The Iraqi army on patrol in Anbar (Source: Ministry of Defence)
After the extremist group known as the Islamic State was pushed out of their city, Ahmad al-Fahdawi and his family decided to return home to Ramadi. They had been living in a tent in a camp for displaced people for a year and a half and were ready to come home, even though services in the city were far from back to normal. They were not alone. The Iraqi government recently announced that as many as 50,000 Ramadi locals had managed to return home.
When al-Fahdlawi and family arrived back in the city though, they were shocked to see one of their neighbours, a known collaborator with the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group, still living just a few metres away from their family home. The home was in the Tameem neighbourhood in western Ramadi and had been destroyed by the IS group.
But this individual appeared to be living a completely normal life in Ramadi; he was not behind bars, which is where al-Fahdawi thought he should be.
So al-Fahdawi decided to go to the local police station and report his neighbour. However, when he spoke to his other neighbours they all advised him against this course of action. They told him that the ex-IS member had good relationships with the local security forces and that al-Fahdawi might be hurt later on, if he went to complain about the man.
So instead, al-Fahdawi and his family left their neighbourhood again and went to live in a different part of the city. “Despite the fact that the city has been liberated from the IS group, it is still very dangerous here,” al-Fahdawi told NIQASH. “Members of the IS group are roaming the city freely. They shaved off their beards and they are using their tribal affiliations to escape punishment.”
“There are dozens of locals who joined the IS group and who killed their neighbours or destroyed and looted their homes,” he continues. “But when the city was liberated, they managed to sneak past all the security measures. These are the people in Ramadi who are still stirring up fear and who stop people from coming back home.”
One of the fighters of a tribal group that is providing security in Ramadi, Majid al-Thiyabi, confirms al-Fahdlawi’s suspicions.
“It was only a few days after people started coming back into the city when locals started to complain that there were still IS members living among them,” al-Thiyabi says. “We passed their complaints on to the local security forces but they didn’t do anything about them.”
“We believe there is a lot of corruption behind what is going on here,” al-Thiyabi says. “Members of the IS group paid a lot of money to corrupt police officers so that they were not arrested. Other IS members sought the protection of their tribes, or family members who work in the security forces.”
Just a few days ago a group of tribal fighters were able to bring one former IS member to justice by presenting documentation and several witnesses to confirm the man’s former role; he had been living just a few metres away from a security headquarters.
Over the past month al-Thiyabi and his colleagues have investigated complaints and were able to arrest some of the ex-IS members. They have also passed on information to the Iraqi military about IS members who were still in town and who were stirring up locals, frightening them, and who were also suspected of continuing to cooperate with the IS group, potentially acting as sleeper cells.
The ongoing chaos, the lack of stability, the weakness of local security forces and a wide variety of different factions fighting in the Ramadi has made it difficult to know who is who, and more importantly, who was, local officials admit.
There is no doubt that there are still members of the IS group in cities where the group had been pushed out, Rajeh al-Issawi, a local politician who heads Anbar’s provincial security committee, told NIQASH. “And the army has been told to follow up on this issue. Several extremists have been arrested,” he added.
But it’s also important not to jump to conclusions, he continued. “Sometimes these accusations were also used out of personal interest or served a vendetta, when there were conflicts between families or tribes,” al-Issawi said. Any such accusation needs to be proven, otherwise the fighting between families or tribes will just worsen.
There also seems to be a growing competition between the tribal groups who are affiliated with the Iraqi government and those who are not. The two groups are accusing each other of all kinds of misdeeds, including on the former’s part, that the latter are cooperating with the IS group for their own gain.
Although it is unconfirmed, rumour has it that tribal connections have been behind recent attacks on the Iraqi army in Anbar.
For example, on May 29, IS fighters attacked the nearby city of Heet – six weeks after the group had actually been pushed out. After the attack, the Iraqi government quietly investigated the attack, during which members of the Iraqi army had died.
Majid al-Namrawi, one of the community leaders in Heet, says that although the results of the investigation were kept confidential, he knows that investigators discovered that the IS attack was supported by local tribal fighters who were actually supposed to be working with the Iraqi army.
Locals say that some of the tribal units that presented themselves as an anti-IS security force were simply making use of the chaos and power vacuum for their own ends, offering to help the exhausted Iraqi army protect the city.
The IS attackers entered the city from the Bakr neighbourhood, north of the city, which is where the tribal fighters were supposed to be keeping guard. According to al-Namrawi, those fighters simply withdrew, which allowed the attack on the Iraqi army to go ahead.
The Iraqi army eventually re-gained the upper hand and managed to push the IS fighters out again. However, now they are far warier of the tribal fighters.
Anbar province has always had a fairly conservative society, one that was closely knit by tribal and family bonds. In the post-IS era, it seems these will only cause ongoing problems for locals who simply want to return and restart their lives.