Anbar's Historic Moment

This week the U.S-led Coalition and Iraqis reached an important and historic landmark in the Iraq War — one that represents U.S. and success in both Iraq and the War on Terror. On September 1, 2008, U.S. Marines under Major General John F. Kelly formally turned over the governance of al-Anbar Province to Ma’amoun Sami Rashid al-Awani, al-Anbar’s governor, and also turned over security to Major General Murthi Mush’hen Almhalawi, the commanding general for all Iraqi Security Forces.

As the province approaches elections this fall, Marines provide mentoring and support as they prepare for their eventual departure from Iraq. I recently returned from my second deployment in Iraq where I witnessed the dramatic changes in Iraq’s security and attitude leading up to this event. The story of al-Anbar’s success is a testament to U.S. perseverance and resolve, and to the frustration of U.S. troops responsible for this victory, it is largely a story untold by the mainstream media.

When I arrived at Fallujah in 2004, U.S. Marines had only recently returned to Iraq and were already engaged in a pitched battle with Fallujah’s insurgents following the highly publicized and sensational murders of Blackwater security personnel. Fallujah had become the epicenter if Iraq’s insurgency because it was both vital to Baath Party interests and a center of Wahhabi thought and instruction.

Although Marines had entered a unilateral cease-fire, Fallujah’s insurgents had continually attacked Marines with small arms, rockets, mortars, and improvised explosive devises. In fact, my team and I had taken small arms fire while flying into Fallujah, and I had several close calls with rockets and mortars throughout my first deployment. Even on the night I left, a lucky rocket killed a respected Marine in another event seared into my memory.

The clash between Marines and Fallujah’s insurgents in 2004 had been brewing for a year since U.S. Coalition forces liberated Iraq. The predominantly Sunni city of nearlly 300,000 had never fully been pacified since the Coalition invasion, and a series of violent confrontations between Fallujans and U.S. soldiers had given the city a reputation for violence and danger. Following the Baath Party’s fall from power, some 40,000 of Saddam’s best troops expelled from the cluster of bases outside the city continued to fight.

Other leading Baathists in Fallujah, who had enjoyed paternalistic privilege and protection under Saddam, joined emerging insurgent groups vowing revenge for the Coalition invasion, as did Fallujan smugglers who lost significant revenue because of the U.S. occupation. Like their Sunni counterparts across Iraq, Fallujah’s Sunni Imams called for jihad in Iraq against the invaders. They also called for the establishment of an Islamic, Shariah government and harbored al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters who hoped to reestablish the caliphate in Iraq.

Beginning with a deadly clash between the U.S. soldiers and Fallujans on April 28, 2003, Saddam’s birthday and just a week after his fall, confrontations between Coalition forces and insurgents in Fallujah had become both more frequent and severe. Fallujah’s guerrillas attacked U.S. troops from among crowds and baited soldiers to return fire. They attacked convoys with coordinated small arms attacks and roadside bombs, and launched rockets and mortars at military camps and outposts.

Although U.S. forces succeeded in killing or capturing a number of Baathists, insurgent forces in Fallujah grew as more foreign fighters entered the country. Unemployed Iraqis also joined their ranks. Amid this unstable environment, Fallujah’s various tribes and factions began vying for control of the city, including a volatile mix of Sunni Imams and Salafi groups who were sympathetic to al-Qaeda.

When U.S. Marines returned to Iraq in March 2004, they sought to implement a counterinsurgency strategy to provide security and stability operations in al-Anbar Province based on two centuries of experience in irregular warfare — particularly their most recent experience in the months following the liberation of Baghdad a year before. Central to the strategy, Marines sought to win the hearts and minds of the local population while rooting out foreign fighters and remnants of Saddam loyalists.

However, by the time Marines arrived, Fallujah, like the rest of al-Anbar, had become dangerous and volatile. The city had become a safe haven for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other foreign fighters to launch attacks on Baghdad, the Coalition, and the Shia to prevent them from gaining control of Iraq. These foreign fighters sought to control the population through terror and propaganda and began to impose a Taliban style Islamic law on Fallujah, murdering those who resisted or collaborated with the Coalition.

Following Al-Jazeera’s sensational coverage of the Blackwater murders on 31 March 2004, Coalition command ordered the Marines to assault the city in response to al-Jazeera’s sensational images and the media-fueled public outrage they created. But with few Western journalists on the scene, al-Jazeera and the Arab media dominated combat coverage in a way favorable to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and insurgents, broadcasting the false insurgent claims of excessive force and targeting civilians, which caused public indignation and led to higher reversing its position and ordering Marines to end their assault.

The unilateral cease-fire allowed insurgents to regroup, impose Islamic Shari’a law on the city, and delayed decisive operations that finally came in November under Operation al-Fajir, or New Dawn, which finally brought a decisive military victory and paved the way for successful Iraqi elections in 2005. However, it did not earn the good will of the province.

