Al-Qa’ida losing ground as Iraqi Sunnis transfer support to local political forces

The roadside bomb last month that killed the leader of the Anbar Salvation Council (ASC), Shaykh Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha, near his home just outside Ramadi, the capital of the Iraqi province of Anbar, was more than a mere decapitation of an Iraqi leader who had turned against al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia. It highlighted the widening chasm between the salafist insurgent group, whose fortunes have for months been staggered by the US troop build-up, and some of its former allies among the Sunni Arab tribes, and dealt a setback to one of the few success stories in the Iraqi counter-insurgency efforts. The assassination is the biggest blow to the Anbar tribal alliance since a suicide-bomber succeeded in attacking a tribal meeting in a Baghdad hotel in June, killing four anti-Qa’ida tribal shaykhs.

Statements issued by al-Qa’ida to claim credit for the killing of Abu Risha, who had met US president George W Bush just ten days earlier, also underscored the group’s adaptive capacity to work under increasingly hostile conditions and determination to reassert itself in the face of adversity. One statement described Abu Risha as “the imam of atheism and apostasy” and “one of the dogs of the bearer of the cross, Bush” (sic.). It also boasted that al-Qa’ida was forming “Special Security Committees” to hunt down and murder tribal leaders who have recently joined the US and Iraqi troops in fighting the salafist group. The statement charged that those tribal figures “have collaborated with the enemy and tarnished the reputation of their pristine tribes by cooperating with the soldiers of the cross and the Safavid [in this context an anti-Shi’ah epithet] government of [Iraqi prime minister Nuri] al-Maliki.”

The ASC is an alliance of more than 40 Sunni Arab tribal leaders who had turned against al-Qa’ida in western Iraq. The group has directed its activities towards driving those it described as zalamiyyin (‘obscurantists’) and takfiriyyin (those holding other Muslims to be infidels) from sanctuaries they managed to set up in Anbar province after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iraqi authorities and US military officials credit the tribal alliance with a dramatic improvement in security in Anbar –” a remarkable feat that America’s military might has utterly failed to match. One indication of this improvement is the fact that more Iraqis are now able to travel safely on the desert highways that stretch west out of Baghdad into Anbar towards neighbouring Syria and Jordan –” a journey that involved near-suicidal risks until only six months ago, when al-Qa’ida fighters controlled vast swathes of the predominantly Sunni Arab province. In his recent testimony before the US Congress on the situation in Iraq, General David Petraeus, the top US military commander in Iraq, cited the ASC’s successes in Anbar as evidence that the American troop build-up in Iraq has yielded some results.

Although the ASC has always been strained by internal divisions and rivalries, its success in stemming al-Qa’ida’s presence in Anbar has inspired attempts to use it as a model to organize tribal fighters against al-Qa’ida in other major flashpoints of insurgency in western, central and northwestern Iraq. Some areas in the provinces of Diyala and Salaheddin, and even several urban neighborhoods of Baghdad itself and areas to the south of the Iraqi capital which had previously gained notoriety as the “Triangle of Death,” have been actively working to replicate the ASC’s experience. On September 16, Shaykh Fawwaz al-Jarba, leader of the Shummar tribal confederation in Mosul, announced the formation of a similar tribal alliance “that undertakes to cooperate with Iraqi security forces to purge the city of the [al-Qa’ida] organization.” However, Jarba emphasized that “the new alliance will not cooperate with the US Army or participate with it in military campaigns and will deal only with al-Maliki government directly” (al-Hayat, September 17, 2005).

But while the Americans have been enthusiastic about supporting and arming Sunni Arab groups to fight al-Qa’ida, officials in Maliki’s cabinet, as well as constituent Shi’ah parties in the ruling United Iraqi Alliance, have been suspicious of armed groups that are not under the full control of the central government and whose rank and file are largely comprised of fighters with a track record of involvement in the ongoing insurgency. They have expressed concerns that the weapons these groups receive could be used for anti-government and anti-US insurgent activities or against Shi’ah groups and communities. Yet the Maliki government has lately started to overcome its misgivings vis-à-vis these Sunni Arab groups. In the case of the ASC, several top Iraqi officials made a highly publicized visit to Anbar on September 6, during which they delivered $70 million for rapid economic reconstruction and $50 million in compensation for destroyed houses. The government has also approved 6,000 new civilian jobs in Anbar, and promised to reopen an oil refinery, to accelerate work on a power plant, and to set up two free-trade zones on the province’s borders with Jordan and Syria.

