The view from the ground.

Anbar Awakens With a New Bedfellow

The threat of the Islamic State, combined with meager U.S. and Iraqi government support, is driving Sunni tribes into the arms of Iranian-backed Shiite militias.


AMIRIYAT AL-FALLUJAH, Iraq — Khaled Mahmoud al-Essawi has a crisp new military uniform and a 70-year-old rifle.

AMIRIYAT AL-FALLUJAH, Iraq — Khaled Mahmoud al-Essawi has a crisp new military uniform and a 70-year-old rifle.

“This was my grandfather’s,” he says, pointing to the 1944 date of manufacture on the wooden gunstock. “This is how we are fighting Daesh,” he says, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

The concrete buildings behind him, part of the Saddam-era Ministry of Military Industrialization, have been turned into a training base on the outskirts of Amiriyat al-Fallujah, a town just 12 miles from the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah.

The town is one of the last remaining government-held strongholds in the western province of Anbar and one of the training grounds for a Sunni tribal force that officials here and in Baghdad hope will help liberate Iraq’s biggest province.

The young men chanting “Long live Iraq” as they conduct rifle drills are members of local tribes whose leaders have decided to fight the Islamic State. They include the unemployed, laborers, farmers, and a few civil servants. They have been given uniforms and a name — the 2nd Battalion of the Sons of Amiriyat al-Fallujah — but few weapons and no salaries.

The 1,500 fighters in this battalion have spent six months learning infantry skills with the few weapons in their possession, as well as urban warfare tactics. Their food and uniforms are provided by the local government and local tribes, which see them as the foundation of a new Iraqi National Guard. But it’s unclear that this force, held up for months in political wrangling in parliament, will ever be created.

“The danger now is much more serious than before. We are here to get our people ready,” says Col. Ourance Mohammad Hussein al-Assawi, who is in charge of training at the base. He says his men have basic military knowledge but need much more advanced skills to defeat their better-equipped and better-funded enemy.

“Of course our training isn’t at a very high level,” admits the colonel, an officer in the prewar Iraqi Army. “It’s about 50 percent, but we need to be at 100 percent.”

Even if they were armed and fully trained, he says, without a unified central command that integrates tribal fighters, the Iraqi government, and U.S. support, they would be unable to take back the province. Since last year, the Islamic State has gained control of more than 80 percent of a province that provides a crucial corridor to the group’s operations in Syria.

In early April of this year, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the beginning of a military operation to liberate Anbar from the Islamic State. In a dramatic visit to a military base in the province, he greeted Sunni tribal fighters and presented them with rifles and ammunition.

Over the past month, however, it has been the Islamic State that has gone on the offensive in Anbar. The jihadi group captured several districts inside the provincial capital of Ramadi, causing hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes in fear.

With the Iraqi government slow to offer help and in the absence of direct American assistance, desperation is increasingly pushing some tribal leaders closer to an alliance with Iranian-backed Shiite militias in what has become a fight to the death against the Islamic State.

* * *

The Anbar Awakening, known in Arabic as the Sahwa, looms large over current efforts to empower Sunni tribes in Anbar. Beginning in 2006, as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) increasingly became a threat to even tribes that had originally supported its cause, tribal leaders agreed to work with the United States to fight the organization. More than 100,000 tribal fighters, working directly with U.S. military forces, were able to temporarily drive AQI out of Anbar. But despite promises to integrate the tribal fighters into the Iraqi security forces or give them civilian jobs, thousands were abandoned when the United States handed back sovereignty to the Iraqi government.

The recent effort to train tribal fighters to combat the Islamic State hopes to repeat the successes of the Sahwa — and avoid its failures. In addition to the force being trained in Amiriyat al-Fallujah, roughly 1,750 fighters have been registered with national security forces and are receiving salaries from either the Interior Ministry or the Hashd al-Shaabi Popular Mobilization Forces, according to local officials. There are also 350 fighters being trained at Habbaniya base in Anbar, and another 1,200 Sunnis are being trained by U.S. and coalition forces at the Ain al-Asad air base. At three bases in the northern Kurdish regions, coalition forces are training 2,500 Sunni fighters with a focus on retaking the city of Mosul.

