Al-Sahawa: An Awakening in Al Qaim

By: Dr. William (Bill) Knarr

On 2 May 2005, Chief of Police Major Ahmed Adiya Asaf was walking along Main Street in the market area of Husaybah, a town in the Al Qaim district of northwestern Iraq, when seven men attacked, shot, and beheaded him.2 For the people of the Albu-Mahal tribe, the beheading of MAJ Ahmed was the last straw. The Albu-Mahal became the first tribe to stage a significant uprising against AQI.

More than a year later, on 14 September 2006, Sheikh Abdul Sattar Albu- Risha announced the Sahawa—the Awakening.3 On that day, Sheikh Sattar and 40 other sheikhs from the Ramadi area signed an Emergency Council proclamation to work with the Multi-National Force–Iraq (hereafter the Coalition forces) to drive al Qaeda from Al Anbar province.

Most people associate the Anbar Awakening movement with Sheikh Abdul Sattar Albu-Risha's 14 September 2006 announcement, because on that day he coined the term Sahawa. The historical association of that event with the Awakening was made even more dramatic by the fact that three days before the announcement, a secret military assessment leaked to the press had proclaimed Al Anbar to be "militarily unwinnable." More importantly, the subsequent Ramadi awakening happened quickly. One year after Sheikh Sattar's announcement, U.S. President George W. Bush met with him, the tribal leaders of Al Anbar, and the leadership of Iraq to congratulate them on their successes. On 1 September 2008, conditions were stable enough to hand over the province to the Iraqis.

Few people, however, connect events and relationships between the events in Al Qaim in 2005 and the Ramadi uprising in 2006.4 Although historians recognize Al Qaim's Albu-Mahal tribe as one of the first to rise against AQI, they tend to portray the events in Al Qaim as unrelated to, and greatly overshadowed by, later events in Ramadi.5 To the contrary, Al Qaim's revolt against AQI was part of a continuous story line, precursory to events in Ramadi, and one of the critical enablers of the Anbar Awakening movement.6 What is more, Al Qaim's Sahawa was one of the first examples of successful COIN operations in Al Anbar and Iraq—long before FM 3-24 was lauded as revolutionary new COIN doctrine.7 Although the term Sahawa, the Anbar Awakening movement, would not be coined until 16 months later, some would say it came into being on 2 May 2005, in Al Qaim.


The Al Qaim district in Al Anbar province became increasingly important to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group al Qaeda in Iraq after November 2004, when AQI lost its sanctuary to the Coalition forces' onslaught in the second battle of Fallujah, called Operation Al Fajr. The Al Qaim district is located on Iraq's border with Syria. Although the district's population of 150,000–200,000 represents only 10 percent of the province's population, the area is strategically important due to its location on the border and along the Euphrates River.8 Al Qaim is along a lucrative smuggling route for black market goods, and was AQI's lifeline to Baghdad as foreign fighters, money, and other resources that fueled the insurgency infiltrated Iraq. With the loss of Fallujah, Al Qaim also became AQI's newfound sanctuary, its proclaimed caliphate.

AQI arrived in Al Qaim with offers to partner with the district's tribes to defeat the U.S.-led Coalition forces. Its leaders promised money and other resources, while declaring that as Muslims and Arabs, Al Qaim residents were obligated to conduct jihad, to fight the "crusaders." The Coalition, ignorant of tribal customs, religion, and traditions, had, many local people felt, disrespected and dishonored the people of Al Qaim, and a patriotic resistance movement had already formed there. Initially, the tribes of Al Qaim saw the al Qaeda movement as the "complete jihad."9 For many residents, it was time to rid the area of the occupiers. They believed that together, they—AQI, the tribes, and their militias—could do that.

The tribes of the region varied in size and available resources, and were incapable of defeating the U.S. occupiers on their own. Some, like the Albu- Mahal tribe, the strongest tribe in the area, organized and gave resources to the Hamza Battalion specifically to fight the Coalition.10 Even with the support of the tribal militia, however, the Albu-Mahals lacked the weaponry, ammunition, and other equipment to win such a fight. AQI's offer of support was tempting, and most of the tribes accepted.

But AQI's offer was deceptive; it was not a partnership they proposed. AQI provided weaponry and funding, but it also demanded to lead the jihad with the intent of first destroying and then transforming the social fabric of Al Qaim. AQI started by taking over the smuggling routes, skimming profits, and killing those who resisted. It then imposed a radical form of Islamic law, or shari'a, in the district with fanatical punishments for transgressors. AQI used religion to justify such actions, which included forced marriages of local women to its fighters.11 The most common intimidation tactic was to behead those who resisted and to leave the head on the chest of the body in the street for all to see. Sometimes only the head was left and the body was disposed of in the river or in the jazeera—the desert. Despite the risk of brutal retribution, there were dissenters among the tribes, particularly within the Albu-Mahal in Husaybah, the small Iraqi border town that served as Al Qaim's main market and port of entry. AQI needed to show it was in charge; it could not afford dissenters or challengers. The most visible challenge to its authority was the Coalition's Camp Gannon, located in the northwest corner of Husaybah.12

The Attack on Camp Gannon

This is going to be a great attack against the Americans. This will be a victory for Allah. This will be a victory against the coalition, and this will be a victory in which we free Iraq from the American oppressors.13

Camp Gannon, constructed adjacent to the old border station between Syria and Iraq, had become a reviled icon of the occupation. AQI needed a victory against such an icon for psychological as well as practical reasons. First, AQI needed to show the tribes of the area that it was in charge of the region, and Camp Gannon was a constant reminder of the Coalition's permanent presence. Second, although Camp Gannon's reach along the border was limited, it severely restricted the insurgents' ability to move foreign fighters and other support into Iraq. Finally, as Camp Gannon restricted the flow of goods and resources from Syria, it accounted for a loss of monthly revenue to the insurgents.

