It is easy to compare the current fight against the extremist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq with a previous, similar project in the country. After all, as many analysts have suggested, Iraqis managed to expel another extremist group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, from their cities before – so why not use the same method again?
The plan to get rid of Al Qaeda involved enlisting, and paying the salaries of, local men, convincing them to fight against an organization that some of them had previously supported. This US-sponsored plan proved successful and Al Qaeda was, if not completely, then certainly mostly, driven out of provinces like Anbar where they had previously had more power. The plan was known as the Awakening movement.
Tribal leader: Everybody knows Anbar's tribes cannot fight the IS group without some government support.
But the current situation is very different, says Salman al-Mahlawi, a tribal leader from the Qaim area, in the west of Anbar province and near to the border with Syria. Al-Mahlawi was a prominent member of the Awakening forces when they were formed in mid-2006.
The tribal leader, who could not be identified by his real name because of the danger he faces back home, was in Baghdad on a secret visit to try and explain what was happening to his people – he is a senior member of a very large tribe, numbering in their thousands.
And right now, al-Mahlawi says that he and other tribal leaders in the area are not feeling secure. He believes that if the Islamic State group is driven out of his area, then his tribe will surely face repercussions from the Iraqi army or from volunteer militias who enter the town afterwards, because they will all assume that his tribe willingly collaborated with the extremists.
“We are not responsible for our area falling under the IS group’s control,” al-Mahlawi told NIQASH. “And the government knows this. I was just sitting at home when I got word that the Iraqi army had withdrawn from the town and that the IS group had entered it,” he recounted. “At that time I got in touch with a senior government official I am good friends with and he told me that the order [for the army to withdraw] had come from Baghdad. Everybody knows the tribes cannot fight the IS group without some government support.”
A few hours after the IS group took over the town, extremist fighters brought him and some other tribal leaders to a building in the middle of town. There they told them they should all pledge allegiance to the IS group or be killed, along with many members of their tribes. In order to avoid a possible massacre, al-Mahlawi and the others agreed.
In October 2014, al-Mahlawi managed to get out of the country and go to Jordan. While there he received messages from former US allies from his days as part of the Awakening: Did he want to do the same thing again?, they asked.
He has also been involved in secret meetings with members of the Iraqi government about the same subject – getting the tribes of Anbar to turn against the extremists.
However, despite some back and forth, none of these plans have come to fruition. Now al-Mahlawi really believes that the Iraqi government and the US military have lost interest in trying to recruit a new version of the Awakening forces. He believes that this is because they see the current security crisis as more of a conventional war between two armies, rather than the kind of guerrilla street war that was fought against Al Qaeda. For example, although the IS group was pushed out of the city of Ramadi recently, there are still many problems there. Unlike during the Awakening, which saw Al Qaeda expelled relatively quickly, many of the buildings in Ramadi have been damaged by very fierce fighting and it is difficult for the displaced to return home.
In fact attempts to persuade the Sunni Muslim tribes of Anbar to fight the IS group have failed on more than one occasion. Meetings have been held in Iraqi Kurdistan, Jordan, Turkey and in the Gulf states but none of them have achieved many of their aims.
If the Iraqi or US government had supported the tribes in Anbar in the first place, they would be able to push the IS group out much faster.
Between 2006 and 2007, there were an estimated 30,000 fighters taking part in the Awakening forces; they were being paid to fight and they were being supplied weapons. Today, according to one commander of a similar militia formed to fight the IS group in Anbar, there are only about 5,000 tribal fighters and they are lowly paid and have no new weapons.
In the past Iraq’s Sunni Muslim militias supported the Awakening project and many of them volunteered to join any new project fighting against the IS group. When the idea of a National Guard for Iraq still seemed viable, the groups were also supportive of this project. There were even some moderate Sunni Muslim groups in Anbar who refused to pledge allegiance - but they have paid a heavy price for that refusal and many of them have since fled the province.
Plenty of Anbar’s tribes did not choose a side during the security crisis – often they trusted neither party, not the IS group nor the Iraqi government.
What the Iraqi army did also played a major role in which cities the IS group managed to take over. Analysts say that the army withdrew from Anah, Rawa, Qaim and Heet in August 2014 because the government did not believe these cities and towns were important.
However the Iraqi army did stay in Haditha, Al Baghdadi and Ramadi because of strategic federal projects, such as dams or power plants, or military camps, in those areas. The tribes in those areas took the side of the Iraqi army and government. Whereas in the areas the army withdrew from, some tribes decided to stay neutral because in practical terms, they could not fight the IS group alone.
“If the Iraqi government or the US government had supported the tribes in Anbar in the first place, and provided them with arms and salaries, they would have been able to push the IS group out much faster,” suggests Ahmed al-Qubaisi, another of Anbar’s tribal leaders, who has been living in Erbil in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan for the past few months. “The sons of those areas know their own land well and they could give very good intelligence about what the IS group is doing.”
“In the past the Awakening forces performed three very important functions,” al-Qubaisi suggests. “They were fighting extremist militias, intelligence gathering and relaying that information to security services, and also maintaining security in the areas in which they were working – which meant the army did not have to perform this task,” he explains.
One of the other major reasons why the tribes of Anbar have not risen up against the IS group is the IS group’s use of extreme violence to quell dissent. The group, which has been extremely cunning with its use of propaganda, knows the danger posed by locals in Anbar. They certainly do not want repeat the mistakes of their forerunner, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and doubtless they have meted out their harsh punishments for exactly this reason.
Just last week the IS group posted a video online showing the execution of five Anbar locals they suspected of spying for the Iraqi government. The alleged spies were hung upside down from a tree on a local farm, with their hands tied behind their backs, then shot in the head. One of the alleged spies was a teenage boy, probably under 15. The caption of the video: “This is the fate of spies”.
“The IS group has committed massacres in Anbar, including killing senior tribal leaders, as well as mutilating men, women and children, and it does this to sew fear in the population,” Faleh al-Issawi, the deputy chairman of Anbar’s provincial council, confirmed to NIQASH. “It doesn’t trust the population and the organisation knows only too well how dissatisfied locals are with them and with conditions in the province. The IS group knows that people in Anbar would get rid of them in any way they could, if possible.”
The lack of any strong, organized resistance is also having an impact on how the Iraqi army conducts operations in Anbar. Instead of fighting for territory and being able to move on, leaving the ground won to locals to police, the soldiers must remain in place and do this job themselves.
The government is slowly attracting local volunteers to do this kind of policing and security work but there is still a lack of trust between everyone involved.
“We need more volunteers,” Ahmad al-Aifan, a field commander who leads a small group of tribal fighters in Anbar that is being supported by the government, told NIQASH. “The government has opened the door for volunteers and there are thousands more men who want to help push the IS group out their cities.”