Friday, January 3, 2014

Iraq Update 2014 #1: Showdown in Anbar

by Jessica Lewis and the ISW Iraq Team

A Sunni insurgency in Anbar has begun. Prime Minister Maliki confronted Anbari tribal leaders at the Ramadi protest site on December 30 and forced its evacuation. Violent clashes occurred between Anbari tribal militias and Iraqi Security Forces in Ramadi and Fallujah as a result. On December 31, amidst the violence, Maliki promised to withdraw the Iraqi Army from the cities. On January 1, in the wake of the Army’s withdrawal, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) led an attack upon multiple police stations across Ramadi and Fallujah. In Ramadi, there are reports that tribal militias have combined with Local Police to retake the police stations from AQI. In Fallujah, there are reports that some tribal militias are cooperating with AQI. These events coincide with ongoing military operations to counter AQI in the desert, to which the US has provided military aid. As of January 2, the Iraqi Army is attempting to return to the cities, but is being blocked by unidentified gunmen at the periphery. A three-way contest for control of Anbar is underway between Iraqi federal forces, AQI, and tribal militias aligned with Iraqi police. Iraqi Federal Forces can become a flash point within urban areas as tribal militias or local forces mobilize. Iraq’s urban areas are highly vulnerable to escalation attempts by AQI.

Maliki claims that the Ramadi protest camp is an al-Qaeda Headquarters

Several events in late December precipitated a dramatic inflection in the stand-off between al-Qaeda in Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki and the Iraqi Army (IA), Sunni protest movement leaders, and tribal militias in Anbar. On December 21, 24 Iraqi Army officers including the 7th IA Division commander were killed in an ambush at an AQI compound in western Anbar. On December 22, Maliki announced a new operation to counter AQI in the western desert. This incident might have galvanized tribal support for the government against al-Qaeda in Iraq, but instead Maliki turned his attention to the Ramadi protest camp. Maliki claimed in a speech on December 22 that the Ramadi protest camp was an al-Qaeda headquarters, and he ordered protesters to disband. The same day, Anbar Provincial Council Chairman Sabah Karhout said that Anbar would cooperate with the ISF against AQI.

Other tribal leaders in Anbar objected. Fallujah protest leader Sheikh Hamed al-Jumaili stated on December 22 that the people of Ramadi would carry arms against any force that approaches the site. Sheikh Ibrahim al-Dulaimi of the Ramadi camp also claimed that protesters would attack any militias that attempt to attack the sit-ins. Grand Mufti of Iraq Sheikh Rafi al-Rifai stated that the tribes would take a stand if the protesters were targeted. Anbar tribal leader Ali Hatem al-Suleiman further warned on December 23 that the tribes of Anbar will counter any attack against the protesters.

Government security around the Ramadi protest site increases

Meanwhile, indications that the ISF would move on the protest camp began to occur. On December 24, sources reported that security forces had cordoned off the sit-in sites in Anbar. The following day, acting Minister of Defense Sadoud al-Dulaimi assured the tribes that the government would not attack the protest sites. Nevertheless, on December 27, further reports indicated that the ISF had tightened security at the camp, searching individuals entering and leaving. The same day, a security source indicated that armed gunmen attacked IA vehicles near the Ramadi protest site, and that the IA returned fire. The MOI quickly released a statement that the action had been a response to an al-Qaeda attack, and not an attack upon the Ramadi protest site.

The same day, on December 27, Maliki issued a statement that Friday’s prayer would be the last at the Ramadi site. He demanded that the tribes pull the tents before they “burn.” Leader of the Sahwa [Awakening] Council Mohammed al-Hayes, a known Maliki ally, sided with Maliki on December 27 and echoed the description of the protest sites in Anbar as headquarters for al-Qaeda. He claimed to have support from multiple tribal leaders in Anbar for the ISF and condoned the removal of tents from the protest sites. The week prior, before Maliki’s statement about the Ramadi protest camp, Hayes stated that he had reached a deal with the governor of Anbar and other tribal leaders to shut down the protest camps.