This time, however, the U.S. contribution is limited to what local military leaders describe as a cautious campaign of occasional airstrikes.

“I understand the Americans have rules that govern engagements,” says Anbar Gov. Suhaib al-Rawi, who relocated to a temporary office in Baghdad after escaping a rocket attack on his convoy in Ramadi in April. “They cannot strike any targets unless they are absolutely certain of the [Islamic State] presence … but we are talking about areas that have no civilian population and the battle lines are very clearly defined.”

“We want more airstrikes balanced with the size of the challenges we are facing,” he says.

The threat posed by the Islamic State has altered Anbaris’ views on cooperating with the United States: Tribal leaders who once supported fighting to expel U.S. troops as occupiers now say they would welcome them back as allies. Bu the absence of U.S. troops on the ground and the greater coordination between Iraqi and Iranian commanders has limited the American role, U.S. military officials acknowledge.

“We are lost now between the Americans and the Iraqi government,” says Brig. Gen. Faisal al-Zobaie, police commander at the joint Anbar Operations Command and a former Sahwa leader, saying the province feels abandoned by both.

“In 2007, when al Qaeda threatened us, the Americans stood with us,” he said. “In Fallujah now we have nothing, and the threat we are facing is much greater.”

The United States has so far maintained that all support for the Sunni tribal fighters in Anbar must be funneled through the Iraqi government in Baghdad. And despite Abadi’s public embrace of the tribesmen, Iraq’s Shiite-controlled government remains deeply skeptical of efforts to bolster these forces: Many Iraqi officials still see armed Sunnis as a potential threat who could either turn against the government, sell the weapons, or hand them over to the Islamic State.

“Our brothers in Anbar are very good at using the media and shouting about what they want,” says Ibrahim al-Ibadi, media relations chief at the Interior Ministry. “But that concern is still there.… The previous government gave the tribes around 10,000 PKCs [a light machine gun] and later discovered they were being sold.”

The size of the Sunni tribal force being trained to fight the Islamic State has also been scaled back due to skepticism in Baghdad. The current force of several thousand was originally envisioned as being much larger, says Iraqi security analyst Hashim al-Hashimi.

“Sometimes the Iraqi government says, ‘We don’t have enough weapons for them,’” he says. “But in fact they don’t trust them.”

The government, however, has more trust in the tens of thousands of Shiite volunteers who joined the fight against the Islamic State after the fall of Mosul last summer. These fighters, who hail from more than three dozen groups, have played a vital role in retaking territory in central Iraq, including Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. Most of the groups are Iranian-backed, and some are Iranian-equipped and advised. They are believed, however, to be responsible for killings, lootings, and displacement of Sunni civilians in the aftermath of their conquests.

The participation of Iranian-backed groups fiercely opposed to U.S. involvement has also created a dilemma for the United States. Already wary of becoming involved in an increasingly sectarian conflict, Washington held off on airstrikes to drive the Islamic State from Tikrit until the most virulent of the Shiite militias withdrew.

Tribal and provincial leaders say they have discussed with Prime Minister Abadi the involvement of Shiite fighters under the umbrella of the Hashd al-Shaabi on the condition that all groups fall under the command of the Iraqi government.

Any agreement to use the Shiite forces in Anbar on a wide scale would have to be worked out by the Iraqi government, militia leaders, U.S. commanders, and Anbari officials.

“There are no red lines for Anbar or Anbaris,” says Rawi, Anbar’s governor. “The only red lines are for groups acting outside the law.”

With the Islamic State advancing and nobody else coming to their aid, Hashimi says, the idea of accepting help from Iran is becoming increasingly acceptable to the Sunni tribes. “They have no faith left in either the Americans or the Iraqi government,” he says.

* * *

As the struggle for Anbar drags on, much of life in Amiriyat al-Fallujah has ground to a halt. Along the canals, fields normally planted with tomatoes, potatoes, and wheat are largely fallow. After the Islamic State took control of the nearest dam, the area was cut off from electricity for eight months until power lines were recently rerouted from the south. Almost all supplies are carried by wheelbarrow across a pedestrian bridge thronged with families still trying to leave. Some of those who don’t have relatives to vouch for them outside Anbar’s borders take refuge in tents on the side of the road.

