Exactly What is Really Going on in Anbar Province?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007 at 08:38 PM

Not surprisingly at all, there is a lot of evidence that the White House, not to mention General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, were a little less than completely forthcoming, accurate, and complete in their recent attempts to portray Iraq's Anbar Province as a new beacon of hope, courtesy of the surge, that there is finally light at the end of the Iraqi tunnel.

The White House's official line is that Anbar Province is a model of success in Iraq as local Sheiks ally themselves with the US. Then there was the recent weeping and moaning upon the death of "Sheik Abu Risha," allegedly the leader of that collaborative effort. So, is that province, once the epitome of the Iraqi nightmare, really turning around, is the turnaround because of the surge, is the surge-related turnaround in jeopardy with the death of Abu Risha?

First, lets get out of the way the fact that the new developments in Anbar, whatever they may actually be, pre-date the surge. The "Anbar Salvation Council" was being discussed (and questioned) at least as far back as October of 2006.

Then there's the odd development that investigative journalist Greg Palast is publicly stating that:

  • Sheik Abu Risha wasn't a sheik.
  • He wasn't killed by Al Qaeda.
  • The new alliance with former insurgents in Anbar is as fake as the sheik - and a murderous deceit
You can read Palast's entire story via the link, but here's the crux for my purposes:
Why was "sheik" Abu Risha so important? As the New York Times put it this morning, "Abu Risha had become a charismatic symbol of the security gains in Sunni areas that have become a cornerstone of American plans to keep large numbers of troops in Iraq though much of next year."

In other words, Abu Risha was the PR hook used to sell the "success" of the surge.

The sheik wasn't a sheik. He was a fake. While proclaiming to Rick [Rowley, who produced a film on the man and on Anbar's new situation] that he was "the leader of all the Iraqi tribes," Abu lead no one. But for a reported sum in the millions in cash for so-called, "reconstruction contracts," Abu Risha was willing to say he was Napoleon and Julius Caesar and do the hand-shakie thing with Bush on camera.

Notably, Rowley and his camera caught up with Abu Risha on his way to a "business trip" to Dubai, money laundering capital of the Middle East.

There are some real sheiks in Anbar, like Ali Hathem of the dominant Dulaimi tribe, who told Rick Abu Risha was a con man. Where was his tribe, this tribal leader? "The Americans like to create characters like Disney cartoon heros." Then Ali Hathem added, "Abu Risha is no longer welcome" in Anbar.

Lest you think that Mr. Palast is flying drunk, note that very similar charges were made in Iraqi sources in October of 2006:
...closer to home, in Ramadi, the new Iraq is getting ready to witness the first of the new type of armed confrontations, pitting AlQaeda against Sunni Iraqi nationalists, the latter including local tribal groups, existing armed resistance groups, and also Sunni political groups that have now become fed up with the government.

Al-Anbar province extends all the way from the western outskirts of Baghdad to the Syrian border. Ramadi is one of its main cities, close to Baghdad, and it is where AlQaeda held a parade or demonstration on Wednesday to underline startup of the Islamic Emirate which they claim will include all of the Sunni-Arab provinces of Baghdad. Arrayed against AlQaeda and promising to dislodge them from Ramadi is a new organization called the Al-Anbar Salvation Council (pending a better English version of the name), whose exact makeup is still a little unclear, but whose concept is to include all of the Al-Anbar tribes, along with officers in the former (Saddam era) army, and also current personnel in the Iraqi police and army.

Remarks made to Al-Hayat paint a mixed picture of the new Al-Anbar Salvation Front, as it tries to organize to take back Ramadi from AlQaeda. On the one hand, the person described as the leader, one Abu Risha, says the tribal people, former army officers, and others, are all available, and in fact already control the outskirts of Ramadi, but they are waiting for the necessary material and armaments support from the Iraqi government. But others say Abu Risha isn't the man to organize the tribes because too many of the urban leaders object to him. Moreover, some oppose the idea of accepting any support from either the Iraqi government or the US. Finally, relations with the existing armed resistance groups, including Islamic Army of Iraq and others, is completely unclear.


But Abu Risha's viewpoint isn't the only one. This Al-Hayat piece also cites remarks by Khalif Alyan, a leader in the Iraqi Accord Front, which is the biggest of the Sunni coalitions in parliament. Alyan's remarks are particularly interesting as an expression of the new Sunni rejection of the Maliki government. Alyan said the followers of his group would object to joining in the Anbar Salvation Council if any of the tribes were to accept Iraqi government support or US support. And he said he was skeptical of the ability to Abu Risha to actually bring the tribes together in the way that he claims to be able to do. Alyan added that the clan leaders in Ramadi and other cities in Anbar that he has spoken to object to the idea of any group "based on Abu Risha". And to drive the point home, he said if the Salvation Council ends up accepting Iraqi government or US government support, the result will be fitna or all-out civil war in Anbar.