Camp Gannon, constructed adjacent to the old border station between Syria and Iraq, had become a reviled icon of the occupation. AQI needed a victory against such an icon for psychological as well as practical reasons. First, AQI needed to show the tribes of the area that it was in charge of the region, and Camp Gannon was a constant reminder of the Coalition's permanent presence. Second, although Camp Gannon's reach along the border was limited, it severely restricted the insurgents' ability to move foreign fighters and other support into Iraq. Finally, as Camp Gannon restricted the flow of goods and resources from Syria, it accounted for a loss of monthly revenue to the insurgents. In the early morning on 11 April 2005, its enemies greeted Camp Gannon with two rounds of mortar fire. That was normal. India Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2), had been receiving a daily fare of mortar rounds at Camp Gannon since it arrived in February, as had its predecessor, Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (1/7). What was not normal was the sophistication of the follow-on attack—a trademark of AQI.14

Three suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIED), preceded by a breaching vehicle and followed by a film crew/media van, penetrated Camp Gannon's defensive barriers and targeted its inner sanctum, the command post. Captain Frank Diorio, company commander, India Company, who had been knocked down by successive blasts, heard someone yell, "Fire truck!" The fire truck was the last and largest of the three SVBIEDs.15 "My heart sank," Capt Diorio later recalled. "I heard the explosion. I thought it was a direct hit on my CP [command post]. …I thought I'd lost about 150 Marines" (see Figure 1). Immediately after the last blast, Capt Diorio heard incoming fire—small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, and machine guns— from houses adjacent to Camp Gannon. Foreign fighters had infiltrated the area the night before, vacated the residents, and staged for the assault and exploitation of the SVBIED attack. Within minutes of the incoming fire, Capt Diorio heard outgoing fire and saw lieutenants and noncommissioned officers moving to positions and supplying Marines at their posts. Miraculously, as each platoon accounted for its Marines, Diorio realized that none had been lost; they had repelled the attack.

Within 24 hours, the insurgents posted the video announcing the attack as "a victory for Allah … a victory against the coalition … a victory in which we free Iraq from the American oppressors."17 The townspeople quickly learned, however, that the Coalition had lost no forces. To save face, the foreign fighters announced over the mosque loudspeakers that the "Americans didn't die because you [the townspeople of Husaybah] are bad Muslims … or else we would have had victory."18

The people of Husaybah didn't buy the propaganda. One night soon after the attack, the Marines heard gunshots coming from the Market Place. They called a local source, dubbed the "City Lady," who resided in or around Husaybah, and asked her what was happening. "Well, there was a fight in the Market Place between the foreign fighters and a local. The local is making fun of them for not killing any of you guys. And the foreign fighters shot and killed him," she told them. This was Capt Diorio's first indication that something was going on that the Marines might be able to influence. He explained, "There was no inclination that they [locals] liked us … but they were making fun of the foreign fighters … [so maybe it was something] we can use."19

Although this may have been the Marines' first sense of a rift between the tribes and AQI, trouble had been building for months. To protect their equities and control the population, AQI had not been allowing the tribes to arm and protect themselves. Security in Al Qaim, and in particular, in Husaybah, had become untenable. The Albu-Mahal appointed one of their own, Major Ahmed Adiya Asaf, as the new chief of police.20

On 2 May 2005, MAJ Ahmed was walking along Main Street in the market area of Husaybah when seven men attacked, shot, and beheaded him.21 AQI was publically reinforcing its earlier declaration that AQI—not the tribes of Al Qaim—would be in charge of security, and that it would not tolerate competition of any sort. The beheading of MAJ Ahmed proved to be the last straw. The Albu-Mahal became the first tribe to openly revolt against AQI. Some would say the Sahawa began that day.22

The Albu-Mahal Reject Al Qaeda in Iraq The change was swift. On the same day MAJ Ahmed was killed, the Albu- Mahal's Hamza Battalion turned on AQI and AQI's local supporters, tribes such as the Karbuli and the Salmani. The militia that was created to fight Coalition forces changed course and led the Albu-Mahals into their first major battle against foreign and local insurgents.23

The ferocity of AQI's reaction to the Albu-Mahal's challenge, and the tribe's realization of the magnitude of the consequences should they fail, prompted Albu-Mahal members to call upon the Coalition for help. Former Governor of Al Anbar province Fasal al-Gaoud contacted Americans at Camp Fallujah on behalf of the Albu-Mahals.24 Al Gaoud was a member of the Albu-Nimr tribe, a tribe that shares ancestry as well as history with the Albu-Mahal.25 The Albu-Nimrs are the dominant tribe in Hit, a town northwest of Ramadi. In addition to Al Gaoud's call for help, Albu-Mahal leadership called Bruska Nouri Shaways, Iraqi deputy minister of defense, requesting the Coalition forces' support.26 These early contacts were promising, but the potential would become lost in the chaos of what seemed to the Coalition to be a case of a "red-on-red" struggle for power.

On 10 May, AQI kidnapped Al Anbar Governor Nawaf Farhan, a member of the Albu-Mahal tribe and cousin of Sheikh Sabah, the Albu-Mahal's paramount sheikh. Governor Nawaf had attempted to reconcile the conflict in Al Qaim, but found himself a pawn in AQI's campaign to intimidate the tribes into compliance. By kidnapping him, AQI had again gone too far. This act only further infuriated the Mahalawis27 and strengthened their resolve against AQI.

