Iraqi army soldiers and officers in Abu Ghraib. (photo: وزارة الدفاع العراقية)
To get home on this particular evening, Radhi Saadi, a 44-year-old local who lives in the Abu Ghraib district, west of Baghdad, has had to wait in his car at a checkpoint for about two hours. He became increasingly worried – the security situation in Abu Ghraib is different from other parts of Baghdad and there is a nightly curfew, starting at midnight and going until 4am. This curfew was lifted in other parts of the Baghdad area but is still enforced in Abu Ghraib.
This is because Abu Ghraib sits on the road between Baghdad and the city of Fallujah in Anbar province. It is also close to the districts of Fallujah and Karmah in Anbar, which are known as hiding places for the extremist group known as the Islamic State. Extremist sleeper cells set up base in these areas and then attempt to get into Baghdad via Abu Ghraib.
The divide-and-conquer tactics will eventually favour whomever is ready to take power in the district, with guns.
This is why all residents must pass through a checkpoint when entering or leaving Abu Ghraib.
Saadi eventually left his car and walked up to the soldiers at the checkpoint. He was told things were taking so long because the checkpoint had been attacked by gunmen and the whole district had been closed off to try and prevent the attackers from escaping.
It's not the first time this has happened, Saadi told NIQASH. “Checkpoints in this area are always under attack,” he shrugged. By 10pm Saadi and the other people waiting in the queue had been allowed to enter the district on the condition that they could prove their residency inside Abu Ghraib. One man who said he was visiting relatives, was forced to call them to the checkpoint so they could act as guarantors for him, before he was allowed to enter.
But not all of the violence here can be attributed to extremists. As is standard in many of Iraq’s more agricultural areas, society here relies heavily on tribal connections.
An Iraqi army officer with tribal leaders in Abu Ghraib.
For example, one recent attack on a control tower manned by security forces was apparently motivated by the behaviour of an officer there, who was rude to a local woman in her 20s. Female modesty and respect for women within those rules, is a guiding principle for many of the tribes. Apparently, the armed men attacked the control tower because of the disrespect shown to the young woman of their tribe.
But even that can get confusing. “The tribes who have been here a long time won’t allow attacks on the security forces either because some of the men manning the check points are members of their own tribes,” explains Mahdi al-Suwaibi, a tribal leader in Abu Ghraib.
Al-Suwaibi also has another conspiracy theory to share. He thinks that some of the attacks are being carried out by soldiers in the current Iraqi army, whose loyalties are unclear. If Abu Ghraib is seen as a more dangerous posting they receive “danger money” on top of their salaries. They can also make money by blackmailing local business owners, by promising to protect them, he suggests.
If the attacks are being carried out by Islamic State sleeper cells, then this needs to be verified. Right now what is happening, according to al-Suwaibi and other locals, is that the local population trust the security forces less and less. It means that the security forces are less able to do their jobs and that the divide-and-conquer tactics will eventually favour whomever is ready to take power in the district, with guns. Those responsible appear to want a return to the state of chaos that prevailed shortly after 2003, when Abu Ghraib and Anbar were a hotbed of terrorist and partisan militias.
Officers with the Baghdad Operations Command, the body responsible for security in the Baghdad area, do not believe that the Islamic State, or IS, group has fighters operating in this area. That means that the most likely culprits are corrupt soldiers. Nobody knows whether these individuals are in it for the money or whether they have links with organized crime, or with the IS group, or perhaps with former factions of the outlawed Baath party, headed by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Jalil Jabbar al-Rubaie, the major general who heads the Baghdad Operations Command, believes that his organization needs better intelligence out of western Baghdad and Abu Ghraib.
“But for now the situation in Abu Ghraib is under control, despite some incidents,” he told NIQASH.
At a meeting in Abu Ghraib, between Iraqi army officers and local tribal leaders.