It is still unclear to what extent the killing of Abu Risha will dent the campaign to wipe out al-Qa’ida’s presence from the vast province of Anbar. Although the anti-Qa’ida Sunni Arab tribal alliance has gained enough momentum to weather the loss of key figures, the chilling message sent by the assassination of Abu Risha will inevitably make undecided tribal leaders think twice before joining the war against al-Qa’ida. However, tribal leaders associated with the ASC have vowed revenge and perseverance since Abu Risha’s assassination. The message coming from Ahmad Abu Risha, who has succeeded his brother Abd al-Sattar at the helm of the ASC, continues to be one of fire and brimstone. Abd al-Sattar’s “assassination has increased our will to fight al-Qa’ida,” said Ahmad in a press interview shortly after taking over the ASC. “Revenge is going to be through raiding al-Qa’ida safe-houses, and arresting them and bringing them to justice.”

Indeed, the tribal values of honor and revenge, which inspired many Sunni Arabs to join the insurgency, have proven to be a double-edged sword for al-Qa’ida. Much as the heavy-handed tactics and trigger-happy behaviour of US troops, as they set out to pacify the incipient insurgency, motivated ever more tribesmen to take up arms against foreign occupation, the indiscriminate and brutal killings of locals by al-Qa’ida and the imposition of its harsh, narrow and exclusivist interpretation of the Shari’ah (which bans most forms of light entertainment) have alienated many in Iraq’s Sunni Arab population. Al-Qa’ida unleashed its campaign of targeted killings not only against Iraqi government, army and police figures, but also against religious, tribal and insurgent leaders who questioned or challenged its growing authority in the predominantly Sunni Arab areas of central, western and northwestern Iraq. Figures assassinated by al-Qa’ida include Harith Dhahir Khamis al-Dhari and Shaykh Abd al-Alim al-Jumayli, both of whom were leading figures in the 1920 Revolution Brigades.

To add insult to injury, the largely foreign-run salafist group’s attempt to embed itself within the local kinship and tribal network by arranging forced marriages with local women has violated deep-seated Arab tribal codes of honor and shame. Although the practice of forcing or preventing marriages is culturally accepted within the confines of the tribe, forced marriages outside the tribe are anathema to traditional values of honor and, as such, are considered a stain of shame that can only be wiped out by bloody retribution. Tell-tale signs that the tide had begun to turn against al-Qa’ida in Sunni Arab areas where the group’s militants were in control could be sensed as far back as 2004. Eventually, the corrosive effects of disillusionment with the group were felt when simmering tensions boiled over into localized Sunni Arab uprisings against al-Qa’ida. In early 2006, a tribal group was set up to provide a stronger and more organized opposition to al-Qa’ida in Iraq, but the effort crumbled after the killing of six out of its 11 tribal shaykhs.

The charismatic chain-smoking Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha capitalized on such pent-up anti-Qa’ida sentiments when he embarked on his perilous enterprise, which involved rallying fractious Sunni Arab tribes and insurgent groups against the salafist group in Anbar. His motivation appears to have stemmed primarily from revenge as his father, four of his brothers and six other relatives had been killed by al-Qa’ida since 2004. The ASC, which was set up on September 14, 2006, after a series of talks between Abu Risha and US military commanders in Ramadi, succeeded in organizing tribesmen belonging to rival tribes into local defense forces united against al-Qa’ida. Abu Risha did not shy away from using these forces to intimidate his adversaries in Anbar to toe his line. His willingness to work openly with the Americans raised the ire of some in Anbar who accused him of being a highway-bandit and of selling out the resistance.

