The Men Who Would Save Ramadi
The stories of two Sunni leaders — one a tribal chief, the other a former insurgent — show why locals opposed to the Islamic State and Iraqi officials in Baghdad have so far failed to unite against their common foe.
AMMAN, Jordan—Over the past several days, the Islamic State secured its biggest victory since the fall of Mosul last year. On May 15, the jihadi group used suicide bombers to breach the government compound in the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Iraq’s sprawling Anbar province. It has since tightened its grip on the city -- raising its black flag over the compound, executing tribal fighters who opposed them, and besieging a military operations command hub in western Ramadi.
AMMAN, Jordan—Over the past several days, the Islamic State secured its biggest victory since the fall of Mosul last year. On May 15, the jihadi group used suicide bombers to breach the government compound in the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Iraq’s sprawling Anbar province. It has since tightened its grip on the city — raising its black flag over the compound, executing tribal fighters who opposed them, and besieging a military operations command hub in western Ramadi.
The stories of two men from Anbar provide a glimpse into why efforts to stop the Islamic State’s advance in the province have so far failed, and also into how local Sunni leaders might react to the influx of Iran-backed Shiite militiamen that will likely follow Ramadi’s fall. One of these men is the leader of a Sunni tribe that has been at the center of the resistance to the jihadi group; the other, a former insurgent who fought against U.S. forces and the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and was for a time allied with the Islamic State, before abandoning the group in disgust roughly four months later.
Sheikh Khamees al-Fahdawi, the leader of the Albu Fahd tribe, greeted me in February at his home in Amman. He wore a white robe with gold trim, while his assistants fielded phone calls and passed around dates and chocolates during our conversation. His tribe, he explained, numbers roughly 160,000 people, and had been holding out against the Islamic State in Ramadi and over a stretch of land roughly 20 miles east of the city, until the military base at Habbaniya.
At the time of our conversation, Albu Fahd fighters had succeeded in keeping the Islamic State out of the roughly 13-square-mile area that the tribe calls home, suffering fewer than 100 casualties. Today, many of these tribesmen are among the estimated 500 people killed in Ramadi during the jihadi group’s capture of the city.
“When daesh first entered Anbar, the Albu Fahd were among the first who fought them,” Fahdawi said, using another name for the Islamic State. “Because in 2006 and 2007, when al Qaeda at that time was dominating Anbar, they said ‘we are here to fight the American occupiers.’ But after that they started killing Iraqis.”
In the mid-2000s, the Albu Fahd received significant military support from the United States as part of the “Anbar Awakening,” in which American troops and Sunni tribes united to drive al Qaeda in Iraq out of the western province. Ramadi looms large in the U.S. memory of that effort: U.S. forces and their local allies waged a fierce battle for control of the city that cost over 100 American lives, but eventually succeeded in reducing attacks in what was one of the most violent places in the country to almost zero.
This time around, however, neither the United States nor the Iraqi government has provided comparable support to Fahdawi’s fighters. While Baghdad pays lip service to empowering Anbar’s tribes, the supply of arms remains meager and a recent visit by a Foreign Policy reporter to a training camp outside Fallujah found some recruits training with ancient weapons.
“The federal government seems like they’re afraid to give us weapons,” said Fahdawi. “They always claim that Anbar tribes will sell the weapons to daesh. But this is impossible — these tribes are fighting now, and they need every single weapon.”
Reinforcements, however, are finally coming Fahdawi’s way — in the form of Shiite militiamen who have played a key role in the government’s effort to push back the Islamic State elsewhere in the country. According to the Anbar Provincial Council, a local governing body, 3,000 Shiite volunteers have already arrived in Anbar, while militia leaders are gearing up to send an even greater number of forces.
The Anbar Provincial Council voted in favor of the deployment on May 17, but the use of Iran-backed militias in the predominantly Sunni province remains controversial. Fahdawi was in favor of accepting help from the militias, but still saw them as a double-edged sword.
“We are afraid that these groups will bring bad things to our people, and will kill our people,” said Fahdawi. “But put yourself in the shoes of those people who have been fighting daesh for over one year now: They’ve received nothing. They might feel they are drowning, and they need any support they can get.”
While Fahdawi’s men opposed the Islamic State from the beginning, Sunni tribal leaders admit that others initially embraced the group as an ally in their struggle against then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — only to break with them when the jihadis began cracking down on other anti-government groups in the province.
Abu Qassem — a former military officer now in his 40s, with gray streaked through his beard — is one of those men. As a resident of al-Garma, a city near Fallujah, he had seen injustice for as long as he could remember: He spoke bitterly of how Saddam Hussein’s henchmen had been celebrated as national heroes after looting the country’s vast oil wealth, and how the Iraqi Shiite leaders who came after Hussein’s ouster were hell-bent on handing the country to Iran and subjugating the Sunnis.
