against its members.

Sheikh Majid Al-Ali Al-Suleiman, the head of the Dulaim tribe, another of the region’s largest, told Asharq Al-Awsat that Anbar’s tribes are now being tasked by the government to do what is essentially the job of the state itself: defending the province.

“The tribes are now being asked to do things it is not in their capacity to do, as if they were a distinct institution or organization of some kind, instead of being a loose collection of tribal traditions, conventions, and values which the tribes are seeking to preserve without politics entering [into it],” he says.

Suleiman says there has been a history of Iraqi administrations using the tribes to score points at the expense of political opponents in the area, a phenomenon which has had highly negative effects on their culture and way of life.

“Successive governments in Iraq, going back at least to the 1990s during the era of Saddam Hussein and continuing until after 2003 [and the US-led invasion of the country] all needed the tribes, but of course in ways that were entirely self-serving, even if this split the unity of the tribe or came at the expense of its traditions and conventions,” he said.

“Saddam Hussein, for example, produced what were later called ‘the Sheikhs of the ninety,’ when he tried to bring over certain sheikhs into his corner in order to impose his control on the population; so he tried to purchase the honor of these parasites.”

“The Americans did the same after 2003 when they tried to produce their own tribal sheikhs,” he added. “And yet today the government is asking the tribes for help, after they have been ripped apart due to the presence of these parasites, when in fact it is the state, with all its security institutions such as the police and the army, that should be protecting the tribes, which are a part of this society.”

“The tribes can of course offer their help in terms of security for this society, but they should not be armed and trained and transformed into armies, and to be asked to take the place of the country’s military,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

But Suleiman admits the Anbar region currently faces grave dangers due to ISIS, and that due to the current weakness of the Iraqi military, it will need all the help it can get from local tribes if the state is to have any control over the region again.

“We are with Abadi,” he said. “But we have previously asked this government that wants a ‘tribal revolution’ to supply us with weapons and train our men. But in truth all we have received until now have been empty promises.”

In response to the lack of government help in this fight, though, the tribes have begun to mobilize themselves. Fahdawi says they have recently formed a “tribal alliance” in order to share manpower, weapons, ammunition and resources.

Sheikh Wissam Al-Hardan, one of the heads of the Sahwa movements in Ramadi seeking to retake the city from ISIS, tells Asharq Al-Awsat the movements, too, are now coordinating among themselves in light of the feeble government response to their calls for assistance.

“The Sahwa movements are present [in Ramadi], and in general are now managing themselves, because the help from the government is meagre, even though it consistently trumpets itself as a supporter of the movements and says it will never abandon them,” he said.

“We have a vendetta with Al-Qaeda, and now also with ISIS and whichever political trend cooperates with it. So we will continue to fight them, no matter what the cost.”