Anbar Province and Emerging Trends in the Iraqi Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 14

The recent upsurge of fighting in Iraq’s restive Anbar province is one of many indicators that some of Iraq’s insurgents are evolving into organized guerilla formations. This comes at a time of daily multiple bombings in Baghdad and other cities, which have elevated the insurgency to a new level of intensity. Since early May, 2005 the U.S. military has been conducting a series of extensive operations in Anbar, particularly along the border with Syria, which allegedly serves as the primary infiltration point into Iraq. But given the size of this western province, and the implacable enmity of a great majority of its inhabitants to the U.S. military presence in Iraq, these operations are unlikely to stem the tide against the insurgency.

The sheer significance of the U.S. marines (around 1,000 strong and backed up by air power) having to fight near-conventional battles with well-armed and determined rebels along the Syrian border near the town of Qaim in early May was not lost on the newly elected Iraqi government. In a typically knee-jerk reaction, and one which will likely prove to be of little consequence, the Iraqi authorities announced the creation of a new anti-terrorism unit, to be managed jointly by the ministries of defense and interior. [1] In yet another attempt to show their determination to get to grips with a worsening insurgency, the Iraqi authorities announced the capture of a leading bomb expert who allegedly supplied car bombs to insurgent groups in the Mosul area. According to the Iraqi security forces, Ali Salim Yousef is a confidant of the leader of the Abu Talha organization, an insurgent group with loose links to the Zarqawi network. [2]

Defiant—and hard to verify—pronouncements by the fledgling Iraqi government notwithstanding, the battles of early May and subsequent joint operations by the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces in Anbar point toward emerging trends in the Iraqi insurgency. Many villages and outposts in the province are under effective insurgent control and this is clearly boosting the organizational capabilities of the rebels. The most ominous implication of this revolves around the very real possibility of insurgents cohering into organized guerrilla formations and possibly inflicting serious casualties on the U.S. military in Iraq.

That the latest trend in the evolution of the Iraqi insurgency is unfolding in the Anbar province is not in the least surprising. From the opening shots of the insurgency in May 2003 to the present, almost every development of consequence, in terms of insurgents’ tactics and strategy, has unfolded in this vast and sparsely populated western region of Iraq. The first serious demonstrations against the occupation occurred in Fallujah, where several demonstrators were shot dead by U.S. forces, an event that deepened the animosity of the local population toward the American occupation. In due course Fallujah was transformed into the epicenter of the insurgency and in April 2004 was completely seized by the insurgents, who held onto the city for more than six months.

Anbar: A Brief History

While Arab nationalists in Iraq and beyond have historically touted the Anbar as a bastion of Arabism in the country, the region has a more complex history. Ironically the word “Anbar” is Persian for “warehouse”; it was given this name by the ancient Persian Sassanid Empire, since the whole area served as a massive warehouse for its troops.

From the 16th century onwards, while Mesopotamia was gradually brought over to the Shi’a branch of Islam by the missionary zeal of the Iranian Safavid Empire, the Anbar region remained mostly Sunni. At the same time the region’s close proximity to two important Arab capitals, Amman and Damascus, underpinned its status as a gateway to the Arab world. These two facts shaped the region’s distinctive political and religious culture.

In the 20th century the Anbar region emerged as a bastion of modern Iraqi nationalism. In 1920, a rebellion against nascent British rule erupted in Fallujah, the so-called city of mosques. The British sent the brilliant explorer and distinguished colonial strategist, Lt. Colonel Gerald Leachman to defeat the rebels. In a remarkable battle that resonates to this day, Leachman and a sizeable number of his troops were killed on the southern outskirts of Fallujah by rebels led by local leader Shaykh Dhari.

In subsequent decades both Fallujah and the province’s capital Ramadi produced some of the Arab nationalists that determined the political destiny of modern Iraq. In this respect, the region’s close proximity to Syria (which in the 1930s and 1940s was the intellectual center of Arab nationalism) was a decisive factor. While a significant constituency amongst the prominent tribes and the more urbanized elements of Anbar society were against the Baath party (primarily because of its links to the Iraqi Communist Party), the advent of the second Bath regime in 1968 was broadly welcomed.

Anbar and the Ongoing Insurgency

Aside from the nationalism and religiosity of its people, there are two other factors that make the Anbar region the heartland of the Iraqi “resistance”. Firstly the region has historically provided many of the most competent officers in the Iraqi military and security forces. The dissolution of the Iraqi military and security forces in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion effectively made tens of thousands of experienced officers jobless. Today, some of these officers are connected to the insurgency, particularly in planning, networking and connecting the insurgents to wider regional support networks. Secondly the Anbar province is usually the first port of call for jihadis and other foreign (and in some cases Iraqi) elements who infiltrate into the country through the Iraq-Syria border.

The infiltration of jihadis and other elements from the Syrian border is often cited as the most worrisome factor in the insurgency. The Western press is fixated on “foreign” fighters infiltrating into Iraq to plan and execute some of the more dramatic attacks. Up until the early parts of this year, the Iraqi media and government spokesmen echoed the same fears. But recently there has been a trend toward making a more dispassionate assessment of the infiltration from Syria. There is now wide recognition that, in terms of numbers, the level of infiltration is insignificant compared to the many thousands of Iraqi insurgents who comprise the vast majority of the “resistance”. But the infiltration is important insofar as expertise and logistics are concerned. Many of the car bombs that explode on Baghdad’s streets on a daily basis are driven to the capital from Anbar. Moreover, many of the suicide bombers who blow themselves up against hard and soft targets alike on a scale that is beginning to surpass the suicidal exploits of Japan’s Kamikaze pilots of WWII, are believed to be motivated by specially trained religious instructors, some of whom are foreign.