In the midst of the conflict between AQI and the Albu-Mahal, Regimental Combat Team (RCT)-2 launched Operation Matador on 7 May. The operation, planned before the fighting broke out between AQI and the Albu-Mahal, was designed to disrupt terrorist activities in the Al Qaim region.28 The twin offensives against AQI, the Albu-Mahal's Hamza Battalion's and RCT-2's, were separate and uncoordinated. They both targeted the same enemy, but in different areas: the Albu-Mahal attack came primarily in Husaybah to the west and south of the river, and RCT-2's in the east near Ubaydi and north of the river to the border.

Residents who had fled during Operation Matador returned to find destroyed homes and fellow tribesmen, some of whom had remained to support the Coalition, dead. Fasal al-Gaoud complained that the Coalition forces did not discriminate between AQI fighters and the growing number of anti-AQI tribesmen.29 On-the-ground Coalition forces, still unaware of any request by the Albu-Mahal for help and unable to discriminate among what they considered to be all red forces, claimed success in clearing insurgent areas. While the Coalition acknowledged that locals had provided intelligence information to support the assault, they remained dubious of local efforts to work with the Coalition in the fight.30

Despite the confusion, the Albu-Mahal's Hamza Battalion cleared Husaybah and pushed AQI to the east into Karabilah, a town south of the Euphrates populated by the Karbuli tribe, an AQI supporter.31 With Husaybah cleared, the Albu-Mahals began reconstructing damaged sections of the city and established tribal security around critical infrastructure such as government buildings and services. According to COL Ahmad Jelayan Khalaf, future leader of the Desert Protectors, remaining pockets of AQI seemed to dissipate throughout June and July from areas around Husaybah, as the jihadist group moved east toward Rawah.32

RCT-2 and, in particular, 3/2 Marines recognized insurgent forces who were seeking sanctuary in the Karabilah area. Specifically, during Operation Matador, insurgent forces north of the Euphrates fled southwest across the "Golden Gate" bridge to find sanctuary in Karabilah. Additionally, the Karbuli tribe that resided in Karabilah joined forces with AQI against the Albu-Mahal and the Coalition. On 15 June, RCT-2 executed Operation Spear, which aimed to root out AQI and disrupt its support systems.33 According to Colonel Timothy Mundy, commander, 3/2, the fighting against insurgents wasn't heavy, but it was steady as Coalition forces cleared houses and moved north toward the Euphrates. The significance of the operation was in the intelligence find:

We found papers, a computer with a big database of people that had come through, passports of all sorts from different countries, weapons stockpiles, and a school room with a chalkboard drawing out how to build IEDs. It was a class for IED building. . . . [W]e found what we referred to as the torture house . . . and several guys in there still in handcuffs. They had scars all over their bodies. There was one room in the house [with] . . . a big hook in the ceiling and they would obviously run these guys up, hang them upside down over a bucket of water. They would dip them in the water and then pull them up. They had a frayed electrical cord plugged into the wall that they would sit there and shock them. They had burns and marks all over their bodies. There was very obvious foreign fighter involvement there in terms of the types of weapons . . . all sorts of different makes of RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and rifles.34

Al Qaeda Returns with a Vengeance

The Albu-Mahal's struggle with AQI was far from over. During June and most of July, under the guise of negotiations, AQI gathered thousands of fighters from Mosul, Diyala, Baghdad, and Salah ad-Din into the Al Qaim area. On 25 July 2005, after nearly two months of building its forces, AQI returned with a vengeance. Injured in earlier fighting in the Al Qaim district, Zarqawi, the leader of AQI, took a personal interest in this operation. Within four days, thousands of AQI fighters, heavily outnumbering the 300–400 Albu-Mahal fighters, attacked and killed 60 tribal members. They also destroyed 41 family homes by detonating each house's propane tank, including that of Sheikh Sabah.35

AQI attacked from three directions: from the Syrian border area in the west, from across the Euphrates River in the north, and from the east; the only route of escape open to the Albu-Mahal fighters was to the south. The Mahalawis, outnumbered and out of ammunition, fled for their lives. Most sought refuge with other tribal members in Akashat, 100 miles to the south of Al Qaim. Some travelled to Sufia, east of Ramadi, to stay with tribal brethren. Those who could afford to fled to Syria or Jordan.36

Afraid for his tribe, Sheikh Sabah, from his refuge in Jordan, contacted Iraqi Minister of Defense Dr. Sadun Dulaymi and, according to Sadun, told him, "We need help, because our children, our women, old men, are all surrounded and … the terrorists are going to kill them all." Upon learning this, Coalition Commander General George Casey dispatched an airplane to transport Sheikh Sabah from Amman to Baghdad. According to Sadun, a small group then "met together in my office and put together a plan to help the people of Al Qaim, not just the Albu-Mahal tribe, but all the people of Al Qaim."37

In Al Qaim, prospects were grim for those who remained. The Mahalawis were no longer worried about AQI skimming profits or imposing a harsh social code. It was now a question of surviving. As predicted by Sheikh Sabah, AQI continued its murder and intimidation campaign against those Mahalawis who could not flee. On the ground, Capt Diorio was getting regular updates from contacts in Husaybah. He recalled, "Foreign fighters gathered to come kill my contact [Ali], my source, his family, and his immediate tribe [Albu- Mahal]."38 He also received a phone call from the City Lady, another contact, who told him that about 250 insurgents were at the palace in Husaybah.39 "At the same time," Capt Diorio said, "there [was] a lot of rhetoric that Zarqawi himself was coming to lead this, because he was annoyed by this Sunni tribe rising up against another Sunni tribe."