By and large Anbaris did not participate in the landmark elections of 2005. As a result, al-Anbar Province remained isolated for the next two years. Those foreign fighters who escaped Fallujah found refuge elsewhere and continued to launch their attacks on Iraq’s new government, Coalition forces, and the Shia. Across al-Anbar Province, AQI tightened its grip on the province — controlling key communities through murder and intimidation. Ramadi, al-Anbar’s capital, became AQI’s new base of operations. Although Coalition forces killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006, by the end of 2006 many U.S. and Iraqi officials had written al-Anbar off as untamable.

Unknown to most, however, the situation in al-Anbar Province was already changing. AQI’s extreme brutality and indiscriminant attacks had caused resentment among Anbaris, which led to increasingly more organized resistance across the province — resistance organized largely along tribal lines.

Finally, Sheik Satter abu Risha, whose father and three brothers were murdered by AQI, approached Coalition forces for help in expelling AQI from the province. With Coalition support, Sattar unified some of Anbar’s tribes and succeeded in driving al-Qaeda and other groups from Ramadi in late 2006. This cooperation created an opening that allowed U.S. Marines to work with tribal militias and the Iraqi Army and police toward a common goal of protecting Anbaris from AQI’s murder and intimidation campaign.

As Sattar’s Sawha, or Awakening, movement spread across al-Anbar, U.S. Marines and soldiers secured the cities and towns from Fallujah and Ramadi in the east, up the Euphrates River valley to Hit, Haditha, and al-Qaim on the Syrian border, then out to remote cities like ar-Rutbah that served as way stations for Salafi foreign fighters. After establishing checkpoints around these cities to restrict insurgent access, Marines divided cities into secure precincts and appointed former tribal militiamen, who were residents in these precincts, to control the precinct checkpoints to keep any remaining insurgents from freely moving around cities.

These neighborhood watch groups became known as the Sons of Iraq. Meanwhile, Marines moved from hardened bases into smaller outposts within these “gated communities” and began living with Iraqi police where they conducted joint patrols to engage the population and root out remaining insurgents living in the cities. However, by living and working with the Iraqis, mentoring them and setting examples for them to follow, they built comradery, trust, and respect. Coupled with an active police presence and unsympathetic population, these actions succeeded in driving AQI out of the population centers.

With Anbar’s key cities secure, Marines recruited more police and soldiers and provided the necessary training for them to defeat AQI and other insurgent groups on their own. Then they turned more responsibility over to the Iraqis while reducing their presence and demilitarizing the cities. This allowed Marines to turn outward to the outlying areas where they pursued AQI terrorists hiding in desolate desert regions.

Meanwhile, Marines simultaneously worked with tribal and business leaders, government representatives, and Imams to provide humanitarian aid, rebuild infrastructure, and provide vital services across the province. Such U.S. and Iraqi cooperation built new hospitals, schools, and government buildings. It also improved roads, railways, and bridges, and refurbished power plants, sewage treatment facilities, oil refineries, and fuel distribution centers. These efforts improved quality of life and also helped build popular support for the campaign against AQI that brought cooperation from the population. Not only did Anbaris point out weapons caches, but they also pointed out insurgents and their supporters.

As the quality of life improved through the restoration of vital services and infrastructure, U.S. agencies turned to improving Anbar’s economy. They created business development centers that provide skills and help Iraqis obtain both micro-financing and foreign investment. Such programs not only helped improve Anbar’s established cement, tile, and steel fabrication factories, but also helped improve irrigation for livestock and farm products. Investment also helped launch renovation on a popular resort on the shores of Lake Habbaniyah, which leading Anbaris hope will become a world-class resort attracting tourists from all over the region.

Amid the new security environment, many Iraqis took advantage of new opportunities by attending new adult literacy or vocational training programs. Others attended one of al-Anbar University’s seventeen colleges. Meanwhile, a program called Iraqi Women’s Engagement helped empower Iraqi women while improving their position in Iraqi society and government. The program also worked with other U.S. agencies to help Anbar’s Civil Society organizations provide for those Iraqis excluded from other programs — such as widows, the disabled, and the elderly.

Importantly, Anbaris are no longer isolated or indoctrinated by state-owned media. New radio and television stations, along with new newspapers, magazines, and improved Internet access, are not only helping educate and inform Anbaris, but also include them in the discussion of issues and exchange of ideas. For the first time in history, local-Anbari leaders are using the media to engage their people, to include call-in programs where locals can talk to their officials about important issues.

Now free of al Qaeda’s oppressive control and influence, the U.S. military and other agencies have helped Iraqis build provincial and municipal governments that provide self-governance and are on the path to self-reliance. Currently, Anbar’s political parties are now active in the political process in anticipation of the upcoming fall 2008 Provincial elections. Tribal leaders are now supportive of the democratic process because they are now included and involved in it. Women, once excluded from governance and the debate on important issues, are now participating in Iraqi government and society. Along with self-government, Iraqi courts now provide important legal functions in al-Anbar as the province moves toward rule of law.

After three and a half years, I returned to Fallujah and found it a vastly different place. Not only were Fallujans and Marines working together to provide security from al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups, but children played soccer with Marines as adults smiled and waved. Adults often invited Marines and soldiers into their homes for meals or tea. Marines and soldiers freely purchase gifts and other items from Fallujah’s vendors, or ate at local restaurants — including a new Kentucky Fried Chicken. I attended a Fallujah city council meeting and not only witnessed Fallujah’s leaders working to resolve important issues in the community, but also witnessed two Iraqi women, representatives of the Iraqi Women’s Engagement program, participate in government and address issues traditionally overlooked in Iraqi society. Marines and other U.S. representatives who attended these meetings only there when to offer advice and U.S. support when needed. Iraqis were in charge.