Abu Qassem sees himself as a soldier in a Sunni revolution against what he calls the “Safavids,” a pejorative term for Iraq’s Shiite leaders that equates them with an ancient Iranian empire. “I wanted to be Robin Hood,” he told me.
Whatever romantic notions Abu Qassem may have had, however, his actions twice served to pave the way for a jihadi takeover of his province. He joined the insurgency against the United States shortly after the invasion, leading a group of 150 fighters against U.S. forces during the first battle of Fallujah in spring 2004. At the time, he said proudly, his group was bigger than Jamaat Tawhid wal Jihad — the jihadi group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which would later morph into al Qaeda in Iraq and then the Islamic State. His influence, however, would be short-lived: His group first attempted to co-exist with Zarqawi’s forces, forming a common front against the United States, but were then driven out by the jihadi organization, which began killing or assimilating other insurgent groups.
“Zarqawi had his own agenda, and he used us because we were naïve,” Abu Qassem said. “We fell in a trap.”
In the spring of 2014, history repeated itself. As Maliki’s government and the Sunni leaders of Anbar moved toward a confrontation, Abu Qassem again began arming himself for the coming “revolution” — by reaching out to the U.S.-trained Iraqi army officers who were supposed to be fighting him.
“We had a deal with [the Iraqi officers] to fake an attack on them — we just shot bullets in the air,” he explained. “The officers would then report to their commander that because of this battle, they lost weapons. But in reality, he sold the weapons to us.”
An AK-47 cost $250, five RPGs cost $100, and army uniforms went for $30 apiece to Abu Qassem and his men. It was an open air arms market, conducted at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer, in the deserts of western Iraq.
Once again, the jihadis presented themselves as a powerful ally in the fight against their shared foe in Baghdad. On Jan. 9, 2014, Abu Qassem said, the Islamic State entered Fallujah for the first time. They promised to work hand-in-hand with local Sunni fighters like Abu Qassem’s men, avoiding the heavy-handed approach that had soured relations in 2006 and 2007. The Sunni rebels, eager for new fighters to capture territory from the largely Shiite Iraqi security forces, agreed.
According to Abu Qassem, the alliance between the Islamic State and the tribal forces lasted for a month, before the jihadi group started to use its superior resources to edge out its rivals. Abu Qassem recounted how he parceled out $200 to staff members of a Fallujah hospital, in an attempt to win their loyalty. “And then after someone came from daesh and gave every employee $1,000,” he said, in frustration. “So they all started saying, ‘Allahu akbar.'”
After the fall of Mosul in June, the Islamic State no longer asked smaller groups to join its ranks — it demanded they do so. “They paraded [the Sunni tribal fighters] in the streets, and they took them to a big school, put them in two rows, and then they asked them to smash their heads into the wall,” Abu Qassem said. “Nobody would be released until they saw blood on his head.”
This was the Islamic State’s way of reinforcing the futility of resistance: Fighting them was just like bashing one’s head against the wall. Abu Qassem fled to Amman, where he now waits for the international community to supply the arms and money that will allow him to fight the Islamic State — and laments the mistakes of his failed revolution.
“It was a noble resistance,” Abu Qassem said. “But it was a stupid one.”
It’s precisely men like Abu Qassem who some Iraqi officials will point to now as the reason they won’t arm Sunni fighters more aggressively. Fahdawi, at least, fought both al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State from the beginning — Abu Qassem aligned himself against the Iraqi government twice. With more weapons, government officials fear, he might just do so again.
Despite their different paths since the 2003 U.S. invasion, Abu Qassem and Fahdawi have more areas of agreement than disagreement. Both harbor deep resentments toward the Iraqi government, accusing it of marginalizing Sunnis and ignoring their legitimate political demands. Both would prefer to have locals defend their province, rather than relying on Shiite militiamen who they fear will only bring death and destruction with them.
As many Sunnis opposed to the Islamic State and the Shiite political elite in Baghdad struggle to bridge their differences, the Islamic State marches forward across Anbar. For both Abu Qassem and Fahdawi, it was not Baghdad or the militias that they looked to for help — but the United States.
Fahdawi recounted a parable that he told then President George W. Bush when he met him in the White House: Two musketeers faced off in a duel, and one mortally wounded the other. The victorious gunman, believing it was against his code of honor to kill a stricken opponent, made to leave the field of battle — but the injured man called after him, urging him to take away his suffering either through death or medical treatment.
“Iraq and the United States are the two musketeers, and Iraq is bleeding now,” Fahdawi concluded. “So it’s ethically your duty to kill Iraq, or heal Iraq.”
Photo credit: AP Photo
More from Foreign Policy
Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?
The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.
Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World
It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.
It’s a New Great Game. Again.
Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing
The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.