In order to stem the flow of car bombs and suicide bombers in Baghdad, the Iraqi authorities launched operation “lightening”, involving up to 40,00 troops and security personnel, and aimed at denying rebel access to the Iraqi capital. The Iraqi authorities also announced the creation of a new counter-insurgency force, designed, first and foremost, to deal with infiltration into the capital from Anbar. The so-called “Tiger” unit was initially given control over the Rasafa quarter of Baghdad. [3] Judging by the continuing near-daily bombings in the Iraqi capital, these measures have clearly not been effective enough. In any case it is important to put the security assessments and ambitions of the Iraqi authorities in their proper context; recently Laith Kubba, spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja’afari, predicted that coalition forces would “disappear” from the streets of Iraqi cities within “weeks”. [4]

Wider Trends in the Insurgency

Aside from the worsening situation in Anbar (and its inevitable impact on security in Baghdad), two other developments are worth noting. The first involves recent statements that the U.S. authorities in Iraq have held talks with the “representatives” of the insurgents. Although much speculation has followed these rumors and statements (which were confirmed by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld), Terrorism Monitor’s sources in Iraq believe that the statements are designed to sabotage the morale of the insurgents, who have shown no real signs of engaging in dialogue with anybody, let alone the U.S. military in Iraq. It is interesting that most of the news relating to the alleged talks is leaked by “Baghdad”, a daily newspaper belonging to Iyad Allawi’s “Iraqi National Accord”, which has close links to the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus in Iraq. The self-appointed middleman of the insurgents is ex-electricity minister Ayham al-Samarrai, who is believed to be close to Allawi. In early June Samarrai told “Baghdad”, that the “Islamic Army in Iraq” and the “Mujahideen army”, which according to him constitute 50% of the insurgency, had signaled their readiness to disarm and start negotiations with the government. [5] Not surprisingly the insurgents immediately threatened to assassinate Samarrai, making it clear that he represents nothing but his own interests and ambitions.

It is indeed unlikely that there have been any meaningful contacts between the insurgents and the U.S./Iraqi authorities. The insurgents have not yet developed a strong enough ideological and political infrastructure to be able to participate in the political process. Moreover, insurgent organizations are numerous, and as of yet, no single organization can claim to speak on behalf of any strand of the insurgency. According to Terrorism Monitor’s sources in Iraq, there are around 100 insurgent groups in the country. Their size varies from small groups composed of half a dozen men, to the largest insurgent organization, the “Islamic Army in Iraq”, made up of around 2,000 full-time and part-time insurgents. The latter is believed to be controlled from a safe distance by former Iraqi military intelligence officers based primarily in Syria, but also in Cyprus, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

The second development relates to calls by the new Iraqi President, Jalal Talebani, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), to deploy Kurdish and Shi’a militias against the insurgents. [6] This call comes at a time of worsening sectarian tensions in the country, with Hareth al-Dhari, the head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, accusing the Badr organization (the armed wing of SCIRI) of assassinating Sunni Muslim clerics. [7] Despite subsequent denials that there are any plans afoot to deploy the militias, the initial announcement by Talabani and al-Hakim is profoundly important. It points toward the eventual deployment of the Badr organization (originally established and trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the early 1980s) against the insurgents. The Kurdish militias are unlikely to be deployed outside the Kurdish regions, for fear of igniting a wider ethnic conflict in Iraq.

The Badr organization is already involved in counter-insurgency operations, albeit indirectly. For instance al-Liwa al-Dheeb (Wolf Brigade), widely believed to be the only effective and motivated component of the new Iraqi security forces is largely led by former Badr organization commanders. Despite their profound misgivings toward SCIRI and the Badr organization, the U.S. authorities in Iraq are reluctantly incorporating the latter in the country’s security structures. As the extent of insurgent penetration of new Iraqi military and security structures become more apparent, with recent reports that top officials in the interior ministry had been passing highly sensitive information to the rebels [8], calls will inevitably grow for the direct deployment of the Badr organization in counter-insurgency operations. In any case, the Badr organization remains a primary target for the insurgents; a senior officer in the organization was assassinated just over a week ago. [9]

In the midst of this worsening security situation, the U.S. and its allies in Iraq are increasingly reliant on the political process for good news. But even on this front, there are serious and potentially fatal problems. While the success of the January elections is open to debate, it is readily apparent that the political process is not having any meaningful impact on the ordinary lives of Iraqis. Given that there are regular power blackouts, water shortages and mass unemployment, the project to “democratize” Iraq is—at best—irrelevant insofar as the great majority of the population is concerned. Moreover, deepening the political process runs the risk of further empowering SCIRI and other Shi’a Islamist organizations, whose vision for Iraq is very different to that of the United States, and who in due course may become more serious adversaries than the numerous and implacable guerillas of Anbar.


1. Al-Sabah al-Jadeed (independent daily published in Baghdad), 16/05/05.

2. Baghdad (daily, published by the Iraqi National Accord), 18/05/05.

3. Addustour (independent daily), 02/06/05.

4. Al-Mada, 06/06/05.

5. Baghdad, 09/06/05.

6. Al-Mutamar (daily, published by the Iraqi National Congress), 09/06/05.

7. Ash-sharq al-Awsat, 19/05/05.

8. Baghdad, 27/06/05.

9. Al-Mashriq, 07/07/05.