Anbar Tribesmen Take on al-Zarqawi

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 5

A report by al-Hayat on January 26 that “Tribal Popular Committees” have been formed in Ramadi (capital of Anbar province) to hunt down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his followers, “for the purpose of expelling them from the Iraqi border to Syria,” does not come as a surprise. Indeed, over the past year various reports have surfaced pointing to increasing friction between Anbar tribesmen and al-Zarqawi’s followers who dominate the insurgent landscape along the crucial Euphrates River valley. What is interesting about the latest reports is that Anbar tribesmen and the “Iraqi resistance” are willing to hunt down and kill al-Qaeda affiliated fighters in Iraq. Previously, the tribesmen had merely warned al-Zarqawi’s followers to stay away from their areas and to desist from persecuting the Shi’ite minority in Anbar.

The al-Hayat report quotes one Sheikh Usamah al-Jad’an (the head of the al-Karabilah tribe in Qaim) as saying: “the Tribal Committees have started a military campaign against the terrorists.” The real question here is how serious the so-called “Tribal Popular Committees” are at pursuing al-Zarqawi and his men. In other words, do the committees have real teeth, or are they merely the latest propaganda stunt by the Arab Sunni guerrilla movement? It is worth noting that the Arab Sunni guerrillas and their political representatives (in the form of the two Arab Sunni blocs that participated in the December 15, 2005 elections) see the inclusion of Arab Sunnis in the new government (which has yet to be formed) as an adjunct, rather than an alternative, to the insurgency. Clearly it suits their interests to sideline al-Qaeda in Iraq, at least in the propaganda sphere.

For its part, the Iraqi government is not overly-impressed by the counter-insurgency initiatives of the Anbar tribesmen. Adel Abdul Mahdi, vice president of Iraq and a leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), described the latest initiative in a typically cryptic manner: “We support any request by the people of Anbar. However, we have to say frankly that no-one ought to seek the help of saboteurs against terrorists, terrorists against saboteurs, or would-be suicide bombers against those beheading people. The Iraqi people and the Iraqi government have to face up to these challenges” (al-Hayat, February 3).

Naturally, the Iraqi government prefers to be at the forefront of the struggle against the insurgency. Yet, there is a more pressing reason why the latest developments are seen as unwelcome by the Baghdad government. The increasing mobilization of Anbar tribesmen converges with increasing confidence by the two Arab Sunni blocs (namely the Sunni Islamist “Iraqi Accord Front” and the much smaller neo-Baathist “Iraqi Front for National Dialogue” led by Saleh al-Mutlaq) in using quasi-official platforms to promote the insurgency and pressure the government to make unreasonable concessions.

On February 1, the Iraqi Accord Front threatened to call for civil disobedience if the government did not respond to its demands, which include releasing detainees and disbanding militias (al-Mashriq, February 2). Al-Mashriq also quotes Tariq al-Hashimi, the secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, as calling for the resignation of Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, also a former senior commander of the Badr organization, and his deputies. This kind of aggressive posturing (which is completely at odds with the electoral weight of the two main Arab Sunni blocs) comes at a time when the insurgency is picking up strength, as evidenced by the relentless attacks on U.S. forces in the Baghdad, Anbar, Salahudin and Nineveh provinces. It is exactly this kind of propaganda, political and guerrilla coordination that the Iraqi government and the U.S. establishment in Iraq had been dreading for a long time.

For its part, the victorious Shi’ite coalition has started a counter-propaganda campaign through opinion pieces in the daily al-Adala (issued by SCIRI). An opinion piece by Hamdi Hassan implicitly accuses the Arab Sunnis of refusing to accept their electoral defeat (al-Adala, January 30). Another opinion piece by Abbas Mizban follows on the same theme, but this time explicitly rejecting accusations of fraud and violations in the recent elections (al-Adala, January 31).

Leaving aside the political and propaganda dimensions of recent developments, it is clear that the gulf between al-Zarqawi and the Iraqi resistance is widening. A major point of friction is the increasing proclivity of the nationalist insurgents to negotiate with the U.S., both at a tactical and strategic level. The latest negotiations, which reportedly took place in Iraq, Syria and Jordan, have apparently ground to a halt because of U.S. rejection of insurgent demands. Apparently, the insurgents had proposed a one-year truce with U.S. forces, conditional on the United States removing half its forces from Iraq within a year, allowing the insurgents to hold official posts and increasing Arab Sunni representation in the new government (al-Sabah, February 2). The negotiators, according to al-Sabah, are described as “Baathists, Islamists and high-ranking former Republican Guard and intelligence officers.”