As I toured the city with Marines, I saw first-hand that the city, once ravaged by two battles in 2004, was now clean, demilitarized, and being restored to a level far better than it had been under Saddam. Most important, I felt safe. I saw the Sons of Iraq and Iraqi police provide their own security as Marines focused on killing the last remnants of al-Qaeda in remote desert regions along side the Iraqi Army and Anbar Provisional Security Forces. I even attended the King Faisal Bridge rededication ceremony — the same bridge where the charred mutilated bodies of four Americans working for Blackwater were hung in 2004. Fallujah’s police chief, Colonel Faisal, no (relationship to the Saudi King), came to cut the ribbon for the event. A high-value target for al-Qaeda in Iraq, Faisal is a representative of the Awakening movement. His body guards were hand selected because each had had a family member murdered by AQI.

As I traveled around al-Anbar Province, I found same stories of success. AQI has been expelled from the major population centers, in essence neutralized in the province, and importantly its ideology was rejected by the population. Ramadi, al-Anbar’s capital, was just as dangerous and volatile as Fallujah in 2004 when I cautiously moved my convoys through its streets. Now, like Fallujah, it is a reflection of Anbar’s progress and a beacon of peace and cooperation with the West. In fact, Ramadi has applied with Sister Cities International in hopes of promoting peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation with a sister-city in the United States.

Iraqi police in al-Anbar have grown ten-fold, from 2,000 in 2006 to 20,000 in mid-2008. These Iraqi police now patrol city streets and control checkpoints, while the Iraqi Highway Patrol covers Anbar’s major roadways and the Iraqi Army conducts independent operations against AQI and other insurgent or criminal groups. In Fallujah, Iraqi women known as the Sister’s of Fallujah also provide important security functions, searching women as they enter the city. However, nothing is more telling than performance of Iraq’s military while I was in Iraq. Not only were Iraqi Army brigades purging AQI cells from Iraq’s Ninawa and Diyala Provinces after driving them out of al-Anbar, but they had just defeated Muqtada al Sadr’s Iranian backed militia in Basra leading to his cease-fire and a reduction in violence around Baghdad.

As a result of my travels I not only witnessed the dramatic changes first-hand, but also became convinced that the new good relationships between Americans and Iraqis were real and that the changes would last. Fallujah, a city that was once considered the meanest in Iraq, the epicenter of Iraq’s insurgency, and as the center of Wahhabi thought in Iraq could never be tamed, was now a city moving toward democracy in anticipation of the 2008 Provincial elections, moving toward economic independence and political self-reliance, and importantly dramatically more accepting of Western culture. It represents a tremendous breakthrough in the longstanding clash of cultures between the Arab world and the West.

As the Awakening movement spread beyond al Anbar Province, Iraqis elsewhere similarly began working closely with Coalition forces and U.S. agencies toward common goals of further improving security, infrastructure, local government, and the economy. Now much of Iraq is reporting the same progress and success as al-Anbar. Iraq still has serious issues and challenges to overcome. It may very well take a generation or more to overcome the economic, political, and social setbacks caused by centuries of isolation, turmoil, and conflict. However, after two years, al-Anbar has been transformed from a hostile, backward region written off by both U.S. and Iraqi leaders, to a capable and maturing region that is the model for the rest of Iraq.

In retrospect, however, the three-year period between the liberation of Baghdad in 2003 and the beginning on the Sahwa, Awakening, may very well have been an unavoidable clash of cultures given the region’s isolation and indoctrination. Nonetheless, al-Anbar’s rejection of al Qaeda and other Salafi terrorists and criminal groups has not only led to more security and allowed it to modernize, but opened the door for new relationships with U.S. and Coalition forces. Americans are no longer seen as the enemy, but as partners, even friends, working toward common goals of keeping Iraqis free and safe while working toward opportunity and prosperity. This cooperation and friendship is forging lasting relationships between Iraqis and American that will make Iraq a strong ally in pursuing peace, security, and freedom in the region.

It is important to understand that while the Awakening was an important breakthrough leading to security and stability in the region and breaking down longstanding cultural barriers, AQI’s evil actions alone did not bring on the Awakening. The U.S. led Coalition provided and alternative that gave Anbaris a choice. After the Coalition’s military success in al-Anbar from 2004-2006 weakened al-Qaeda in Iraq’s ability to control the population through terror and propaganda, U.S. perseverance and unwavering commitment to its stated goals for Iraq, that is, restoring stability and security, help establish legitimate self-government, and foster economic growth, backed by its consistent actions, set the conditions for the Awakening movement. By demonstrating sincere in its respect for Iraqi culture and convincing Iraqis that the United States was not there for long-term occupation or to proselytize the population, Anbaris simply realized, after centuries of indoctrination and isolation, that al Qaeda was the enemy, not the United States.