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Understanding the Anbar Awakening

9:30 AM, Dec 22, 2010 • By DAVID MCCORMACK
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At the height of the Iraqi insurgency, Dr. Thamer al-Assafi, a former Iraqi commando combat veteran of the Iran-Iraq war who later served as a cleric and a faculty member at Al-Anbar University, turned against “foreign Arabs” who attempted to control the local mosques. The power grab by outsiders prompted al-Assafi and likeminded clerics to use their sermons to incite fellow Anbaris against al Qaeda in Iraq. For this, he explains, “We lost many innocent people. Some of them were loaded down with blocks and put in the river. Some of them were taken out to the desert and beheaded.”

Understanding the Anbar Awakening

Al-Assafi’s story—and others like it—are told for the first time in Al-Anbar Awakening, an illuminating compilation of lengthy oral interviews of more than three dozen individuals intimately involved in the transformation of al-Anbar province from one of Iraq’s bloodiest battlefields to one of its great success stories. Col. Gary W. Montgomery, Lt. Col. Kurtis Wheeler, and CWO-4 Timothy S. McWilliams, the three field historians at the U.S. Marine Corps History Division who edited Al-Anbar Awakening, thus shed light on perhaps the most complex phenomenon of the Iraq war by chronicling rather than interpreting the experiences of Awakening participants. 

The basic outline of the Awakening is well known. After initially accepting al Qaeda in Iraq due to a shared anti-occupation and anti-Shia agenda, Sunni Arabs chafed under AQI’s fanatic religious program. AQI responded by terrorizing those it claimed to defend, prompting Sunnis to partner with U.S. forces to rid their communities of these extremists. The model successfully tested in al-Anbar province – once Iraq’s most violent – was adopted in other AQI-plagued regions, contributing to a neutralization of the insurgency.  

But Al-Anbar Awakening reveals that the reality was much more complex. Far from a uniform organization, the Awakening was composed of numerous local elements roused to action by a wide array of cultural, political, and economic considerations, while their Coalition counterparts similarly adopted a hodgepodge of methods to support them. The Awakening’s exceedingly personal nature comes through clearly for the first time in this book. Al-Anbar Awakening engages over two-dozen Anbari elites from among the tribal, political, military, religious, and former regime establishments. Their stories are at the same time sobering and exhilarating.

Sheikh Jassim al-Suwaydawi had previously sought a modus vivendi with AQI until they killed his kinsman from a neighboring tribe. The sheikh severed contact, and an AQI-led force of 850 men sought revenge (estimates of the size of the attacking force vary widely, but Americans familiar with the incident nevertheless agree that Sheikh Jassim’s men were badly outnumbered). In Al-Anbar Awakening, Sheikh Jassim offers a riveting account of the pitched, day-long “Battle of Sufiyah,” in which he and his men were able to repel the assault, as well as the ensuing three month siege laid on his domain by AQI. 

Tariq al-Thiyabi left his relatively comfortable position as a border policeman and returned to the provincial capital of Ramadi during its darkest days to confront AQI with only a handful of compatriots. “This was a historical challenge for us,” he explains, “especially living right among our families: our wives, our mothers, our children…. If we read the history of nations that fought for freedom, we see that they offered many sacrifices.” He went on to become the province’s chief of police.

The second volume of Al-Anbar Awakening features American perspectives. It is no exercise in self-congratulation. According to Major General John Kelly, commander of Coalition forces in western Iraq from 2008-2009, “No single personality was the key in Anbar, no shiny new field manual the reason why, and no ‘surge’ or single unit made it happen.” One of the consistent themes of this volume, however, was the effectiveness of population-centric counterinsurgency doctrine that aimed to neutralize the enemy’s influence over the local inhabitants. Success demanded acute cultural awareness that would allow soldiers and Marines to identify and exploit fissures within Anbari society. 

Unfortunately, this consciousness was only gained after years of exposure to the local population. In the interim, Coalition efforts floundered, as Americans were unable to distinguish legitimate Iraqi partners from the many frauds. As explained by Maj. Ben Connable, an intelligence officer in al-Anbar from 2005-2006, “We had a very immature understanding of Iraqi culture…. We never got the fact that we were asking something from somebody who was incapable of delivering…. So we would give things away to anybody that was willing to talk to us.”

The commanders’ decision to restore to tribal sheikhs the power that had been taken away from them by AQI was bold and daring.  Implementation was left to subordinates who, instead of adhering to a strict blueprint, skillfully adapted their mission to local circumstances.  As described by Lt. Col. William Jurney, whose battalion served in Ramadi from 2006-2007, “we didn’t specifically follow clear, hold, build…you can conduct civil-military operations which set conditions for kinetic neutralization of the insurgency. It’s one street, one block at a time.” Increasing American dexterity slowly established that the Coalition was a capable partner, allowing local Iraqi powerbrokers to confidently organize resistance to AQI’s presence.

Prospective readers of Al-Anbar Awakening need not worry that the question-and-answer format makes the book tedious. Instead, both the Iraqi and American interviewees are thoughtful and forthcoming (although the Iraqi accounts sometimes give way to histrionics). For those who prefer neatly-packaged history, however, the book can be disorienting and at times frustrating. Yet herein lies its greatest contribution, as it depicts the frenetic nature of the forces that contributed to Iraq’s revival. This story should not be glossed over. As Dr. Thamer al-Assafi concludes, “History speaks for people, for communities…. Whether we like it or not, we have been joined with you in history. We have to clarify for distant people and later generations.”

David McCormack served as a senior civilian Iraq analyst for the Marine Corps from 2007 to 2010. The views expressed here are his own.

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