And if you're wondering what happened to that threat of all-out civil war if the alliance took US aid, here's one very plausible theory: the Sunnis realized that they could use cooperation with the US to but themselves the opportunity to cleanse Anbar province of all Shia. That brings us back to the film by Rick Rowley mentioned in the excerpt from Palast.

What Rowley and his cohorts found in Anbar is that the Sunnis cooperating with the U.S. have forced Shia residents of the province to relocate, and those who did (rather than die) are living in squalid conditions in camps outside Sunni areas. Here's an excerpt of an interview of Rowley by Katie Halper of AlterNet:

Embedded with the U.S. Army and Iraqi militias, Rowley shows us that the Sunni "freedom fighters" with whom the United States is now allied are not just insurgents who had been killing Americans but war criminals responsible for sectarian cleansing.

Rowley, and his co-producers David Enders and Hiba Dawood, are the only Western journalists to bring a camera into the refugee camp where the displaced Shiites recount being attacked, bombed and driven out by the very tribes Petraeus and Bush are hailing as heroes.

Rowley's report, which includes interviews with candid U.S. soldiers and footage of a military commander handing a Sunni leader a wad of cash, suggests the role of bribery and coercion in building alliances that serve short-term goals in Anbar province, but in the long run deepen a multisided civil war. I talked to Rick Rowley about his report and what he thinks it indicates about Iraq's future.

Katie Halper: What brought you to Iraq, and what were you hoping to capture?

Rick Rowley: We knew that one of the major stories the Army was going to use to justify keeping troops there was the supposed success in Anbar. The first investigation we did was into the Anbar reconciliation program. We spent six weeks crisscrossing Iraq, embedding with different militias to try to get a picture of the state of Iraq during the surge.

KH: You were the last Western journalists to videotape an interview with Abu Risha. What was he like? What was his significance?

RR: He seemed stiff and scripted. He told us some incredible lies during the interview. Three times he said he was the leader of all the Arab tribes of Iraq -- both Shia and Sunni. And like a bad poker player's tell, every time he told a lie he sniffed loudly.

He was a figurehead for a movement, the face they put on this story. Operationally, militarily, he wasn't particularly important. In his interview with us he said there was 100 percent security in Ramadi, that he was head of all of the tribes in Iraq. That has proven, in a horrifying way, to not be true. His assassination has blown a hole in the American story about security in Anbar. It's going to have a chilling effect on other tribes in other parts of the country who were thinking it might be safe to work with the Americans.

KH: Bush and Petraeus are hailing our alliance with Sunni tribes in Anbar. Can you tell us about these "freedom fighters" the U.S. is now allied with?

RR: There have been a lot of reports about the fact that the people who the U.S. is working with, the supposed "freedom fighters," the "counter-insurgents" are former insurgents. They were Iraqi al Qaeda before they started working with the Americans. That is troubling because if they were fighting the Americans once, they'll fight Americans again. And more troubling for the future of Iraq is the fact that many of the tribes that the U.S. is working with are war criminals who are directly responsible for ethnic cleansing and who are using American support to prepare for sectarian civil war. The U.S. is funding Sunni militias. They already funded the Shia militias. They're now funding all sides of this sectarian war.

KH: How did you discover that the Sunni militias with whom the U.S. is working are engaged in this sectarian violence?

RR: We embedded with the Americans for a week, and we found that in the town Fallahat, where there used to a lot of Shia, there are now no Shia. So we tracked down the displaced Shia families and found them living on the outskirts of Baghdad in a refugee camp that no Western media and certainly no camera crews have ever filmed. There are no services, no doctors, no hospitals, no schools, no running water, no work, no sanitation. People have to walk, in some cases, for miles to just get polluted tap water out of hoses. People who have tried to return home to pick up their rations have been killed on the highway. So no one can leave.

The refugees we talked to knew the names of the people who had kicked them out and bombed their houses. And they are exactly the same tribes the Americans are working with. So the people the Americans are working with are responsible for sectarian ethnic cleansing. Malaki's head of negotiations with Sunni groups told us the groups the Americans are working with include some of the country's worst war criminals, responsible for beheadings and mass executions.

KH: Even if these militias are responsible for this violence, how do we know that the U.S. military knows this? Is it possible they don't?

RR: We have proof that the Americans should know it. The American soldiers set their core operating base in a house they knew used to be inhabited by Shia. And all the Shia were gone. So it's just whether they decided to ask the obvious question or not.

