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.