Iraq’s Tribes Will Rise Again, Says U.S. General

One of the top American commanders during the 2006-07 Sunni Awakening sees parallels in today’s fight and cause for cautious optimism

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Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters

Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki speaks during an interview with Reuters in Baghdad, on Jan. 12, 2014.

Two weeks after militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an al-Qaeda-linked insurgent organization, seized control of key areas in Iraq’s Anbar Province, Sunni tribal sheikhs are trying to negotiate an end to the fighting and persuade ISIS to leave the city of Fallujah. The talks come as violence continues to rage in other parts of the country. On Wednesday, bombs ripped through markets in Baghdad and a funeral north of the city, killing 41 and wounding dozens more. The latest attacks add to the toll of a new, violent year: so far this month, 285 people have been killed in Iraq, according to an AP tally. Nearly 9,000 were killed in 2013.

But it is the fighting in Anbar that poses the greatest risk to security in the country. Each day brings fresh reports of some ground won and other territory lost to ISIS militants; however, one development is modestly encouraging. Last week, the specter of an all-out assault by Iraqi security forces on Fallujah – the site of two large battles between American troops and al Qaeda in 2004 – stoked fears that a bloody offensive could precipitate a wider sectarian civil war.

Then on Sunday, Iraq’s Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki turned to Sunni tribal fighters to return security to the restive province. “We want to end the presence of those militants without any bloodshed because the people of Fallujah have suffered a lot,” Maliki told Reuters. “There is a good response from Fallujah’s sons and tribes. We do not care how long this takes.”

For the tribes Maliki mentions, the fight against al-Qaeda is a familiar one. In the year after the 2004 battles over Fallujah, the terrorist group began infiltrating other parts of Anbar Province, including the capital, Ramadi. Around the time violence reached its apogee, in the summer of 2006, then-Colonel Sean MacFarland arrived in command of a brigade from the U.S. 1st Armored Division. The unit moved to Ramadi from Tal Afar, a city in northwest Iraq, where they had conducted successful counterinsurgency operations.

Ramadi was bigger and more complex than Tal Afar, and the spring of 2006 was a violent one. MacFarland’s troops fought their way into the city and established a series of combat outposts where they lived and fought. By the end of the summer, “we were clinging to the edge of the city by our fingernails,” recalls MacFarland, now a Major General commanding the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, Texas. In the midst of the fighting, MacFarland met with tribal leaders and found some who were willing to work with U.S. troops. “Then al-Qaeda overplayed their hands and we just exploited the opportunity,” he says.

The presence of al-Qaeda was never popular in Anbar, but for the first half of 2006, many of the tribes were trying to split the situation down the middle, remaining in opposition to the Iraqi government and coalition forces while trying to fight al-Qaeda piecemeal. Then al-Qaeda insurgents killed a popular sheikh and left his body where it couldn’t be found, preventing a speedy burial, which is called for under Islamic law. That murder, and the disrespect shown afterwards, were the final provocations, and the tribes revolted en masse against al-Qaeda. “When the Sunni tribes began to flip, they flipped pretty rapidly,” MacFarland says. “It wasn’t playing one tribe against another; it was pretty much a wholesale shift from one side of the field to the other. I don’t take credit for it. That was really a grassroots movement. I can only say that we enabled it.”

Over the next several months, U.S. troops partnered with Anbar’s Sunni tribes, including some who had once participated in attacks on Americans, and their reconciliation was a key to stabilizing the province. “The prevailing American theory for years had been that improvements in security would lead to progress in politics,” journalist Thomas Ricks wrote about the Sunni Awakening in his book The Gamble, which details the second half of the Iraq War. “This was the opposite–political change leading to improvements in security.”

One of the sheikhs with whom MacFarland partnered extensively was Sittar abu-Risha, a forcible, charismatic leader whom MacFarland calls a friend. In September 2007, after MacFarland had rotated home and was working on Iraq strategy at the Pentagon, Sheikh Sittar was assassinated by an improvised explosive device outside of his house. His murder appeared to be an inside job. Sittar’s brother, Ahmed abu-Risha, took over the Anbar Salvation Council, as the collection of tribal militias is known. “Ahmed is a very pragmatic guy, kind of a business guy; a consensus builder,” MacFarland says. “He was able to hold the tribes together and finish what they had started.”

With Anbar’s tribal sheikhs once again facing a major infiltration from al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters, Ahmed has been a vocal spokesman for the current campaign. “All the tribes of Anbar are fighting against al-Qaeda. We are happy this fight is taking place,” Ahmed was quoted saying in the Washington Post last week. “We will confront them face to face, and we will win this battle.” Ahmed’s fervor doesn’t surprise MacFarland. “He’s grown into the role there as a leader,” MacFarland says. “Now instead of a single voice, it’s more of a chorus of voices in the Awakening, and that’s probably as it should be. And Ahmed deserves a lot of credit for facilitating that transition.”

In 2006 and 2007, Anbar’s Sunni tribes expelled al-Qaeda with a great deal of support from U.S. troops, and one of the biggest questions now is whether they can do it again on their own. Iraq’s Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq projected optimism in a recent interview during a trip to Washington. “They were pushed out by the tribes and the people of Fallujah and Ramadi themselves,” al-Mutlaq told USA Today. “They know what al-Qaeda would do if they controlled the cities.” Most reports indicate that while the ISIS militants are still in parts of Ramadi, they have been largely driven from that city and negotiations in Fallujah are ongoing. “Fallujah will be a harder fight,” Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, told TIME. “But I don’t think al-Qaeda can hold it as long as the tribes stay reasonably united and Maliki stays reasonably sane.”

Iraqi political divisions will be difficult to overcome, but MacFarland believes that Anbar’s tribes will do their part to expel al-Qaeda from the province. “Nobody, nobody in the world understands the type of terror and oppression that al-Qaeda inflicts better than the people of Ramadi,” he says. “They stood up; they pledged their lives and fortunes and sacred honor to ensure the security of their homes and their families and preserve their way of life.” He believes they will do so again. “It’s too soon to write off the Awakening and the people of Anbar,” he says. “I don’t think anybody will fight harder.”

MacFarland says he was “heartsick” that the area where 83 of his troops died is once again threatened by the specter of al-Qaeda, but like Crocker, he’s cautiously optimistic. “The sacrifices that we made enabled the Awakening to stand up, and to expel al-Qaeda,” he says. “We did a good thing over there. We did a very good thing, and it may yet endure.”