Saturday, January 25, 2014

Iraq Update 2014 #11: Maliki Proposes Four New Provinces in Iraq

Iraq’s election season has begun. In the midst of a security crisis in Anbar, the Iraqi government decided to form four new provinces. The decision represents the most significant administrative change in Iraq since the 1970s and has been welcomed by Iraqi Turkmens and Iraqi Christians. However, the decision is politically and legally controversial as it has been rejected by officials in Ninewa and Salah ad-Din. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s decision to form new provinces illustrates his strategy to reset the terms for the electoral campaign, divide his opponents, and shape the post-elections environment.      

On January 21, the Iraqi government announcedthe decision to convert four administrative districts into provinces. The four administrative districts include Tuz Khurmatu, locally known as Duz, located in eastern Salah ad-Din province; the Ninewa Plains area to the northeast of Mosul in Ninewa province; and Fallujah, in Iraq’s western Anbar province. The announcement stated that this decision was made “in principle” and will be followed by the formation of a committee to establish “guidelines and established standards to convert a district to a province.” The committee will be headed by the Minister of State for Provincial Affairs Turhan Mufti and representatives from the Ministry of Justice, Municipality Ministry, and the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers.

In addition to these three districts, Mufti announcedthat the Council of Minister also approved a proposal to convert Tal Afar district in Ninewa into a province. Mufti, an Iraqi Turkmen, added that the Tal Afar decision was made after a proposal by Minister of Youth and Sports, Jassim Mohammed Jaafar, a fellow Iraqi Turkmen and member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance. The Iraqi government previously agreedto make the Iraqi Kurdish district of Halabja in Sulaymaniyah into a separate province on December 31 at the request of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi Kurdish leadership. Halabja’s early conversion may have been a concession by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s to preempt the Iraqi Kurds before converting administrative districts that fall within the Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBs).

All of these districts enjoy a special status. Tuz and Tal Afar are the most contentious. Tuz district is a mixed area that includes Iraqi Turkmens, Iraqi Arabs, and Iraqi Kurds. It is geographically significant as well, given that it lies on the highway connecting northern Iraq with Baghdad. The district is also included in Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution that is designed to address the issue of Disputed Internal Boundaries areas (DIBs) primarily between the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Since last year, the city has been the scene of sustained waves of violent attacks including Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs). Those attacks were likely carried out al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which has historically exploited ethno-sectarian tensions to exacerbate violence and ethno-sectarian confrontations. Those attacks have ledto calls by the sizeable Iraqi Turkmen population to increase efforts to establish local forces to provide protection.

Tuz was also the scene of a prolonged confrontation between the federal government Iraqi Security Forces and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga in December 2012. There have been prior calls by Iraqi Turkmen parties in Tuz to convert it into a province, with the latest coming in Julyand November2013. Iraqi Turkmen leader, Riyadh Sari Kahya, proposed that one name of the province should the “Bayat Province,” named after the most dominant tribe in the area, the Bayati Tribe. As a preemptive measure, the Kirkuk provincial council voted on December 3 toannex Tuz to Kirkuk province, where the district administratively belonged prior to a decision by the Saddam Hussein government to annex it to Salah ad-Din in the 1970s. In a sign of disapproval, the Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Turkmen members of the Kirkuk council boycottedthe Tuz voting session in December.

Tal Afar is also significant, given that it falls within the DIBs and is another ethno-sectarian mixed area. Tal Afar also became a stronghold for AQI after 2003. The district was eventually pacified and stabilized by U.S. and Iraqi forces in 2005. Tal Afar includes Iraqi Shi’a Turkmens and Iraqi Sunni Turkmens. It is an area on which Iraqi Shi’a political parties and groups place a great deal of significance. In the predominantly Iraqi Sunni province of Ninewa, it is the only place with a sizeable Iraqi Shi’a population. This has led to an effort by various Iraqi Shi’a groups to compete and place resources during elections. Mohammed Taqi Mawla, who has been a proponentof converting the district into a province, is a senior figure in Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and prominent in the district. Demonstrating the district’s significance to Iraqi Shi’a groups, Iraqi Shi’a militia group Asai’b Ahl al-Haq (AAH) openedan office in Tal Afar in September of 2012.

In contrast to Tuz and Tal Afar, the Ninewa Plains boundaries will be more complicated to define. While Tuz and Tal Afar are identified as administrative districts, Ninewa Plains is comprised of three geographic areas combining multiple administrative units. In general, the term Ninewa Plains refers to Tel Kayef, Hamdaniyah, and Shaikhan districts. Those areas are predominantly occupied by Iraqi Christians, but they also include other minority groups like Yazidis and the Shabak. Iraqi Christian political parties have had a long-standing demandto convert the area into a province, thus allowing them more freedom and authority.

Fallujah’s potential conversion into a province is more difficult to explain. The district represents the second biggest area in the sprawling province of Anbar. It is predominantly Iraqi Sunni and was the area where Iraq’s insurgency and AQI were the prevailing authorities from 2004-2008, until the establishment of the anti-AQI awakening movement in 2006. While Anbar has always enjoyed a unique status within Iraq due to its location and social tribal fabric, Fallujah is also unique within Anbar, as it is not dominated by a single tribe and has a conservative religious base. Since the beginning of the Anbar crisis in December 2013, Fallujah has been out of central government’s control, with various armed anti-government groups controllingthe city. Its inclusion in the government’s decision is likely intended to combat the appearance of ethno-sectarianism in the government’s overall decision. However, unlike the other administrative districts, there is no well-established historical demand for this decision in Anbar. The decision to include Fallujah in this decision was rejectedby the head of Anbar’s provincial council, Sabah Karhout on January 22. Prime Minister Maliki may be using it to divide the political leadership of Anbar ahead of national elections. The decision may alternately drive unity among Anbari leaders who would fundamentally oppose division of the province. In either case, the decision will create a new political opportunities for Maliki in Anbar.            

