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Anbar Sunnis Turn on al-Qaeda

Twenty-five Sunni tribes in Iraq’s western Anbar Province say that they have sealed an agreement to unite against al-Qaeda because of the foreign terrorist group’s indiscriminate killing of innocent Iraqis. This is actually the formalization of a process which has been ongoing for more than a year, as native Sunni Iraqis who opposed the presence of U.S. troops came to view foreign jihadists not as the allies they claimed to be, but as enemies of the Iraqi people. The Sunni and Shi’a factions which had once found common cause have now entirely turned on each other. This has coincided with progress in the reconciliation process, although Iraqi troops, now in the lead in the north central provinces of Iraq, face major challenges as terrorist attacks in Kirkuk and Tel Afar challenged their authority.

As reported in the New York Times:

More than two-dozen tribes from Iraq’s volatile Sunni Arab-dominated province west of Baghdad have agreed to join forces and fight Al Qaeda insurgents and other foreign-backed “terrorists,” an influential tribal leader said today. Twenty-five of about 31 tribes in Anbar Province, a vast, mostly desert region that stretches westward from Baghdad to the borders of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, have agreed to fight together against insurgents and gangs that are “killing people for no reason,” said the tribal leader, Sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh Al-Rishawi.

“We held a meeting earlier and agreed to fight those who call themselves mujahedeen,” Mr. Rishawi said in an interview today. “We believe that there is a conspiracy against our Iraqi people. Those terrorists claimed that they are fighters working on liberating Iraq, but they turned out to be killers. Now all the people are fed up and have turned against them.”

This marks the end of a broad anti-American coalition which came together in the two years following the fall of the Baathist regime in April 2003, but began to show increasing signs of strain in the latter part of 2005. This coalition was destined to come apart, as its four constituent elements had mutually exclusive goals - the foreign jihadists, led by al-Qaeda, sought to establish a globally-focused caliphate based in Baghdad which excluded the Shi’a; Sunni Islamist Iraqis sought an Islamic state under their control; secularist Baathist Iraqis sought the reestablishment of the regime of Saddam Hussein; and the Shi’a militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Mahdi Army, sought a Shi’a-led Islamic state in Iraq. This was never a real alliance, as they had little in common except hatred of the U.S. While Sadr made inroads with Sunni insurgents during 2005, attacks on Sunni civilians by his militia soured relations. At the same time, complaints by Sunni Iraqis against al-Qaeda have been heard for months, but this is the first time that a formal agreement to fight al-Qaeda has been reached by Sunni tribes. (See our August 5 report, which discusses both issues.)

This splintering of the insurgency has fed directly into increased support for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s reconciliation and amnesty plan, based on a series of conferences and working groups in which Sunni and Shi’a religious, tribal and community leaders meet to discuss issues. On July 17, the Iraqi newspaper Al-Sabah reported that a tribal conference in Karbala resulted in “more than 300” tribal leaders signing a document foreswearing the shedding of Iraqi blood, and committing themselves to the peaceful resolution of conflict. A separate agreement between the Shi’a and Sunni Waqf administrations was reported by the Iraqi newspaper Al-Rafidayn on September 14, committing themselves to doing everything possible to keep the holy month of Ramadan safe for all Iraqis. The same article noted an agreement involving 20 Sunni insurgent factions which committed to a variety of points, including a prohibition on shedding Iraqi blood, a prohibition on attacking Iraqi infrastructure, and a commitment to help rebuild infrastructure in Sunni areas.

One ongoing issue of contention has been the continued call by many Sunnis for the release of Saddam Hussein. Not only is there no chance that the government will agree to this, but the mere fact that many tribal leaders keep repeating the demand undermines the credibility of their claims that they want to stop fighting. In the words of the Shi’a Karbala News Agency, “Analysts view the demand from Sunni tribes of releasing the dictator Saddam as making clear that they are behind all that which takes place in terms of destruction and the killing of innocents among Iraqis, and that they seek to undermine the democratic process and return to the rule of the minority over the majority…” Not all Sunni Arabs demand Saddam’s release, as recently reported in Al-Hayat (“Tribes Reject Call for the Release of Saddam”). The article notes a widely reported call for Saddam’s release by Shaikh Wasfi al-Asi of the large Abid tribe, but reports that other Sunni Arab tribal leaders differ. It quotes Shaikh Abd al-Ali al-Attiya, a tribal leader in Kirkuk, as saying that “we were surprised… we would like for tribal leaders to look again at the issue of the arrest of Saddam and his release. For Iraqis live in a difficult time and they seek to move beyond the images of the former regime and its dreams.”

As we discussed in a recent report (“ISF Steps Up in Sunni Arab North”), U.S. troop levels in north central Iraq have declined and Iraqi troops have largely although not entirely taken over responsibility for security. Yet the government’s opponents are determined not to allow this to happen peaceably. On Sunday, a series of terrorist attacks in Kirkuk targeting Iraqi police killed 26 and wounded 85. One of the bombs hit a police headqaurters, and two others targeted patrols (Reuters, Washington Post). There was also a major terrorist attack in Tel Afar, in the Ninawa Province in northwest Iraq, which killed 20 and wounded 17 (Washington Post). Ninawa is a mixed Sunni Arab/Kurdish province in which has seen both major insurgent activity and coalition operations.