Sheikh Mohammad al-Dulaimi and Sheikh Mohammed al-Bajari made strong statements in response, reiterating that moves against the camp would be met with armed resistance. Sheikh Dulaimi is quoted as saying, “let those who want their children to be orphans and their wives to be widows come close to the sites.” On December 27, Speaker for the Fallujah protest camp Sheikh Abd al-Munim al-Kubaisi called for Sunni religious leadership to unite in their stance against Maliki so that protesters could follow their lead either to remain peaceful or to take up arms, based upon Maliki’s next actions.

Maliki arrests Iraqiyya MP Ahmed al-Alwani

In the midst of this tension, Maliki’s next action was inflammatory. On December 28, Maliki arrested Iraqiyya MP Ahmed al-Alwani after a firefight at his residence in which his brother, reported to be the target, was killed. Alwani is influential within the Ramadi protest site, and the ISF imposed a curfew in Ramadi after the arrest. The same day, Council of Representatives (COR) Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi called for a fair investigation of the arrest of Alwani, meeting with other government officials to address the crisis in Anbar. He claimed officially that the arrest was illegal on account of the immunity granted  to MPs. The delegation he formed to investigate was reportedly blocked from entering Anbar by the Baghdad Operations Command. On December 29, leader of Iraqiyya Ayad Allawi proposed to work with the government to counter al-Qaeda in Iraq. The same day, Anbar Provincial Council chairman Falih al-Issawi submitted a proposal to close the protest camps in exchange for Alwani’s release and the withdrawal of all ISF in Anbar province. On December 30, according to BBC Radio, prominent sheikhs in Anbar gave Maliki a 12-hour ultimatum to release Alwani, or they would “take the disagreement with the government to the next stage.” He was not released. The same day, two elite battalions of the Iraqi Army stationed in Wasit arrived in Anbar province as reinforcements.

Maliki “empties” the Ramadi protest sit-in site

On December 30, the Ramadi protest camp was shut down. Reports about the nature of the confrontation at the Ramadi protest site vary. Iraqi media reports from an MOD source that a joint task force of IA and IP assaulted the camp after blocking internet and communications to Ramadi. Iraqi social media sources indicated that the Iraqi Security Forces moved on the protest camp in Ramadi and were repelled by heavy machine gun fire, in a gun battle that BBC Radio reported as lasting the night. Iraqi social media also indicated that the reinforcements from Wasit were involved in the assault on the protest site, and that tribal militias defeated them.

By contrast, Anbar Governor Ahmed al-Dulaimi stated emphatically on December 31 that the camp was only approached by local police and tribal elements. Furthermore, he reported that there were no casualties inside the camp, which he claims was empty at the time of the assault. On December 31, Maliki also made a statement, emphasizing zero casualties while the government “emptied” the camps. He described that the local, religious, and provincial leadership in Anbar called for the intervention of the federal government to close camps controlled by “terrorists,” and that the government merely cooperated. He also stated that the Iraqi Army would withdraw from the cities after this success, affirming their involvement. The Iraqi Police (IP) is the typical security force inside the cities, and is more palatable to locals because most are locally recruited.

Sunni Influencers’ Reaction

Multiple Sunni influencers, including moderate Sunni cleric Sheikh Abdul Malik al-Saadi and prominent digital influencers, called for Sunnis to take up arms against Maliki’s government as a result of the incident. The resonance of a particular incendiary social media page called Iraqi Revolution has skyrocketed from 148,000 to 158,000 followers after December 30. Jaysh al-Izza, the Pride and Dignity Army formed after the incident at the Hawija protest site in April, also issued its first statement calling the “sons of Anbar” and all Iraqis to carry arms and take a united stand.