The Implementation of the Decision

Despite the issuance of the decision to create new provinces, there is no clear legal mechanism to implement it. The Iraqi constitution does not contain any articles pertaining to the formation of new provinces, and other legislation such as the 2008 Provincial Powers Law (PPL) and its subsequent amendmentsin June 2013 do not address the mechanism of the formation of new areas. Therefore, this is legally and constitutionally an ad hoc effort.

The Mufti Committee will play the crucial role in determining the status of these districts and their conversion into provinces. Notably for Tal Afar’s conversion, the Iraqi government’s decision has included areference to make the decision contingent on a vote in the Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR). This indicates that the other conversions may include the CoR’s involvement as well. But these procedures can change since they are ad hoc.    
Reactions to the Decision

The reactions to the decision have varied. It has been generally welcomedby the Iraqi Turkmens and especially for the Iraqi Christians who have been advocating for an autonomous area in the Ninewa Plains.

On the other hand, the Ninewa and Salah ad-Din provincial governments have rejected the decision. On January 23, Governor of Ninewa Atheel al-Nujaifi statedthat the approval of the government to convert the Ninewa districts of Tal Afar and Ninewa Plains is a “preemptive measure” to prevent the formation of a “united region” in Ninewa. On the same day, member of Ninewa Provincial Council Hosam al-Din al-Ayar stated that a request was submittedto the CoR to announce the Region of Ninewa consisting of three provinces, although the new provinces are not specified. This request is likely intended to counteract the government’s decision with regards to Tal Afar and the Ninewa Plains. According to Ayar, the request was signed by more than one third of council members, which fulfills the legal requirements to submit a request for a federal region.

Ayar added that the request was sent to the CoR for a vote. Despite this statement, legally the decision to announce an autonomous region has to go through the Iraqi government first, and then a referendum is required in the province to ratify the decision. This is a long-term process, and it will not take place before parliamentary elections in April 2014. Thus, the request by Ninewa’s government is likely tactical. Member of Mutahidun Mohammed Iqbal, who is from Ninewa, attributedthe central government’s decision to create new provinces to electoral motives. Furthermore, Iqbal discounted the decision, stating that there is no legal basis for it.  
Iraqi Kurdish political reaction has also been extremely critical. This reaction is expected, since three of the proposed provinces border Iraqi Kurdistan’s boundaries and are areas where Iraqi Kurdish parties have spread their influence since 2003. Head of the CoR’s legal committee and Iraqi Kurdish CoR member Khalid Shwani describedthe decision as a “violation” of the laws and constitution. Shwani added that Tal Afar and Tuz are part of Article 140 and thus cannot be included until Article 140 is implemented. Furthermore, Shwani added that the decision is intended to achieve “political and electoral goals.”   

The reactions of the Iraqi Shi’a political parties have been different. Senior Sadrist member of the CoR Baha al-Araji statedthat the decision is “constitutional and legal,” but came under “conditions that were not legal.” Araji also added that the approach of the April 2014 national elections is a reason for the decision. ISCI, the other major Iraqi Shi’a political party was more sympatheticto the decision, particularly with regards to Tal Afar. In one of its media outlets, al-Forat, ISCI remindedreaders of previous demands by ISCI to convert Tal Afar to a province. This statement is another example of the significance of Tal Afar for the Iraqi Shi’a parties. Sadrist member of the CoR Jawad al-Juburi has further called to convertBaghdad’s Sadr City into a province. If Sadr City is converted into a province in the future, it will allow the Sadrists a greater degree of influence through the control of local security forces and the possibility of winning more seats in the national elections allocated to Sadr City directly.             

Other reactions have included calls by other groups in Ninewa to form a province. On January 23, the leader of the Yazidi Movement for Reform and Progress, Amin Farhan Jaju, announcedthat his movement had sent a request to the Council of Ministers to convert Sinjar district, where a sizeable Yazidi population resides, into a province. Jaju was also supportive of the decision by the government’s decision to convert districts in Ninewa into provinces.

Implications and Conclusions

The new provinces will not be formed before the elections. This is due to the lack of clarity about the legal and constitutional process to do so, the approach of the national elections, and the CoR’s few remaining sessions. Therefore, this decision is best viewed within the prism of the April 2014 elections and Prime Minister Maliki’s strategy to counter post-provincial elections developments that have limited the powers of the federal government.

As an electoral strategy, the decision allows Maliki to shift popular and government focus from security concerns and Maliki’s under-performance in provincial elections. The decision has already caused controversy and allowed Maliki to drive the electoral campaign agenda. The new dynamic may temporarily deflect attention from the security challenges that make Maliki appear weak. The focus on Tal Afar and Tuz allows Maliki to win some Iraqi Shi’a support and also increase his leverage with the Iraqi Kurds after the elections. Tal Afar’s inclusion will paint Maliki as the defender of the Iraqi Shi’a. Tuz’s inclusion can function as a bargaining chip after the elections, as Maliki can offer the cancelation of the decision as an incentive to the Iraqi Kurds in return for their support for his third term as Prime Minister.   

