Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Sunnis Fight Off Insurgents

Sunnis targeted by al-Qaeda groups in western Iraq have formed their own militia.
By Dawood Salman
Sunni leaders in lawless western Iraq have formed a kind of citizen’s militia to combat sustained attacks by insurgent groups linked to al-Qaeda.



Dubbed the Anbar Salvation Council, the group seeks to gather diverse tribal groups, political leaders and members of the police and other security forces.



By representing Sunnis who oppose al-Qaeda groups leading the violent campaign in the province, the Salvation Council marks an important counter to the increasing sectarian divide within the country.



Already claiming some success in attacking al-Qaeda-inspired forces, the council is being seized on by the Iraqi and US governments as a possible means to restore some kind of order in the province.



The main objective of the authority is to oppose al-Qaeda and put an end to their power in the west of Iraq. Representatives say that it was formed in October under the supervision of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.



“We got full support from the government to terminate Takfiri groups (radical anti-government Islamists) all over the province,” claimed Fassal al-Gawod, a member of the Salvation Council who was formerly head of a provincial council in Anbar, which the new body has replaced.



Since 2004, groups purportedly connected to al-Qaeda have blown up police command offices throughout the province, and threatened security personnel in order to make them quit. The campaign has targeted government offices and provincial councils and led to a political and security gap leaving the province, 110 kilometres west of Baghdad, under control of insurgents.



The Iraqi Islamic Party, IIP, is one of the key groups that broke the Sunni political boycott, supported the October 2005 constitutional referendum, and decided to participate in the December 2005 parliamentary elections. Now it forms part of the Accord Front, the Sunni parliamentary bloc, and holds senior posts in the parliament and the government.



As a result, it has also become a prime target for al-Qaeda, particularly in Anbar province. Since April this year, Tariq al-Hashimi, the Iraqi vice-president who is secretary-general of the IIP, has lost a brother and a sister in violent attacks. Another 50 members of the party have also been killed recently, mainly in the Anbar towns of Fallujah, Hit, Hadithe, Rawe and Ane, including several heads of provincial councils.



“Al-Qaeda's agenda is against Sunni participation in any political process," said Abdul-Karim Mohammed, a senior IIP official.



Indeed, insurgents are explicit in their purpose. “Anyone who participates in any activity with the occupier is against Islam - whether politician, policeman, or army member, and his destiny is death," threatened Wahid Abu al-Awf, a member of al-Qaeda’s branch in the west of Iraq. “The IIP is the first renegade and we will clean up Anbar of their Islam renegade ideology.”



Al-Awf’s organisation - formerly known as al-Tawhid and Jihad - was initially led by Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi and now is headed by Abu Ayub al-Misri.



Osama Bin Laden is recently reported to have called on his followers to target political groups cooperating with the Iraqi government, singling out the IIP.



As a result of the violence, many IIP party members have fled the area, while those who stay are forced to renounce their membership, with insurgents publishing confessions complete with photos on walls of mosques, markets and other public places.



The constant threat has seriously curbed IIP`s presence in the province, said Sa'ad al-Fayadh, a party member there.



Indeed, public life itself has almost stopped in Anbar as most government offices are shut and markets are deserted due to continuous clashes between multi-national forces and the insurgents. Residents are losing their patience watching the insurgents beheading people and issuing threatening leaflets to anyone who tries to go to work or school.



"We don't know what those criminals hope to gain by depriving us of studying," said Ayman Sa'ad, student of computer science at Anbar University.



Despite the political success of the IIP, they have not had an armed wing or specific militia to protect themselves, as Shia groups in parliament do.



Sa'adoon Ali, professor of political science at al-Nahrain University in Baghdad, attributes the party’s vulnerability to its failure to “encourage its members and supporters to join security apparatus or form a special guard force. They have become an easy prey for al-Qaeda insurgents”.



Which is why local leaders created the Anbar Salvation Council, with the backing of tribes, Iraqi security officials and political groups.



“We support any initiative that might lead to stability,” said Abdul-Karim Mohammed, the senior IIP official. However, the IIP appears to be carefully calibrating its position, and has not as yet directly joined the new authority.



Attacks against civilian officials and others have continued. But on November 25, tribesmen from the Salvation Council claimed to have killed 55 al-Qaeda fighters in a raid against the militants, and many people in the province hope the council will make a difference. Certainly, the government is hoping it will restore security to Anbar and possibly duplicated in other turbulent parts of the country.



In any event, the creation of the council underlines locals' lack of trust in the American military. US troops have been forced to reduce their presence in the area - and, for many Anbar residents, they are still the true enemy. They are blamed indirectly of helping al-Qaeda, as people feel they have not made a real attempt to restore law and order. For their part, the Americans say residents' refusal to join government security forces underlines their lack of cooperation.



Daud Salman is an IWPR contributor in Iraq.

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