Sheikh al-Saadi, who is a leader of the Ramadi protest movement, demanded in an inflammatory speech that the ISF pull out from the city, that members of the ISF disobey their chain of command, that Anbaris mobilize to prevent ISF reinforcements from reaching Ramadi, and that Members of Parliament resign and boycott the government.

Statement from Sheikh Abdul Malek al Saadi, translated and summarized by Omar Abdullah
Today’s ISF assault on the Izza wal Karama square is a good example of the government’s bad intentions. I demand that the government stop this war in which Iraqi citizens are fighting each other. Withdraw your troops to avoid war. I also ask ISF troops not to obey orders by their superiors when they send them to definite death. Otherwise, you will face fire in life and in after-death, because you are assaulting well defended citizens to satisfy unjust ruler. This ruler brought Iraq nothing but more war, more poverty, and more sectarianism. Oh people of Anbar, especially the sheikhs of Anbar, defend yourselves and your people. Stand against your vicious enemy. And if your enemy asks for a truce or reconciliation, do not refuse. This is what Islam taught us. Oh heroes of Fallujah and other towns. Cut the road and prevent Maliki’s troops from reaching your brothers in the heart of Anbar. Maliki wants to wipe out every one of the people he dislikes, using the anti-terrorism pretext again. He [Maliki] wants to gain more votes by committing such heinous crimes. Oh our brothers in the south of Iraq [Shi’a tribes] warn your sons and ask them not to take part in this heinous assault against your brothers in Anbar. Sunni ministers and Members of Parliament should resign immediately and boycott the political process in Iraq and stand at their peoples’ side, especially because their existing in this government doesn’t change any of the unfortunate realities in which we live.
Sheikh Rafi al-Rifai, Grand Mufti of Iraq, encouraged “Mujahideen” to carry arms against sectarian militias, for religious leaders to take a stand, and for rebels and civilians to cut the supply lines of the “rogue” forces, a reference to the Iraqi Security Forces.

Statement by Rafi al-Rifai, summarized and translated by Iraq Team

Rifai encouraged and supported the “Mujahedeen” who are currently carrying arms in their targeting of sectarian and hateful “militias.” The Mufti also called for the tribal leaders in southern Iraq not send their sons [members of the IA and Federal Police] to sacrifice themselves for such a “tyrant.” He also called for religious leaderships to announce their stance regarding the ongoing events. Regarding the local Iraqi Police, Rifai called for them to support “their people” and called for the tribal “rebels” not to attack members of the IP in their provinces. He called for residents of provinces witnessing the Sunni Opposition Movement [Hirak] to support “their brothers” in Anbar and perform their “military duties” and to cut the supply lines of the “rogue” forces. 

Clashes between Anbar tribal militias and the ISF in Ramadi and Fallujah

Violence in Anbar quickly escalated after the closure of the protest site. Clashes between armed gunmen and the Iraqi Security Forces continued on December 31 in Ramadi and Fallujah, according to mainstream Iraqi media. On December 31, clashes took place near the eastern entrance of Fallujah between gunmen and military units. The clashes followed similar events that took place in the preceding day. Additional reports indicate that the road between al-Baghdadi Military Base to Ramadi was closed to ISF convoys on December 31. Another report indicates that an Iraqi Army headquarters north of Ramadi was attacked with indirect fire reported to be Katyusha rockets. In these cases, the attackers were likely tribal militias, who assaulted federal security forces until they withdrew at Maliki’s command on December 31.

In conjunction with the Iraqi Army’s withdrawal, on December 31, reports indicated that gunmen took control of a police station in Ramadi. This may have been an isolated incident, to which the Iraqi Army reportedly responded by bombing the police station from the air; it may also have been the first attack in what appeared to be the first in a synchronized attack upon many police stations in Ramadi and Fallujah. On January 1, gunmen carrying AQI flags were reported to control most of the IP stations in Anbar. In Fallujah, an attack on the police directorate on January 1 resulted in the freeing of 100 prisoners. AQI likely carried out the attack, given its past attacks on prisons with the stated objective of freeing prisoners. Furthermore, the synchronized attack upon the local police stations is likely the work of AQI, because that organization has the capacity to conduct orchestrated campaigns. It is not possible, however, to determine with certainty whether the attackers in every event were members of tribal militias, al-Qaeda in Iraq, or a combination.