The decision also allows Maliki to weaken the leading Iraqi Sunni politicians in Ninewa, governor Nujaifi and his brother, speaker of the CoR Osama al-Nujaifi. Shortly after the formation of the new Ninewa provincial council, the Ninewa provincial council authorizedgovernor Nujaifi to sign contracts with oil companies in the province. Some of the fields are projected to be in the Ninewa Plains. Thus Maliki’s decision can hinder that plan even if temporarily, raising a concern for potential oil investors. Furthermore, the decision allows Maliki to contestthe newly-amended Provincial Powers Law that allowed the provinces more authorities. Additionally, turning Ninewa into three provinces will potentially deprive it of future petrodollars if the province becomes a major oil-producing area.     

The decision represents the most significant administrative change in Iraq’s history since the 1970s. Moving forward, it will be imperative to observe how other districts in Iraq will react to this decision. This is particularly true in contentious areas like Hawijah in Kirkuk, Nukhaib in Anbar, and Zubair in Basra. Maliki’s maneuver positions him well for now, but the possible unification of his political opponents may divert his momentum.

Ahmed Ali is a Senior Iraq Research Analyst and the Iraq Team Lead at the Institute for the Study of War.                              

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Iraq Update 2014 #10: Journalists, Government Employees Targeted in Mosul Intimidation Campaign

by ISW Iraq Team

The city of Mosul has witnessed an increased effort by extremist groups, likely al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) but possibly the Ba’athist group Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshabandia (JRTN), to seize control of the city. Reporting from Mosul is severely limited at this time, not because violence has been reduced, but instead because journalists were targeted in late 2013, effectively placing the city under a media blackout. A campaign of intimidation is underway, suppressing reporting and masking all but the most spectacular attacks. Attacks upon local government figures and Mosul University students indicate that security conditions in the city center are very dangerous at this time. ISF operations in Anbar do not reduce threats to other urban capitals in Iraq, especially Mosul, where the militant organizations AQI and JRTN have both been active.


In a likely effort to isolate the city, armed groups launched a campaign on October 2013 against media reporters and journalists. Reports indicate that journalists received threats via e-mails and text messages. After killing 5 journalists, around 40 others departed the city to safer areas. Half of them moved to Kurdistan and others left to Turkey. Reportedly, there was a hit list of 40 journalists. It is unclear who issued the hit list but according to a survey conducted by the Journalist Freedoms Observatory, the threats were likely issued by “terrorist” organizations, security forces, or influential political parties. It is not possible to assess confidently whether the threats were issued by AQI or by JRTN.  The survey’s implication of the local government is noteworthy. The local government has not visibly worked to overcome this condition, either because they have also suffered intimidation, or because they do not want to provoke ISF mobilization in Ninewa. Targeting of journalists is likely part of a larger campaign, to keep the city isolated and closed off from international visibility.

As a result, there is a limited quantity of reporting on violent events in Mosul. This requires a different lens through which to view violent events that are reported in news media. The following violent events are indicators of an orchestrated campaign to control local institutions within the city center.

Targeting of Local Government Employees

In an effort to paralyze the local government in Mosul, armed groups targeted the employees of the local government. According to anonymous employees of the local government, around 80 employees were killed by unidentified gunmen between November and December of 2013. The targeting of employees forced the government to stop providing bus transportation for employees, as bus stops and bus routes were highly vulnerable.

Wide targeting of Mokhtars [neighborhood governmental representatives] in Mosul took place on September 29, 2013. A Mokhtar is a person who has lived in an area for a long time and therefore possesses great deal of information on that area. Mokhtars in Mosul therefore likely support the ISF with local intelligence. In one day, five Mokhtars were killed while five others survived because they left their homes before they were stormed by unidentified gunmen. This targeting caused 18 others to resign, while the rest suspended their activities. Mosul’s mayor, Hussein Ali Hachim criticized the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) for not providing adequate protection for the Mokhtars. According to Hachim, ISF escorted Mokhtars to ISF headquarters and back in military vehicles, increasing their signature, and therefore making them visible targets. Hachim himself survivedan assassination attempt on December 11, 2013 when unidentified gunmen opened fire on his motorcade in the area of Tel Kayef, northern Mosul. The attack resulted in the injury of the mayor along with several of his bodyguards.

Meanwhile, Commander of the 3rd Division of the Federal Police General Mahdi al-Gharawi, issued an opposite accusation. Gharawi stated on January 19, 2014 that most of the Mokhtars were used by the “terrorist” groups and were killed by the same groups after they were not useful anymore. Mokhtars likely faced pressure by both the ISF and armed groups in the province to provide information and influence. Their intimidation and targeted assassination has likely left a void of social structure within Mosul that increases the overall threat to the population and to the security forces.   


Other targeted groups in Mosul have included Mosul University students. Around 14 students were killed by unidentified gunmen in the second half of 2013 which made other non-local students depart the city. A student who survived the attacks stated that the killings were done indiscriminately. The attacks were carried out in the well-fortified Hadaba Street, close to the university and students’ shared living quarters which, suggesting that non-local students had been the deliberate target. In a separate campaign of attacks in November 2013, a number of Yazidi students were killed. Yazidis are a non-Muslim, ethnic minority. On November 28, 2013 unidentified gunmen opened fire on bus drivers on whom Yazidi students relied to commute from their homes in northern Mosul. This incident, along with others stopped more than 2000 Yazidi students from attending the University of Mosul by December 23, 2013. 