The information, corroborated through other sources, started to gain traction, and Capt Diorio received approval for an air strike on the palace; at least 100 were killed. This angered AQI and prompted it to bring in more fighters to complete the assault on the Albu-Mahal. The fighters moved into the largest hotel in Husaybah, the yellow hotel with 50–60 rooms. Capt Diorio received another call from the City Lady, and he recalled her saying, "The guys who survived that other strike and a lot of guys who came in from out of town… . [T]here are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these guys in the hotel."40 Again, other sources verified the information. In the meantime, the Albu- Mahal were split between the northern part and southeastern part of the city. Now minute-by-minute updates were coming in from contacts in the area; according to Capt Diorio:

We were getting frantic phone calls: "We're getting run over." And then perhaps the most surreal moments … we saw in the hundreds, Iraqis come out of the north end of the city towards our OP [outpost] … with their hands up. They are now coming in full daylight out of the city towards our OP with their hands up. Ali, our contact, was calling us saying, "These are my people; please help them. We're getting killed."

This was a true turning point as the Albu-Mahal turned to the Marines for help. Capt Diorio continued: "To watch them openly see us as their help, as their rescuers, in broad daylight with their hands up, was amazing. To me, that was the point where the entire city, the foreign fighters, [and] AQI saw the Albu-Mahals say, the Marines are our help. And they came in droves."

At this point, the Marines understood exactly what was happening. They knew this was a significant moment and, as Capt Diorio described, were ready to support it: "And again, talk about discipline. I had Marines now who at this point had fought over 300 fire fights and had faced the largest attack against a Coalition base. They'd been through a lot, and they withheld their fire in a real display of discipline. They read the people."

But the Marines also understood that there was a high probability that some bad guys were hiding within this group of Mahalawis, so they were cautious and responded accordingly. Until they could sort things out, they told the approaching people, "We're going to treat you like we would treat any other prisoner right now." One of the people approaching the Marine outpost said, "I understand, and they [motioning to the others in the group] know it." So, the Marines handcuffed and blindfolded the Mahalawis to sort them out when the situation stabilized.

At this point, the Marines were processing approximately 60 Mahalawis as detainees. Capt Diorio began worrying that the situation was worsening when he continued to receive troubled phone calls from Ali's family. At one point, one of them said, "We're going to die. We're getting crushed." Capt Diorio thought, "Hey, it was great that it worked for a while, but is this going bad now?"

But again, Capt Diorio's Marines understood and responded. They perceived the Mahalawis' cries for help as positive, and they were anxious to defend the tribe. At that point, Capt Diorio described the situation as "bigger than us [himself and his Marines]." He explained:

[T]here was buy-in from the Marines … Colonel Mundy was involved. Colonel Davis was involved. The division was involved. They were all read into what was going on. They were sending up the request for airstrikes.

A Coalition airstrike destroyed the hotel, saving Ali and his family. Surviving members of Ali's tribe evacuated south to Akashat. But Husaybah was lost. AQI came in with the Salmani, another local pro-AQI tribe, and took over the town, making life unbearable for those who remained. This happened at the same time that 3/2 Marines conducted a relief in place with 3/6 Marines. Capt Diorio later recalled his parting thoughts:

I think what we were left with was an initial thought that this failed. Then as we continued to think about it, we thought that this is the tipping point that every counterinsurgency needs. This is the tipping point that you now have a Sunni tribe, Albu-Mahal, who to the point of their very own lives, sided with Coalition forces, sided with India Company, sided with the Marine Corps.

Capt Diorio may have identified the tipping point with the benefit of hindsight, but when asked what he would have done had he remained, he responded, "I honestly think that we probably couldn't have seen what we needed to see because of what we had gone through." It was time for a turnover, time for a fresh set of eyes to work the problem.

Psychologically, the Albu-Mahal may have tipped, but physically, they no longer resided in Al Qaim. By 5 September, Zarqawi reportedly controlled the region and posted signs to that effect.41 Despite the long list of Coalition transgressions and a deep mistrust of the Government of Iraq (GOI),42 AQI's savage and uncompromising trajectory toward fanaticism convinced the Albu- Mahals that siding with the Coalition and GOI was a more palatable alternative to misery and death. AQI gave the Coalition and GOI an opportunity to change the balance in their favor and under their terms.

Changing the Balance

In February 2005, RCT-2 took responsibility for Area of Operation (AO) Denver, which included Al Qaim and four adjacent districts. RCT-2 had an economy of force mission to "conduct counterinsurgency operations in order to disrupt and interdict anti-Iraq elements."43 Its objective, in line with Multi-National Force–Iraq objectives, was to support a successful national referendum in October and national elections in December 2005.