Tribal responses to AQI’s advance on Anbar’s cities

Anbar Provincial Council Chairman Falih al-Issawi made a statement on January 1 that indicated some tribes in Fallujah had reached a “deal” with AQI. However, all other indications of tribal militia activity since AQI attacked the police stations suggest that the tribes are mobilized against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Tribal elements from Anbar Province have begun to cooperate with local security forces, particularly the local Iraqi Police, in order to regain control in Ramadi and Fallujah. According to media and security sources, the cooperation between the tribal groups and local IP appears to have been instrumental in retaking a number of police stations that had been attacked and occupied by AQI and their supporters during the previous days. One example of this is demonstrated in the joint operation between the Abu Bali tribe and local IP forces which regained control of the al-Sediq police station, located in the al-Jazeera area on the outskirts of Ramadi. Another example is the Albo Ghanim tribe, which reportedly arrested three AQI members in Ramadi on January 2.

Sources have reported that there had been a massive increase in the presence of tribal forces in the streets of Ramadi, and that they had fought alongside local IP forces in numerous violent clashes against AQI and their supporters. Although most of the information and media reports concerning tribal cooperation and joint operations has been confined to Ramadi, an anonymous security source stated that a meeting took place on January 2 between tribal elders, religious scholars, intellectuals, and notables to discuss the developing security situation and the intention to cooperate fully and actively with security forces to regain control of Fallujah. Tribes and notable figures in Fallujah also met on January 1 to declare committees to provide security. On January 2, a New York Times report indicated that tribal militias had reluctantly chosen to join with government forces to counter AQI in Fallujah. One tribal leader was quoted as saying, “we do not want to be like Syria.” Yet thus far all cooperation reported has been with between the tribes and Iraqi Police, not army units.

The ISF disposition in Anbar: IP Desertions and Federal Reinforcements

One YouTube video allegedly shows ISF officers hosted by tribal members and giving up their military uniforms on December 31. On January 1, signs of desertion in the ranks of the Iraqi police appeared, as members of the police abandoned their positions in Fallujah and the police stations subsequently fell under the control of gunmen. This desertion likely resulted from their realization that the police station was not defensible against an assault. It also suggests that other local security forces operating in the province may desert, units may dissolve, and individuals and units may join the tribal militias. Confirming the desertion of Iraqi police members, Anbar’s governor, Ahmed al-Dulaimi, stated that Iraqi police members gave their weapons to the attacking gunmen. Government loss of control is not limited to Ramadi and Fallujah, but has also included the areas of Khaldiyah, Hit, and Husseba.

Image from Twitter allegedly showing clothing left behind by defecting police

The disposition of federal security forces (these include the Iraqi Army, National Police, and specialized units such as SWAT and CT units) in Anbar is not clear at this time. Original reports indicate that the Iraqi Army forces in Ramadi withdrew to the west. Some reports suggest that the Iraqi Army never left the cities, though the assault upon the police stations on January 1-2 suggests that they were vulnerable. Others suggest that SWAT remains in the center of Ramadi, while new Iraqi Army elements, ordered into the cities from the east (the Baghdad side), are being repelled by unidentified gunmen at the checkpoints on the periphery of Fallujah. New reports indicate that seven Iraqi Army battalions are re-entering Ramadi with armored support, although photographs suggest these are armored personnel carriers or BMPs rather than tanks. Some sources reported previously that IA reinforcements from Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar, and Taji are also gathered in Anbar province, potentially for desert or urban operations. These southern forces are likely loyal to Maliki.