The crisis in the University of Mosul was confirmed by official accounts. Universities in Iraqi Kurdistan offered Yazidi students the opportunity to transfer their enrollment, and Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Ali al-Adib approved of a request submitted by 14 students from Baghdad to transfer to universities in the capital.

These incidents are indicators that AQI or JRTN may be establishing control of neighborhoods within Mosul. They are also grave signs that the Iraqi Security Forces do not control the city. While all eyes are focused on Anbar, it is essential to observe warning signs of AQI’s next campaign objective, which elements of AQI outside of Anbar have a prime opportunity to pursue. If these incidents are indeed perpetrated by AQI, we can discern that its campaign objectives lie beyond controlling Fallujah, and indeed that the organization has scoped a wider path to restoring an Islamic state in Iraq.


Friday, January 17, 2014

Iraq Update 2014 #9: Anbar Standoff Continues With Clashes in Ramadi and Fallujah

Clashes continued in Anbar throughout the last week, primarily concentrated on specific areas in Ramadi and along the highway area between Ramadi and Fallujah. Although the clashes are not as intense as those that characterized the beginning of the crisis, their continuation suggests that violence in Anbar is likely to be protracted.

Fallujah Clashes

The city of Fallujah remains surrounded by the Iraqi military and is still a no-go zone for Iraqi government forces. Nonetheless, significant events have taken place in the city and its surroundings in the last week. Shelling of areas close to Fallujah continued as the Iraqi Army carried out mortar attacks in Garma resulting in the death of four civilians and injury of six on January 14.

On January 10, unidentified gunmen using explosives destroyedtwo bridges near Fallujah. One attack took place near Garma, which has been a contested area since the beginning of the Anbar crisis. These attacks are intended to hinder supply lines for the Anbar-based ISF and also to isolate the forces deployed near the city. On January 11, a new administrator for Fallujah was appointedalong with a new police chief and they assumedtheir responsibilities the following day. These steps were meant to consolidate the powers of local brokers.   

On January 15, gunmen likely affiliated with AQI took over the Saqlawiyah police station in Fallujah district after the police force was defeated. The police stations, along with Saqlawiyah’s government complex, were regainedby security forces on January 16. AQI is known to have attacked police stations in the past and likely carried out this attack to establish presence and confiscate the weapons of defeated police. In Fallujah city itself, AQI members on January 16 are reported to have distributedleaflets that called on the population to carry arms and provide support to AQI. Furthermore, AQI-signed pamphlets are reported to have been found in the city announcing the formation of a body to resolve disputes among the city’s residents. The body, known as the “Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” commission, historically has a role of enforcing strict religious rules. Tribes and locals in Fallujah will likely respond adversely to this step. 

In a move that could open the door for escalation, on January 17 Anbar’s deputy council chairman, Falih al-Issawi, statedthat the tribes in Fallujah have failed to expel AQI from the city and that the new administrator and police chief are no longer in the city due to the kidnapping of the administrator and the escape of the police chief to Arbil. These reports are unconfirmed by any other sources from inside Fallujah.  According to the Issawi, this signifies the collapse of the government’s agreement with the tribes and could lead ISF to attempt to retake the city by force. If the report is accurate, the city will face intense military pressure in the coming days. It is likely, however, that Fallujah notables and tribes will pressure AQI members to become less visible in order to avoid a military campaign. It will be important to watch AQI’s reaction to such pressure.  

Clashes in Ramadi and the Participation of the Golden Division

On January 11, security forces led by the counter-terrorism forces, regainedcontrol of the “old security building” in Ramadi which was taken over by likely al-Qaeda in Iraq elements earlier in the week. The counter-terrorism force participating in the attack was likely the Golden Division of the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) which has spearheaded the Iraqi government response to attacks in Anbar the beginning of the crisis particularly in urban areas. The Golden division is led by Iraqi Kurdish General, Fadhel Barwari and, as the elite force in the CTS, it will likely be the lead force in any Iraqi government plan to retake control of Fallujah. Barwari has an active social media presence and he is using it to project his units operation and power in Anbar’s operations. On January 2, Barwari posteda photo on his Facebook page announcing the deployment of a new weapon by his unit in Anbar that he named after himself. Barwari’s effort in sharing the Golden Division’s operations is intended to compete with AQI’s and the Tribal Military Councils’ (TMCs) use of social media broadcasting their own activities.

While the Golden Division carries out its operations in Anbar, AQI is still able to carry out attacks in Ramadi. The clashes are concentrated in the Albu Bali area northwest of Ramadi as well as Khaldiya. The area is named after the Albu Bali tribe which is pro-government. Albu Bali is also a strategic area given its close location to the highway between Ramadi and Fallujah. On January 10, a social media outlet sympathetic to AQI posted a photo alleging AQI’s destruction of an Iraqi Security Forces HUMVEE in Albu Bali with an individual on top of the vehicle raising AQI’s black flag. On January 15, leader of the pro-government tribal Sahwas, Wisam al-Hardan, statedthat his forces along with other security elements are preparing to retake Albu Bali from AQI and added that most families in the area have departed due to the clashes. On January 16, a reported force of three thousand CTS and Rapid Reaction elements launched a counterattack on Albu Bali. At this point, it is not clear whether or not the attack was successful. 
Barwari posing with the "Barwari missile."  Photo from Barwari's Facebook page.

Photo posted on January 10 alleging AQI destruction of an ISF HUMVEE in Albu Bali. 