It was not only the tribes that chafed under the pressure of murder and intimidation by al-Qa’ida. Other insurgent groups have also resented the hegemonic tendencies and excesses of al-Qa’ida. The establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq in October 2006, which brought together al-Qa’ida and a number of jihadist salafist organizations, fuelled tensions with other insurgents as the newly-formed outfit demanded that other factions pledge allegiance to its emir, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The statement issued by the ministry of information of the Islamic State of Iraq to report the appointment of Baghdadi called on “all the mujahidin and the unwavering … to pledge allegiance to the emir of the faithful, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and to assist the new Islamic state.” In early 2007, irreconcilable differences with al-Qa’ida began to come out into the open as the salafist group traded recriminations with other insurgent factions in the form of public statements. The war of words soon gave way to armed confrontations at a number of insurgent flashpoints, such as Abu Ghraib, to the west of Baghdad, Ba’aqubah, northeast of Baghdad, and even parts of urban Baghdad itself, such as A’amiriyyah.

A lengthy statement issued by the Islamic Army in Iraq on April 5 sheds significant light on the grievances held by Iraqi insurgent groups against al-Qa’ida. It accused al-Qa’ida of having “gone so far as to even kill some of the brothers from our group with no justification, by this point the count stands at 39, and they refused to stop doing this. They made other jihadist groups into their enemies too. This rift changed into confrontation with other groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigades, which is still continuing now between them in Abu Ghraib … They also killed some personnel from the Mujahidin Army and some members of the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, and they have threatened the Iraqi Islamic Resistance Front (JAAMI), despite the burden shouldered by these groups to maintain the jihadist project and to keep it on track. But our patience has only made them more aggressive, and they have allowed the killing of Muslims, especially easy targets, such as muezzins, and civilians –” some of whom are from the Association of Muslim Scholars. It has become normal for them to target average Sunnis, especially the rich. Either they pay or they will kill them. Also, they will try to kill anyone who critiques them, disobeys them, or points to their mistakes, as it has become a simple matter and easy to explain. It has become the norm to rob people and take their money. It has become the norm to stigmatize people with the label of ‘infidel’ and ‘apostate.'”

In the landscape of the Iraqi insurgency, which is made up of a remarkable number of insurgent groups, a host of differences, in terms of both ideology and approach to resistance, have always set al-Qa’ida apart from other insurgent organizations. Whereas most, if not all, Iraqi insurgent groups have at one point or another resorted to indiscriminate killing of civilians, this tactic represents an essential part of al-Qa’ida’s strategy and modus operandi. Whereas anti-Shi’ah sectarian rhetoric has been gaining currency among Sunni Arab insurgent groups, it is almost always couched in Iraqi nationalist and anti-Iranian terms, often expresses latent communal prejudices rather than religious bigotry, and is matched by similar latent anti-Sunni prejudices among the Shi’ahs. It reflects the intense sense of loss of political privileges and fears of marginalisation felt by the Sunni Arab community since the fall of the Saddam Hussein. However, with al-Qa’ida anti-Shi’ism is expressed in a religious language and given a religious rationale. The group’s exclusivist ideology, which is founded on the rejection of the legitimacy of other alternative interpretations of Islam, entails a phobia towards Shi’ism so intense that it justifies killing. With such a mindset, it is only natural that al-Qa’ida has always tried by killing Shi’ah civilians to stir up a bloody but (according to the group’s warped logic) purifying sectarian civil war.

Locally-based Iraqi insurgent groups have been less receptive to this credo of violence that borders on nihilism. Because nationalism constitutes a common thread running through most of these groups, they have also been disinterested al-Qa’ida’s calls for a global jihad and more interested in expelling foreign troops from their country. The unrealistically maximalist views and rhetoric of al-Qa’ida precluded the possibility of communication with other, unlikeminded groups. If the fact that the organizational structure and makeup of the insurgency, which is centered around the Sunni Arab and, to a lesser extent, the Sunni Turkmen communities, made the possibility of a truly national liberation movement that transcends various communal cleavages difficult, it is equally true that the exclusivist salafism of al-Qa’ida has made coordination between various insurgent groups impossible.

After months of reeling under severe military blows by US and Iraqi troops, the erosion of support among the local Sunni Arab population, and the killing or capture of its key figures and operatives, it is safe to say that the fortunes of al-Qa’ida in Iraq have been on the decline lately. But it is still early to be writing its political epitaph. The fact that the assassins of Abu Risha managed to penetrate the web of security surrounding him suggests that the group is still capable of carrying out spectacular attacks.

As various insurgent groups continue to scramble to fill the power vacuum in the Sunni Arab heartland of Iraq over the coming months, its ability to rebound in the face of military setbacks and remain active as a violent underground force will be further tested.