This video reportedly shows Iraqi Army soldiers surrounded by tribal militia members in Fallujah

The presence of Iraqi Army reinforcements, particularly those from Shi’a areas, also escalates the grievance of the Anbari tribes against the security establishment. The ISF do not always behave intelligently or in a non-sectarian fashion; a pro-government Facebook page posted a video of an ISF member reproaching Alwani in captivity, which likely exacerbated the Sunni response to his arrest. Rumors are already thick regarding the sectarian character of ISF deployment – dubious photos spread widely on Twitter allegedly showing ISF vehicles “heading to Anbar” displaying Shi’a flags. Federal security force presence in the cities may still incite violent resistance from the tribal militias, as these militias are now caught in the middle trying to wrest control from AQI while still resisting further government intervention. This tension has the potential to fracture the ISF in Anbar.

National Sunni Political Response

The decisions of national Sunni politicians throughout this violent crisis in Anbar will be important to watch. On December 30, Osama al-Nujaifi announced that he had withdrawn from the Honor Document, a formal rapprochement with Maliki, and a contingent of 44 Mutahidun representatives have reportedly submitted their resignations. If their intentions are real, their resignation from parliament will likely generate a Sunni boycott of elections. If Nujaifi instead guides them to remain, they could be a source of renewed conciliation with Maliki. His leverage with Maliki will depend on the outcome of events.

Nujaifi’s behavior since December 30 suggests that reconciliation is his motivation, although he is making specific demands of Maliki. On December 31, Nujaifi stated that the Mutahidun parliamentary withdrawal was temporary, pending further developments in Anbar. On January 1, an Iraqiyya parliamentary delegation composed of MPs Khaled al-Alwani, Sumayya al-Qallab, and Hamid al-Zobaie met with MP Alwani, still in custody in Baghdad, after acting Defense Minister Sadoud al-Dulaimi and Iraqi Awakening Conference leader Ahmed Abu Risha visited Alwani on Tuesday. On January 2, Mutahidun released a statement repeating its demands for devolution of security control to local police forces and the immediate release of MP Alwani, along with the transfer of Alwani’s legal case to Anbar province. The statement also reiterated Mutahidun’s belief that Iraqi Army operations in Ramadi and Fallujah were unnecessary and overly damaging. They maintained that order had been restored by local forces without help from Baghdad, which they considered as carrying out politicized targeting by PM Maliki. Also of note on January 2 was Ninewa governor Athil al-Nujaifi’s announcement of his desire to maintain good relations with ISF in his province, stating that political disputes should remain separate from security issues, echoing Mutahidun’s earlier statement.

Also of note, Anbar tribal leader, Ahmed Abu Risha, issued a statement on January 1 calling on the people of Anbar to target AQI elements who have “abandoned the desert and headed to Anbar and Fallujah to spread among its people killing and corruption.” Abu Risha apparently realizes that if AQI is able to control Anbar, and specifically Ramadi, that he will be a target as the leader of the Awakening Movement. This fear may also explain his urgency to weigh in on Alwani’s arrest, as he was part of a delegation that visited Alwani in prison.   
AQI’s advances in Anbar and the subsequent reactions to them by Iraqi Sunni figures suggest that the tide may have shifted against AQI. Governor Nujaifi’s statement of cooperation with the ISF indicates that, as he stated, armed groups – likely AQI and Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshabandiah (JRTN) – were preparing to attack Mosul. Similarly, Abu Risha’s statement calling on the people of Anbar to defend themselves indicates a fear of AQI’s overreach. Although Saadi maintained that the presence of federal forces will be an “occupation of the province,” he also issued a statement calling on the tribes in Anbar to defend the province from “outlaw elements,” referring to AQI. However, the ISF will need to have a conciliatory approach to the locals and a better relationship with the community if the central government wishes to turn the tide against AQI, as there are still reports that some armed tribal elements are negotiating with AQI to keep them away from the fight in Anbar so as not to attract a heavy ISF response.