Elsewhere in Ramadi, clashestook place on January 13 in the area of Street 60 reportedly between AQI elements and ISF and pro-government tribal forces. The Malaab [Stadium] area police station also fellto likely TMC elements on January 15. There are media reports of continuous clashes in the Malaab area in Ramadi as of January 17. Anbar deputy council chairman Falih al-Issawi criticized the police in Malaab for allowing the station to fall, adding that the 200 police members could not resist attackers in four attacking vehicles. This indicates that the police force deserted. On January 10, the house of Anbar assistant governor, Mahdi Salih Noman, was blown up by explosives. Noman was not home during the attack and a local police source stated that AQI elements carried out the attack. If the attack was not carried out by AQI, it was possibly carried out by anti-government TMCs that intended to intimidate Noman instead of killing him and thereby incurring punishment by Noman’s tribe. Meanwhile, on January 17, a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest (SVEST) attackeda Sahwa force in the Albu Fahad area resulting in the death of at least two Sahwa members. SVEST attacks are signature AQI attacks. As AQI will continue to attack pro-government tribes, it will be important to watch if the TMCs will also choose to fight pro-government tribes.          


The attacks in Ramadi and Fallujah will continue. So far, the Iraqi government has restrained from militarily entering Fallujah and thus averting high numbers of casualties. Nevertheless, shelling the city has continued and there is a conflict in the city between local tribes that want to keep the Iraqi Army military out of Fallujah and AQI.  AQI has distributed leaflets that announce its long-term intention to remain in the city, impose harsh religious principles, and possibly to govern it as part of its Islamic State. The Iraqi government would nevertheless be well-advised to allow negotiations to take their course, continue to engage the tribal leaders of Fallujah, and avoid a violent and damaging siege.

Ahmed Aliis a Senior Iraq Research Analyst and the Iraq Team Lead at the Institute for the Study of War     

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Iraq Update 2014 #8: ISF Deployments to Anbar

click to enlarge

The Iraqi government’s recent movement of troops in response to the Anbar crisis is potentially exposing other areas of the country to risks and exploitation by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In Baghdad, forces from the 6th Iraqi Army division have reportedly completely deployed to Anbar province.  The 6th Division is traditionally positionedin areas northern and southern Baghdad in what is known as the Baghdad Belts. These areas are known for being support /attack zones for AQI. The Iraqi government has also movedelements of the Salah ad-Din-based 4th division to western Baghdad presumably to relieve the Anbar-bound 6th division. The deployment of these units will likely generate gaps and allow AQI freedom of maneuver. Deployments of units from southern Iraq are likely not going to have grave security consequences on their base provinces given that these areas are minor attack zones for AQI. Nonetheless, the deployment of south-based units has heightened sectarian tensions with Anbari tribes callingfor the southern tribes to withdraw their sons from Anbar. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Iraq Update 2014 #7: Iraqi Army Recruits Volunteers for Anbar Operations

by ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi government is providingexpedited training for civilian volunteers in Muthana Military Base to participate alongside the Iraqi Army in the ongoing operations in Anbar. Hundreds of volunteers have reportedly gathered near the base to sign up, while additional hundreds are already undergoing a three week training cycle before they are shipped to Anbar. Police directorates affiliated with Ministry of Interior have already started to accept volunteers.

In Baghdad, an anonymous “senior” source from the Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated that three weeks of training for other volunteers would occur at the Muthana Airport Military Base. After that, the volunteers might join the Iraqi Security Forces in Anbar in a month. The source added that the volunteers will be assigned to support the Iraqi Security Forces participating in Jazeera desert operations. According to the source, the volunteers will not engage in military operations until their training is complete.  

Also, the source stated that since the training takes a few weeks, while the security forces might finish their operations in Anbar sooner, the volunteers may be used to hold territory in the wake of clearance operations conducted by the Iraqi Security Forces. According to the source, the MoD took this step because ongoing operations in Anbar require additional support in order to cover the vast desert areas.

The source also stated that the ministry received more than a thousand requests from residents of Baghdad who expressed interest in participating in the ongoing operations in Anbar. The source added that there is a recruitment effort to coordinate with the provinces of Basra, Babil, and Wasit to provide volunteering opportunities for individuals interested. According to the source, the security forces need hundreds of new members to fill gaps, especially in Anbar. A volunteer stated that most of the volunteers are males between the ages of 18 and 20. He also stated that one of the security patrols roamed his eastern Baghdad neighborhood and announced the opportunity to  volunteer.

The Iraqi government has also acknowledged this new volunteer program. Iraq’s semi-governmental newspaper, al-Sabah, reported that thousands of young people have appeared to volunteer. Its report also indicated that young people from Anbar province have decided to sign up. It is unclear if people from Anbar are signing up, but al-Sabah’s report is intended to deflect the impression that the recruitment is targeting Shi’a volunteers. According to one of the organizers of the volunteer campaign, army captain Jaafar Jassim Mohammed, training will take about 45 days. 

In a likely counterattack by AQI, a suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device [SVBIED] targeted the volunteers gathered near Muthana Airport Military Base on January 9, which resulted in the death of 26 individuals and injury of 42 others. The attack was almost certainly conducted by AQI. While it is possible that AQI targeted the volunteers solely because it had the opportunity to attack a large gathering, it is likely that AQI targeted them to further pose as the defender of Iraqi Sunnis. The organization has repeatedly portrayed itself as such.