KH: How does what Petraeus and Bush are saying contrast with what you saw and filmed on the ground?

RR: The story that Petraeus and Bush are saying is fantastic -- a Lawrence of Arabia figure named Abu Risha rose out of the desert and behind him the noble tribes of Anbar rose up and they kicked out al Qaeda. Well, it's safer for American soldiers there, but it's not safer for the Shia citizens there. The U.S. is funding sectarian militias fighting in a civil war in order to momentarily decrease attacks on Americans.

Perhaps sadder still is the possibility that this forced relocation of the Shia from Anbar was made possible by something that was, at the time, hailed as an encouraging step forward: the fact that our new Sunni allies were coming forward in great numbers to join the Iraqi police. From a story in the Washington Post from last January:
Before tribal sheiks aligned themselves with U.S. forces in the violent deserts of western Iraq, the number of people willing to become police officers in the city of Ramadi -- the epicenter of the fight against the insurgent group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq -- might not have filled a single police pickup.

"Last March was zero," said Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer, the Marine commander in western Iraq, referring to the number of men recruited that month.

With the help of a confederation of about 50 Sunni Muslim tribal sheiks, the U.S. military recruited more than 800 police officers in December and is on track to do the same this month. Officers credit the sheiks' cooperation for the diminishing violence in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.

"I don't want to paint too rosy a picture, but if you compare this to what it was seven or eight months ago, there is not a place in this city that al-Qaeda controls," said Lt. Col. James Lechner, deputy commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, in Ramadi.

Yet even that Washington Post report contained cautions that all was not as it seemed:
But some Iraqi politicians and Anbar residents who oppose the U.S. presence describe the confederation, known as the Awakening, as a divisive group that pits tribes against each other, uses police officers as armed guards to protect tribal territory, and harnesses American support to consolidate its power.

Fasal al-Gaood, a tribal sheik and former Anbar governor who was seen as an ally of the Americans during his term in office, said the group has been given more authority than it deserves. Gaood, who has survived several assassination attempts, said he was worried that insurgent infiltrators might lurk inside the rapidly growing police force.

"Many of those sheiks are actually following two tracks," he said, speaking from his current home in Jordan. "On the one hand, they say, 'We support the council.' But they're not playing a direct role in it, because at the same time they also have connections with other organizations that are outside the law."

Lechner conceded that "insurgent infiltration is undoubtedly an issue" but said in an e-mail that the U.S. military relies on a computer database to check whether recruits have a history of known insurgent activity. They are also "vetted and vouched for by family members and tribal leaders," he said.

Saleh al-Mutlak, parliamentary leader of the secular Sunni party known as the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, described the confederation of Sunni sheiks as a "very dangerous movement" that is assuming official powers in the absence of a functioning government. "They wanted political cover from our front, but we said no," he said. "We don't mind that they fight al-Qaeda, but any movement should be official, and not tribal, because it will only divide the tribes."

So what exactly is going on in Anbar? Nothing as good as the US government and military is claiming. And quite possibly the seeds of something that will, once again, come back to bite large numbers of Americans (and Iraqis) in our easily fooled butts.


Excellent article on the propagandised MSM coverage of the "success" to be found in Anbar province. Abu Risha is just another curveball being thrown at the overly compliant and largely toothless MSM. Good on Greg Palast for trying to bring this to peoples attention. Spud's been following his stuff since he broke the Tim Griffin/ Karl Rove caging scandal last year. A lot of wot the WH is calling success in Iraq is merely indicators of the success of the ethnic cleansing that's been going on since hostilities commenced. There are too many hats being worn in Iraq at this time. Spud believes that well over 90% of the population can safely be sed to support the resistance to the occupation which in media speak is usually referred to as "the insurgency". Beyond that tribal loyalties and religious division further fracture any attempts at national unity. The police, the militias and the government are all infiltrated by folk with alternate agendas. Meanwhile all the troubles in Iraq are frequently over-simplified in the MSM as being the result of foreign born AQ troublemakers in order to shift focus off the fact that the resistance has more legitimacy than the occupying forces. The first best step to take in Iraq to ease tensions would be to eradicate the corporate armies from the scene. The modern praetorian guard are even more despised in Iraq than the US and UK troops and for very good reason. They are amoral killers without a hint of concious or accountability. They are rogue agents who's existence is predicated on the fact that in the main they have been set up by republican cronies who in addition to their profit motives also show signs of having a neo-crusader mentality. It's impossible to prove but Spud believes that on a given level a lot of these groups believe that their presence in Iraq satisfies some bizzare interpretation of biblical prophecy. There is blood on their hands that "all the sands of Arabia" cannot ever wash clean.

Be Well.