Maliki’s Political Calculus

Maliki’s move against the Ramadi protest camp was politically motivated, and is the proximate cause of the current crisis. Maliki sought to dissolve the Anbari protest movement before upcoming national elections. He saw an occasion to do so as he massed ISF in the Anbar desert to avenge the death of those killed in the December 21 ambush. Maliki overreached and created a political and security crisis in Anbar in the process.

Many tribes view the federal security forces, namely the Iraqi Army and the Federal Police, as adversaries, particularly after the December 30 confrontation in Ramadi. Despite the threat to their homes, these tribal militias prefer the prospect of cooperating with the local police rather than working with federal security to counter AQI. Excessive reinforcement of Anbar by Iraqi Army and federal forces is therefore perilous.

Maliki may nevertheless make political gains despite his political overstepping. Sunni political leaders are weakened because AQI has seized the opportunity to move on the cities in the wake of ISF withdrawal, and because the local police force suffers desertions. The first indicator of Maliki’s strength relative to Sunni politicians may be that protest movement leaders accept his proposals to increase the presence of the ISF in Anbar without getting any real concessions.

Maliki’s targeting of al-Qaeda in Iraq in Anbar stems from both security and political concerns. The operations against AQI have symbolic value for Maliki in the political sphere, as he needed a successful and decisive operational victory ahead of elections to appear strong.

Maliki’s Security Calculus

AQI also presents a genuine security threat to Iraq. AQI’s operations in Anbar have clearly increased since al-Raqqa fell out of Syrian government control in March 2013. Although AQI’s control of western Anbar has become increasingly significant, this is not 2006 and Anbar is not the heart of AQI, which now possesses multiple centers of gravity in Iraq and Syria. Ground warfare to clear AQI in the desert is a waste of precious resources, given that AQI seeks control of cities. Maliki seems to have made an operational military mistake by focusing his main effort on striking AQI in the Anbari desert in the Horan Valley.

Vulnerability of Urban Areas and U.S. Policy

Reinforcement of Anbar by Iraqi Army from other provinces may also leave other critical areas such as Baghdad more vulnerable to AQI. Should AQI re-enter urban areas en masse, the ISF will not succeed in getting them out without escalating the situation. Local civilian populations may well see federal ground forces as targeting them instead of AQI. Because of the bad precedents set by Maliki’s actions against Iraqi Sunnis to date, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the security forces can succeed to penetrate urban areas accessible to AQI without incurring violent repulsion by Sunnis who are mobilized in self-defense.

The U.S. has supplied the Iraqi Security Forces with Hellfire missiles and aerial reconnaissance drones, according to Maliki’s media advisor. These tools are excellent means to disrupt remote AQI camps away from urban centers. The question now becomes whether the ISF will use them in the urban fight in close proximity to tribal militias. Furthermore, while the use of these tools in the Jazeera desert may cause AQI to be more cautious about cross-border operations, they will not succeed in dismantling the organization, whose leadership very likely now resides in Syria. Such weapons are therefore insufficient to accomplish American or Iraqi objectives to contain or disrupt AQI.

It could be coincidence that his media advisor leaked information about that military support on December 27, the day that Maliki issued his ultimatum to the Ramadi protest camp. It could also, however, have been a deliberate leak to indicate his position of strength. By offering unqualified support in the form of military assistance, the U.S. may have inadvertently empowered Maliki to act against the Ramadi protest camp by boosting his confidence in his military capabilities and his impunity.

U.S. military aid offered to Maliki without conditions generates the unfortunate impression among Sunnis in Iraq and the region that the U.S. has picked a side in a sectarian war. Whether or not these perceptions of American policy are correct, these perceptions along with Maliki’s ill-timed move against Sunni political opposition provides a huge boon to AQI as it poises itself to exploit the crisis in Anbar.

Jessica Lewis is Research Director at the Institute for the Study of War