RCT-2's approach was to conduct one or two major operations a month in the Western Euphrates River Valley (WERV), and to "disrupt and interdict anti-Iraqi elements," both of which were tall orders for a small force. RCT-2 had 3,200 Marines and Sailors deployed in a 30,000–square-mile battlespace, to confront an enemy infiltrating from a porous border to the west and fleeing from a lost sanctuary in Fallujah to the east. They were the "little RCT with a division mission and a MEF [Marine Expeditionary Force] battle space."44 By any objective measure, RCT-2's goal to "establish combined, permanent, persistent presence in major population centers in the WERV" could not be accomplished with its assigned force structure.45

But what started as 3,200 Marines and Sailors on an economy of force mission in February 2005, grew to 14,000 U.S. Marine, U.S. Army, and Iraqi Security Forces personnel by September 2005.46 Army Special Forces teams also redeployed into the area, with the primary mission of foreign internal defense: to work with indigenous Iraqis to help them secure their own areas.47 Major Martin Adams, Special Forces company commander, deployed an ODB (Operational Detachment Bravo) to Al Asad to work with RCT-2 and to support the recently deployed Special Forces' outlying operational detachments: Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 582 in Al Qaim, ODA 555 in Hadithah, and ODA 545 in Hit.

Captain Jim Calvert, commanding ODA 582,48 arrived in Al Qaim in August 2005, about the same time that the Mahalawis were fleeing AQI. CPT Calvert's mission was broad and nebulous: Make life better for the Iraqis. Calvert recalled the conditions on his arrival at Camp Gannon as far from optimal: "We got hit with about everything the insurgents had—small arms, machine gun, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar fire—it was not a contested area, the insurgents owned it."49

The Desert Protectors

Reaching out and engaging the Sunnis in the area was critical to driving a wedge between the insurgents and the Iraqis and to changing the balance of popular support.50 If the Coalition and GOI helped, they would have to deal with the perception that they were supporting a tribal militia that might be seen as anathema to Iraq's central government's legitimacy. To diffuse this perception, potential recruits needed to be vetted and drafted into government service.

Just as the Coalition and GOI viewed militias as a threat to government legitimacy, the Sunni tribesmen, for the most part, found the stigma of being associated with the Ministry of Defense or Ministry of the Interior just as repugnant. Therefore, this new organization, explained the former defense minister, Dr. Sadun Dulaymi, would be known as the Desert Protectors and would be neither "fish nor fowl"—neither part of the Iraqi Army under the Ministry of Defense, nor part of the Iraqi Police under the Ministry of the Interior.51

At a safe house in the vicinity of Camp Gannon, Calvert discussed local security force recruitment with representatives of the Albu-Mahal tribe. At the time, the only takers were the Mahalawis; they had already committed themselves by attacking AQI and were marked men. The remaining tribes were either too intimidated or had already sided with AQI. In late August 2005, a team representing the GOI and the Coalition arrived by helicopter in Akashat to vet several hundred Albu-Mahal tribesmen for enlistment into government service. According to COL Ahmad Jelayan Khalaf, commander, Desert Protectors, 279 of the men were deemed fit and inducted. Of those 279, 89 were transported to the East Fallujah Iraqi Compound for training by Special Forces.

While the Desert Protectors were being trained and equipped, 3/6 replaced the 3/2 Marines in Al Qaim on 10 September 2005, and occupied their sites at Camp Al Qaim, Camp Gannon, and the communications retransmission site at Khe Sanh (Figure 3). Lieutenant Colonel Dale Alford, commander, 3/6 Marines, arrived with an experienced unit, an aggressive plan, and a new approach to liberate the district from the grip of AQI.

Eighty percent of 3/6—including the battalion commander, company commanders, first sergeants, and non-commissioned officers—had fought together eight months earlier in eastern Afghanistan. Although there were differences between the type of fighting they had done in Afghanistan and what they faced in Iraq, the similarities helped shape the unit's concept of operations.

One such similarity between Iraq and Afghanistan was that the population, not the enemy, was the center of gravity. LtCol Alford explained,

You need to understand your enemy before you can protect the population. You've got to figure out who needs killing and who doesn't. The problem is we [the average Coalition Soldier or Marine] wanted to shoot at all of them. Hell, we were making insurgents!53

Alford commented that the number one group that his Marines needed to deal with was "POI—Pissed-off Iraqis!"54 They had to believe that their interests were better served by siding with the Coalition and GOI than with AQI. A second similarity was the need for persistent presence. It made little sense to clear an area if there weren't enough forces to remain and hold it. Although 3/6, unlike its predecessor, arrived with its full contingent of Marines, it wasn't enough to do the whole job.55 Finally, the men of 3/6 also brought an understanding from Afghanistan that they must integrate with the indigenous forces. In late September, 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division (1/1/1 IAD) was deployed to Al Qaim to work with 3/6 and designated Combined Task Force (CTF) 3/6. With the addition of the Iraqis, LtCol Alford now had the resources to establish a combined, persistent presence within the population centers—the key terrain. As he told it,

People ask [how I] came up with this concept. I don't really know. I can go back in books that I read as a young Lieutenant and Captain, like First to Fight, General Krulak talks about this. The Marines were doing this back in Vietnam in '67 or '68 before we really started doing it in '69, '70, '71 under General Abrams. This was before the COIN Manual came out in the Fall of 2006. What I'm saying is, this is nothing new. It is just protecting the population, in order to do that you've got to live where the population is, and that's what we were trying to accomplish. [Operation] Iron Fist was nothing more than an operation to get into the people, to kick the bad guys out, establish ourselves, and stay. Once we moved into the city we weren't leaving.56

CTF 3/6 executed Operation Iron Fist during 1–7 October 2005, attacking from east to west through the town of Sadah and eastern Karabilah, and stopping at the Emerald Wadi (the tip of the arrow on Figure 4 that reads Line of Attack). They built four positions—Chosin, Iwo Jima, Belleau Wood, and Khe Sahn—and left a platoon of Marines and Iraqis in each.