This new recruitment campaign is part of a continued effort by the Iraqi government to augment security forces with civilian volunteers. On January 4, Wasit police commander, General Raed Shakir Jawdat, announced that more than 9000 people have volunteered to go to Anbar. As a result, extra stations for volunteers to sign up have been established because the IP stations in the province were not enough. While the volunteers are motivated by the cause of fighting AQI in Anbar, these developments will increase the perception of Iraqi Sunnis that the ongoing operations in Anbar are meant to target Sunnis rather that targeting AQI in the province.

Regardless of the identity of the volunteers, the recruitment campaign is being seen as a sectarian campaign, as evidenced by some Iraqi Sunni social media sources that describe the volunteers as “militias.” The tribes in Anbar will also likely perceive a newly-recruited force from Baghdad as intruders and criticize the Iraqi government for not recruiting from Anbar, which is a habitual complaint among Anbaris. Since the recruitment campaign just started, it is too early to tell how the volunteers will be deployed. Nonetheless, if the Iraqi government truly intends to deploy the new recruits in the Anbar desert areas after their training is complete, the step confirms the government’s future plans to launch wider desert operations. More importantly, it signifies a potential new strategy to augment the Iraqi Security Forces with a popular defense force. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Iraq Update 2014 #6: Sunni Tribal Dynamics in Fallujah and Ramadi

Iraqi Sunni tribes in Anbar are key players in the current crisis in Fallujah. The Iraqi government will not succeed in defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in Anbar without the full support of tribal leaders. Some of these tribes are part of what is known as the Sahwa or Awakening Councils and have sided with the government in its military operations in Anbar. Other tribes have decided to fight against the government and in some cases also against AQI by joining a new military council that is likely affiliated with the Ba’athist Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshabandia (JRTN). Some are still deciding. As of now, it appears that Maliki has agreed to let the tribes of Fallujah clear AQI without the involvement of the Iraqi Army. This compliance, along with other conditions, will determine if the tribes of Fallujah will remain aligned with Iraqi Security Forces.

Pro-Government Tribes and Tribal Figures

There are currently a number of tribal figures supporting the government:

Ahmed Abu Risha: At the moment Abu Risha appears to be the main backer of the Iraqi government among tribal figures in Anbar. Abu Risha’s position with regards to the government has changed, becoming more accommodating in the wake of the provincial elections. He is the brother of one of the founders of the Awakening (Sahwa) Councils in 2006, Abdul Satar Abu Risha. Abdul Satar was killed by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in September 2007, and Ahmed Abu Risha became the leader of the Awakening Councils. Since then, he has been working totransform the Sahwas into a political power. As a respected Sunni leader that rejects AQI, he has become that group’s public enemy number one. A recent statement by an AQI spokesman placed a bountyon his head, calling him out by name.

Ahmed Abu Risha was influential in the appointment of the governor and local officials in the aftermath of the 2009 provincial elections. When the Iraqi Sunni anti-government protest movement began, Abu Risha became a criticof the government and was one of the speakers at the protest site. As a result, the Iraqi government officiallyreplaced him as the leader of the Sahwas in February of 2013. His successor, Wisam al-Hardan, is unlikely to have inherited all of Abu Risha’s supporters. However, since the end of the 2013 provincial elections, Abu Risha has been reengaging with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The rapprochement may have been the result of promises and financial support to Abu Risha by the Iraqi government and Maliki. Abu Risha calledon the people and tribes of Anbar on January 1, 2014 to fight AQI after AQI members emerged in the major cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. His governmental re-elevation to the position of Sahwa leader has caused disagreement among Sahwa forces, including with Wisam al-Hardan. The Abu Risha tribe, particularly Ahmed and his nephew Mohammed Khamis, are currently the target of tribal anger in Anbar because many view them as traitors to the protest movement. This pertains especially to Mohammed Khamis who was a leader in the protest movement and the subject of an arrest warrant. Anti-government Iraqi Sunni social media outlets published a photo of him wearing a mask while reportedly working with the commander of the Iraqi Special Forces Golden Division Commander, Fadhil Barwari. The veracity of the photo is unconfirmed, but after the photo appeared, however, reports emerged that Mohammed Khamis had turned himself in to the military and is currently cooperating with security forces. The emergence of the surrender report is an indicator that Mohammed Khamis may currently be working with the government.  

Hamid al-Hayes: Al-Hayes was also a cofounder of the Awakening Councils in 2006-2007 and became one of the government’s main backers and allies in Anbar in 2013. Since January 1, 2014, Hayes has called for the Sahwa to fight AQI and for the deploymentof the Iraqi military into the cities, a demand which the people of Fallujah have resisted. Hayes has also been critical of other tribal figures in Anbar including Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, whom he describedas a “rat” that has to be brought to justice. Additionally, Hayes’s brother, Mohammed, the leaderof the Sons of Iraq Foundational Council, also appears to be dominant among the pro-government tribal leaders. On December 27, Hayes metwith a number of tribes, indicating that he had the support of those tribes.

Governor Ahmed Khalaf al-Dulaimi: Dulaimi is the current governor of Anbar and supported the shutdown of the protest sites in the province. He has also been calling for the army to redeployto Fallujah. His tribe, the Albu Dhiab, is supporting the government likely due to their affiliation with Dulaimi and his position within the government. Prior to becoming governor, he was a protest backer and a respected figure among anti-government protesters. After his election, Dulaimi reversed his position and became more supportive of the government, evidence of the fluid nature of Anbari tribal politics. He may have switched sides because Ahmed Abu Risha did so. On January 6, Dulaimi denied that AQI had kidnapped him as indicatedby earlier media reports. The reports of his capture may have been intended to demoralize anti-AQI fighters, while the denial attempts to prevent AQI from achieving the psychological advantage of claiming that two significant government backers are in its custody. This episode is also evidence of the ongoing propaganda war between anti-government and pro-government forces.