At a defensive outpost, local fighters employed by the Interior Ministry stand watch from towers facing an Islamic State position half a mile away. Others sit in a fading Bedouin tent to escape the heat. They say that unlike Ramadi, where the fortunes of the jihadis and pro-government fighters have dramatically seesawed in recent weeks, the defensive line here has changed little in almost a year.

Instead, the Islamic State has focused on shelling Amiriyat al-Fallujah in an effort to force more civilians to flee. A plumbing supply store in the town lies in ruins next to a bakery to which residents have ventured out for the first time after the latest round of mortar attacks. An almost equally long line is at the butcher shop.

“We were all hiding inside, and no one could go out. I gathered all the children in one small room to try to keep them safe,” says a civil servant who gave only his first name, Abdul Majid. “I’ve been trying to decide whether to leave — but where would we go?”

The mayor, Shaker Mahmoud al-Essawi, gave Foreign Policy a tour of the town in an armored SUV with a cracked windshield. Last week, he said, the Islamic State launched a five-hour barrage of 40 mortars on the town.

“We called all the military commanders in Baghdad and they said they would send air support, but nothing happened,” he said in frustration. “We are confused because it is very clear that Amiriyat al-Fallujah is the defense line between Daesh and Baghdad.”

The shelling has even driven Essawi from his office. One of the mortars landed in the mayor’s compound, shattering windows and damaging the roof. Others were aimed at apartment complexes where families displaced from other areas in Anbar have taken refuge with relatives.

Despite the gravity of the situation, Essawi describes calling on the Iranian-backed Shiite volunteers as a last resort. He worries that they will repeat the abuses that occurred in Tikrit and other Sunni areas, and he believes that Anbar residents can drive out the Islamic State themselves — if only they receive the proper support.

“In this area, all we need is weapons,” he says. “But in Anbar as a whole, tribes are desperate. They have no faith left, so they are asking for the Hashd.’

* * *

The truth is, the Iraqi government’s difficulty in exerting control over Anbar goes much deeper than the current battle. The province was lost long before the Islamic State rolled in last year: The population was already boiling with anger at Baghdad after then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded to anti-government protests with arrests and a military crackdown in 2013. Due to its role as Maliki’s enforcer, the Iraqi Army became almost as unpopular in Anbar as U.S. soldiers once were — and when the Iraqi Army was forced to retreat, the Islamic State made further gains.

“One of the reasons for the sympathy for Daesh in Anbar was sectarian anger,” says Ibadi, the Interior Ministry’s media relations chief. “It was an entire year of speeches and sit-ins encouraging them. The government should have dealt with this quickly before it snowballed.”

But eight months after Abadi took power — pledging to reach out to Sunnis and their demands for prisoner releases, jobs, and political power — he has addressed few of the Sunnis’ underlying political grievances.

“Abadi gave promises, but nothing has been achieved yet,” says Sheikh Mehdi Salah al-Numan, a deputy governor of Anbar. “I believe he’s trying to do something, but pressure from the other political blocs seems to stop him from fulfilling his promises.”

In the absence of a political reconciliation, the violence in Anbar looks set to continue on its destructive course. While the Islamic State’s fortunes were certainly bolstered by Maliki’s heavy-handed approach, the irony may be that now tribal groups’ fear of the jihadi group will spur them to welcome an old enemy, Iran, into their areas.

“Daesh hurt the Sunnis and the Sunni provinces first,” says Anbar member of parliament Faris Taha Faris Fahdawi. “The tribes know that to open the door to Iran is a big danger in the future, but they want to put out the fire now.”

John Moore/Getty Images

Jane Arraf has covered Iraq since 1991 and was CNN's bureau chief and correspondent in Baghdad from 1998 to 2005. As a freelance journalist, she reports from Baghdad for Al Jazeera English and the Christian Science Monitor.

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