Although focused in Al Qaim, Operation Iron Fist wasn't conducted in isolation. CTF 3/6's higher headquarters, RCT-2, was simultaneously conducting a regimental operation dubbed River Gate in the area of Hadithah. CTF 3/6 and Iron Fist created a diversion away from the regimental main effort. With the addition of more Coalition and Iraqi forces, and the newly formed Desert Protectors, RCT-2 finally had the force structure necessary to execute its strategy: combined, permanent, persistent presence. The resulting task organization, reflected in Figure 5, was much more robust than those forces available to RCT-2 earlier that year.


Operation Steel Curtain

CTF 3/6 had positioned forces on the east side of the Emerald Wadi at the conclusion of Iron Fist, and continued to engage the enemy in Karabilah on the west side of the wadi. The enemy expected the Coalition to continue the assault from the east.59 Instead, CTF 3/6, supported by Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 2/1, each with elements from 1st Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division (1/1 IAD) and the Desert Protectors, repositioned from Camp Al Qaim to the Iraqi/Syrian border, from where they would assault eastward through Husaybah and Karabilah.60 The RCT mission statement read,

At 0500 5 November, RCT-2 conducts Joint/Combined COIN operations to isolate and clear Husaybah, Karabilah, Ubaydi, & Ramana IOT defeat AQI forces, establish persistent presence, disrupt insurgent activities, facilitate Iraqi restoration of the border and set conditions for national elections in the Al Qaim region.61

On 5 November, CTF 3/6 and BLT 2/1 assaulted into Husaybah and the area known as the "440 District" southwest of Husaybah, respectively. Simultaneously, elements of 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (3-504 Inf ) inserted by helicopter into the Ramana area to the north of the river, a known insurgent sanctuary.

Despite the tactical surprise, it took CTF 3/6 and BLT 2/1 the next seven days to clear the Husaybah–Karabilah–Sadah area of this sophisticated enemy. Insurgents wore Kevlar helmets and body armor, and fought with a degree of discipline that reflected military or advanced terrorist training. All main roads and avenues of approach were laced with IEDs. Residential buildings were mined to target the Coalition forces as they breached and cleared rooms. If the insurgents encountered superior firepower after engaging Coalition forces, they generally broke contact and conducted coordinated withdrawals to the east, or they discarded evidence of their actions and attempted to blend in with the population (see Figure 6). The enemy clearly knew what it was doing and how to do it.62

Immediately upon clearing the areas, CTF 3/6 started constructing firm bases—one in Husaybah, followed by one in Karabilah. On 14 November 2005, 3-504 Inf and BLT 2/1 attacked into Old and New Ubaydi, respectively. On 16 November, Weapons Company, 3/6 Marines started construction on a firm base in New Ubaydi. From 18 to 21 November, a task force consisting of 4th Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment (4-14 Stryker) and 3rd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 1st Iraqi Army Division (3/1/1 IAD) cleared the Ramana area north of the river.

Operation Steel Curtain ended on 22 November 2005. An important but often overlooked accomplishment of that operation was that the Desert Protectors proved critical to the mission. Their mission had three primary objectives:

1. General military intelligence. As MAJ Mukhlis Shadhan Ibrahim al-Mahalawi, commander of the Desert Protectors, explained, "During the first stage, we gathered a lot of intelligence like where the terrorists were staging, where their operations center was, where did they plant IEDs."64

2. Fighting. During the second stage, the Desert Protectors fought side by side with the Marines.

3. Human intelligence. During the third stage, the Desert Protectors were used to identify insurgents. As MAJ Mukhlis explained, "We were the only ones who could identify people captured by the U.S. forces. Somebody could be a prince or an emir [among the bad guys] … we knew who was the prince, the emir, and who were the assistants. It was our job to identify them." 

CPT Calvert recalled that the Desert Protectors were employed primarily as scouts. As such, they were broken down into small elements and embedded with regular Iraqi Army and Marine units. In this role, they were invaluable to the operation. According to Calvert, however, there were some negative aspects associated with using such a local unit:

The Albu-Mahals were massacred. If you have people who lost family members and they know that somebody else from another tribe was responsible for it, you have to keep a close eye to make sure there aren't any reprisals for past actions.

You also want to make sure that there's no perception that these guys are the new ones in charge and you guys [the other tribe] are going to be squeezed out. A lot of times in dealing with tribes, there is a zero sum game. [They think] that the Albu-Mahals are doing well at the expense of the Karbulis and Salmanis. It's definitely a matter of appearing to be doing the right thing, and not just doing the right thing. Perceptions go a long way.66


By late November, CTF 3/6 had constructed 16 battle positions in the area from Husaybah to Ubaydi. Each position included Marines and Iraqis—normally a Marine platoon and an Iraqi platoon or company. Those positions were located in such a way that they would reflect combined, permanent, persistent presence. In other words, the Coalition and Iraqi forces were positioned to live among the people. The next step was for the forces to engage the people.

Mission analysis led LtCol Alford to assign company areas based on the tribal distribution— to link a company with a tribe. This was not an exact science because the tribes were geographically intermingled. The intent was to locate companies in areas where a majority of a tribe resided. As an example, India Company 3/6 dealt mostly with the Karbulis (see the tribal areas in Figure 9). Additionally, the Marines attempted to treat all of the tribes the same and would not hold a meeting unless all of the tribes were represented. According to LtCol Alford,

When only three of the five tribes showed up, I gathered my crap, and told my guys, we're leaving. I told Mayor Farhan that when he got all five [tribes, he could] call me… . About a week later one of the company commanders told [me] Mayor Farhan had them all. I showed up, and he had four of the five. The Salmani tribe was the one that didn't show that time. I did the same thing. I picked my stuff up and I left. A few days later he had all five, and then we started dealing.68

In practice, treating the tribes equally wasn't always easy. The Albu-Mahal had taken the greatest risks and LtCol Alford had worked very closely with Sheikh Kurdi, who was now acting head of the tribe, so it was difficult not to favor them over tribes that had until recently sided with AQI. The Marines had to constantly remind themselves to maintain balance. As such, during the drive to recruit tribesmen into the police force, the Coalition solicited help from all of the sheikhs to nominate men from their tribes to create that balance. They also started developing police stations near the battle positions. This process gave the Coalition and Iraq Army forces the opportunity to partner with the police forces in those areas.