The Albu Fahad tribe is also supportive of the government. Its leader, Rafi Abu Al-Naja, was targeted by a car bomb attackthat bears the signature of AQI on January 3. This targeting is likely due to his cooperation with the government.

The Albu Bali tribe which lives in an area of Ramadi that bears their name is also supportiveof the government and was able to retake a police station from AQI on behalf of the government on January 2. The Albu Bali tribe has been a long-standing supporter of the government including announcing the formationof a force to “eliminate” AQI from Anbar in April 2013. This means the tribe is considered an enemy of AQI. The Albu Bali area has witnessed continuousfighting and shelling likely due to attempts to attack the tribe either by AQI or by other rivaling tribal elements. It is likely that the Albu Bali is facing a great deal of pressure due to cooperating with the government and is demanding government support in light of recent attacks.
Abu Risha (left) and governor Dulaimi (right) reportedly inspecting areas in Ramadi. Posted on Sahwa Twitter account, January 8.             

Anti-government Tribal Forces

Anti-government tribes have generally kept a lower profile than their pro-government counterparts. These tribes include the Albu Nimr, al-Jmelat, al-Halbsa, and Albu Issa. There are indications that the anti-government effort is centered on Fallujah, generally the most radicalized city in Anbar. As opposed to Ramadi, Fallujah is not dominated by the tribes that formed the Sahwa councils in in 2006-2007, and its tribes have always stood apart from government security to a greater degree. The anti-government tribes are currently reported to be in the city’s outskirts and are concentrated on disrupting supplies going into Ramadi from Baghdad. But they are also reportedly active in the cities and quickly took control of buildings in Fallujah over the weekend of January 4.  

 Video from YouTube alleging anti-government tribal figures taking over an abandoned military post.

On January 3, a video was posted on a YouTube channel that is affiliated with Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshabandia (JRTN), a Ba’athist militant organization. The video alleged that Fallujah tribal elements attacked a military convoy on a highway. It is likely that JRTN is using the cover of tribal elements to conduct attacks and give the impression that tribes are engaged in the fight against the government to provide the effort more legitimacy and also to trigger more anti-government mobilization in other predominantly Iraqi Sunni areas. The video portrays clearly, however, tribal confrontation with the Iraqi government forces.  

Another video was posted allegedly showing tribal elements taking over an abandoned military post in Fallujah on January 2. The attackers are masked and do not appear militarily sophisticated or organized as AQI fighters traditionally are. In this case, the video is of tribal militias from Anbar.

According to reports, AQI has established checkpoints inside the city of Fallujah. However, at this point AQI has avoided confrontationswith the tribes in the city. This decision is intended to avoid repeating mistakes from 2004-2007 when AQI lost the support of the tribes because the organization imposed harsh measures.

AQI is dominant in Fallujah because it has re-established its support system in the area extending southeast to northern Babil. The city is also known to be a center for Salafist conservative and religious thought in Iraq. There were likely AQI “sleeper cells” and sympathizers in Fallujah prior to the takeover of the city by gunmen.

The tribes in Fallujah have broadcast the message that AQI is not in control in the city. They have instead emphasized that they control the city in the context of anti-government sentiment. A two part video postedon January 6 showed masked gunmen with old-style Iraqi flags to indicate that they are not AQI, as other Iraqi groups, including JRTN, use the old flag. The gunmen claimed that they are sending a message from “the rebels of the tribes in Fallujah.” The message was directed to Abu Risha and governor Dulaimi, both pro-government tribal leaders. The speaker criticized them for mobilizing the youth in the sit-in site for an entire year and then selling them out when the fight against the government became real. The speaker claimed that by forming the Sahwas these leaders demonstrate their desire to betray the people of the city and added that if the Sahwas entered Fallujah, none of them will return. He then called on the Sahwa to repent. This direct criticism of Abu Risha illustrates the complex tribal dynamics in Anbar and that he and Dulaimi, who were supporters of the protest movement, took advantage of the phenomenon for their own benefits.

The speaker in the video stated that they are defending themselves against a “Persian” attack. This is a reference to the Iraqi government, which many Iraqi Sunnis perceive as an Iranian-backed government. The speaker also denied that all residents of Fallujah are members of AQI, responding to Iraqi government claims that Fallujah is controlled by AQI.

The tribes in Fallujah have also recently been heavily engaged in the internal political affairs of the city with the formationof a tribal council that includes the notables of the community. The council is led by Abed al-Rahman al-Zobaie, and is attempting to project an image that the situation is normal in Fallujah. The tribes have also combined their effortswith the scholars of the community and called on government employees to return to their jobs on January 7. In the current unclear picture in Fallujah, multiple tribal and social groups are likely competing, but none of them is in fact in in control. These groupings are likely setting up to be future influencers in the local government and civil affairs. It appears that their main purpose is to avert a military operation in the city.  Questions remain about their future influence if Fallujah is peacefully re-controlled by the government.

Iraqi Sunni tribal mobilization in support of Anbari protesters has also spread to other provinces. On January 8, unidentified but unmasked tribal figures in Salah ad-Din gathered and sent a message to the Iraqi government and in solidarity with the protesters. In the statement, a tribal figure criticized the Iraqi government and ISF for attacking Anbar after it had protested peacefully for more than a year. He further criticized the government for working with the tribal leaders that it selected. The proliferation of this public mobilization in the future will be indicative of future anti-government sentiments.  