Day-to-day engagement with the population occurred at the lower levels— company, platoon, and squad. At the company level, Captain Brendan Heatherman, commander, Kilo Company, 3/6 Marines, used the same technique for locating and assigning his platoons as LtCol Alford had used for assigning companies. He assigned platoons to different tribal areas, and he directed that the platoon commanders "be part of that tribe:" to be an advocate for their tribe in requesting funds, developing projects, and obtaining other resources.

Capt Heatherman became a trusted arbiter. These close engagements helped the Coalition and Iraqi forces separate the insurgents from the populace. As Capt Heatherman recalled,

We knew we really needed to make a connection with the locals to root out the insurgents. To do that, we needed to find out who the players were on the battlefield other than the locals. First and foremost was to find out who the enemy was.70

With this goal in mind, Heatherman identified four types of insurgent:

The first was al Qaeda in Iraq, former JTJ (Jama'at al-Tawid wal- Jihad). We had plenty of foreign fighters, and we knew they were coming in through Syria. The second group was local homegrown, yet still hardline al Qaeda. Once we really connected with the people, it was not very hard to figure out who they were, mainly because when we came in and actually stayed, they and their families did not come back. The third were what we called "parttimers." They were locals who for whatever reason decided to attack us and then go back to their store or farm. There were also local, pseudo-Hamza groups who considered it their duty to oust anyone that came into their area. It was mainly the folks from Sadah that joined that.

Based on this analysis, Heatherman gave his platoons decidedly unconventional guidance:

I really wanted the platoon commanders to get down to that local level and become neighbors. I told them to be nosey neighbors. We wanted to know exactly what was going on. And we wanted them [the locals] to tell you [the Marines], because they are comfortable with you. So we patrolled meal-to-meal. You go out in the morning, and you have breakfast. Sometimes you bring food, and sometimes they would.

This guidance was reinforced at the battalion level. One of the metrics that CTF 3/6 used was known as "eats on streets." Units would report the number of times they shared a meal with an Iraqi or ate a meal in a local café. Additionally, as units entered the community, they always had a specified mission; CTF 3/6 did not conduct so-called "presence" patrols. As LtCol Alford described it,

You did not do presence patrols. When Marines do presence patrols, they'll walk out and they'll kick rocks because they have no focus. That's why ASCOPE [Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People, and Events] is so good.71 You can take one of the six letters of ASCOPE and always put a patrol to it. Okay, you know, S, Structures, you're going to go into this sector and you're going to document every structure in that sector, every structure on that street, and how it can be used by the enemy, how it can be used by us, and how it can be used by the people. You do ASCOPE through three lenses: the enemy, yourself, and the population.72

Despite information collected during ASCOPE, understanding the civil structure within a given area wasn't always easy. According to Heatherman, the community leaders in his areas were the sheikhs, imams, and muktars. The lead sheikhs were not always present. For example, the paramount sheikh of the Albu-Mahal, Sheikh Sabah, fled to Jordan in August 2005, leaving Sheikh Kurdi in charge.73 Imams dealt very little with the civil side of things. However, they were still influential because they spoke to the entire community at the mosque. "We did not mess too much with the imams, because they did not want to be messed with," said Heatherman.74 In his area, the mayor was the muktar. Muktar is an Arabic word meaning chosen. In common usage, it describes someone who is in charge of a village or town. In some areas, the muktars were easy to locate, but you had to be careful. Heatherman explained:

When we went to Karabilah … I spoke with a guy who said he was muktar, but what I did not know at the time was that muktar could be the muktar of three houses or it could be the whole town. I spent two or three weeks with this guy thinking he represented the town of Karabilah, when he really didn't. But by the end of the three weeks he sure did, because we had empowered him with that area of the Karbulis in Karabilah. It was a big mistake. It caused some problems that we later overcame as we met other muktars and we started putting it [the civil structure] together.75

When asked who pulled all of this information together, Heatherman responded, "Me [at the company level], but it was at every level. They [platoons and squads] had their own bank of knowledge about the area … this really caught on down to the lowest level. They figured out the importance of connecting with the local populace. It kept them safe, and it made them win; they liked it."