The Tribal Revolutionary Military Councils

fighter jacket emblazoned with JRTN logo. Photo from a Mosul TMC Facebook page.

The most significant tribal-military development to emerge from the recent tribal uprising in Anbar is the formation of the Tribal Military Councils (TMCs) in multiple Iraqi provinces. The group first emerged in Anbar under the name of the Military Council of the Anbar Tribal Revolutionaries in the beginning of January. On January 8, the Albu Nimr tribe joined a military council established in Fallujah, accordingto an Iraqi intelligence source. The Albu Nimr tribe resides on the outskirts of the city and if true, their step to join the TMCs indicates possible hardening of tribal defenses in the face of a possible military operation in Fallujah. Within days, Tribal Military Councils (TMCs) with similar names were announced in other provinces, all carrying the same logo in their release videos indicating their direct connection and common foundation. Thus far, there are at least seven councils in Anbar, Kirkuk, Baiji, Fallujah, Mosul, Baghdad, and Samarra. One of the first statements issued by the TMCs outlined the responsibilities and duties of the council. Below is a summary and translation of the Anbar TMC statement:


ANBAR TMC is the only authorized entity to issue statements, specify speakers, and make decisions.
ANBAR TMC called for the ISF not to point their weapons at the people and to give their weapons and equipment to the rebels. In this case the rebels will not attack them. The rebels of the tribes warn them from deception and we remind them that they are the sons of Iraq not Maliki.
On Police
Anbar TMC called for the police not to roam using their vehicles so that all are safe.
On tribes in the south and other tribes
We call for tribes in the south and other areas to withdraw their sons from Anbar and the other areas to preserve Iraqi blood and unity. We will hit with an iron fist anybody who insists in being a servile follower to the government of the criminal Nouri al-Maliki
On Sahwas
We tell the Sahwas that they have a historic opportunity to return back to their tribes and to forget what the servants of Maliki who lead Maliki Sahwas have told them. Your continuation of killing your people in this dangerous condition will place you in the bracket of traitors, spies, and killers. If you abide by our call to serve your tribes and families then we promise you safety. Otherwise, you have been warned.
On SWAT, Army, and other forces currently in Anbar, and on their withdrawal from Anbar cities.
The governmental army and SWAT militias that were formed under illegitimate and unlawful conditions, and all the forces that Maliki brought to violate Anbar are to depart all of Anbar, not only to withdraw from the cities.
On politicians from Anbar
Anbari politicians are to withdraw from this criminal and evil political process. You know that you and your families gave Maliki permission to do his crimes, rape the women, torture, humiliate, and kill the men, old men, and children. Otherwise you will be severely punished. If you do withdraw, then your places among your people and families are preserved
On media coverage
All media outlets and reporters are to communicate with our authorized speakers. And we hope that caution is practiced by some of those who mean to fish in trouble waters and those who hate upon the revolution and the conspirators who may leak clips, pictures, and information that damages the revolution, its goals, and icons. We will provide all facilitations to professional media outlets with no exception
On general property
The council warns against assaulting general property and will hit with an iron fist anybody who attempts to assault the properties of the citizens. Let it be known that Maliki intelligence in cooperation with the local government were the ones who stole, burned, and violated some of the public properties.
The group established a Facebook page on January 2 that has 44,694 likes as of January 8. This rapid rate of growth suggests that the group had previously been organized and had an online presence. The group also has a YouTube channel. The rhetoric of the group is similar to JRTN’s rhetoric. The group also used the same name for Kirkuk as used by JRTN, Tamim. Furthermore, the group appeals to the same constituency as JRTN’s, and its current locations are areas where JRTN is prominent. In the announcements, the groups also demonstrate a level of professional military attire and organization that is not characteristic of tribal individuals. They show a great deal of respect to the former Iraqi military as is the standard for JRTN. Notably, the TMC’s Facebook in Mosul has a poster of a TMC member that is emblazoned with the JRTN logo. The TMCs also use the pre-2003 Iraqi flag that is used by JRTN. Their media production, however, is less sophisticated than JRTN’s and includes short videos normally filmed at night especially for their operations.

The TMCs are currently forming, and their real power has yet to be determined. They do not appear to have carried out major military operations yet. Anbari tribal leader, Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, announced a group with a similar name during a speech published on January 3 in which he threatened an uprising. If he is working with the TMCs, he is probably acting as a tribal figurehead rather than as a de facto leader or the group. Rather, the similarity of the TMCs’ rhetoric to JRTN’s suggests that JRTN is a major player, if not the biggest component of the group.


Sunni tribes have reacted to government actions in Anbar in widely different ways. Some have attempted to forge common cause in utilizing the Sahwa to clear AQI from the cities, and the government needs these forces to avoid a deployment of ISF into cities which could spark further bloodshed. Figures such as Abu Risha have popularity due to their previous support of the protest movement, but have drawn criticism for cooperating with the Maliki government. On the other hand, some tribes in Anbar and other provinces have begun to form Tribal Military Councils. These TMCs have made statements strongly similar to and indicating the presence of the Ba’athist militia JRTN, and they demand not just the withdrawal of ISF from the cities but from the entire province. These announcements will be provocative to the Iraqi government, but the present course is a fine line between accommodation and sparking an open uprising by anti-government tribes.

Ahmed Ali is a senior Iraq Research Analyst and the Iraq Team Lead at the Institute for the Study of War.