Combined, Permanent, Persistent Presence

In January 2006, Colonel Ismael Sha Hamid Dulaymi deployed 3rd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Army Division (3rd Bde/7th IAD) to Al Qaim. His unit would replace 1st Bde/1st IAD, which had deployed the previous October to support Operation Steel Curtain. COL Ismael grew up in the Al Qaim region and was the cousin of Sheikh Sabah, paramount sheikh of the Albu-Mahal tribe. COL Ismael continued to command 3rd Bde/7th IAD until March 2008.76 He helped integrate the Desert Protectors into his brigade, with COL Ahmad becoming the battalion commander for 3rd Battalion and MAJ Mukhlis becoming his intelligence officer. 3rd Bde/7th IAD's location in Al Qaim provided the combined, permanent, persistent presence so important to stabilizing the region. COL Ismael worked with five consecutive Marine battalions as each rotated into the area. In each case, Ismael asked the incoming Marine commander how he was going to help him improve the area (see Table 1 for a full list of the units responsible for the Al Qaim district). For example, when Lieutenant Colonel Nick Marano, commander, 1/7 Marines arrived in March 2006, COL Ismael told him, "Colonel Alford established a lot of military bases throughout the area, so what are you going to do to support us?" LtCol Marano responded that they could do field reconnaissance to select a new battle position. COL Ismael, agreeing with LtCol Marano's response, said that they "chose the Al Madi [phonetic transliteration] area. The field engineers established that area as Vera Cruz Battle Position and we manned it with a platoon from the Marines and a company from the brigade."77

By May 2006, Coalition and Iraqi forces had extended their presence along the Euphrates from the Syrian/Iraqi border to Al Amaari. This was almost twice the area that had been covered in February. By September, according to Ismael, they once again doubled that distance and extended their presence to the Rawah/Anah area, 57 miles east of the Syrian/Iraqi border. That concept of combined, permanent, persistent presence, introduced by Col Davis and LtCol Alford to the Al Qaim area in October 2005, was continued and institutionalized by the Iraqis with each subsequent Marine battalion rotation, each of which improved the security of the area. In many cases, those battle positions were partnered with a developing Iraqi police station. Later, when the local police could handle local security on their own, many of those battle positions were dismantled. With the security posture improving, LtCol Marano and COL Ismael were able to increase their efforts to improve the situation in other areas, such as governance and economics, by supporting the development of the judicial system, civic infrastructure, phosphate and cement plants, agriculture, and other areas.

Integral to all of those efforts was the continuous engagement with the Iraqis in what LtCol Marano described as the "Circle of Trust" (Figure 10). In this case, it included the mayor of Al Qaim, the paramount sheikh and sheikhon- the-ground for the Albu-Mahal tribe, the Iraqi division and brigade commanders, and the S2 (intelligence officer) of the brigade, MAJ Mukhlis, also the leader of the Desert Protectors during Operation Steel Curtain.

It is important to note that at the center of the "Circle of Trust" was not a Marine or an Iraqi government official, but Sheikh Kurdi. Sheikh Kurdi was there at the beginning and was clearly the key leader of the Albu-Mahal tribe throughout the Awakening process. He was a large man, with a nononsense but respectful and frank demeanor. He was clear about the original motivation for the development and organization of the Hamza battalion: to fight the Coalition, and, as he exclaimed with some residual pride, "That's a fact!" But as the situation deteriorated, and simply being Mahalawi was reason enough for beheading by al Qaeda, Sheikh Kurdi recalled, there was a period from August to October 2005 when things started to change for the better: "When Colonel Alford and his Marines came, I said, ‘The sun of freedom rises in the west.' "79 LtCol Alford, in turn, gave credit to his Marines and all those he worked with—the Desert Protectors, the Iraqi Security Forces, Col Davis, and those units that followed 3/6 into Al Qaim—for continuing to improve the situation. Things started to change for the better when the right people, team, strategy, and resources coalesced at the right time to stop al Qaeda's savagery.

The Rest of the Story

The story of Al Qaim's evolution from an AQI supporter to an AQI opponent is compelling. That story becomes more important, however, when placed in the context of the overall Anbar Awakening. Contrary to popular belief, Al Qaim's revolt against AQI was not a localized, unrelated event, but part of a continuous story line that had a significant impact on, and set the conditions for, the better known Ramadi awakening.

The Awakening—Ramadi 2006

As mentioned previously, the term Awakening, or Al Sahawa, as it applied to events in Iraq, was coined in Ramadi by Sheikh Sattar. Sheikh Sattar was the leader of what some Iraqis considered a lower-tier tribe in Ramadi. He had a checkered past and was described in the media as "a warlord and a highway bandit, an oil smuggler and an opportunist."80 Colonel Sean MacFarland, commander, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, also known as the Ready First Combat Team, was willing to risk a partnership with Sheikh Sattar despite his history, because MacFarland saw potential in the sheikh's ability to recruit Iraqis to side against AQI. Like Iraqis in Al Qaim, Ramadi's populace was all too familiar with AQI's sweeping murder and intimidation campaign. In much the same way that the Albu-Mahals partnered with the Coalition to fight AQI in 2005, tribes in Ramadi partnered with the Coalition to fight the insurgents in 2006. According to COL MacFarland, Sheikh Sattar described the movement thus: "We awakened when we realized that the true enemy was the takfiris, the extremists [al Qaeda], and that the Coalition was our friend."81

That description left out one group: the GOI. Although Sheikh Sattar's Awakening Council was deeply suspicious of the new local and central governments, COL MacFarland and other Coalition members worked to bring the GOI into the partnership. Security stations manned by Coalition and Iraqi forces were created in neighborhoods throughout Ramadi. A Coalitioninfluenced characterization of Sheikh Sattar's Awakening reflected a triad strategy—the Iraqi people, the Coalition, and the GOI—similar to the one implemented in Al Qaim. In order to demonstrate how events in Al Qaim and Ramadi were connected, it is necessary to understand the significance of Al Qaim's awakening to later events.

The Significance of Securing Al Qaim District to the Overall Awakening Movement

The WERV has served as a route for merchants, smugglers, and soldiers since early history. The Euphrates connects Baghdad and other Iraqi cities with economic and population centers in Syria to the north and with the Persian Gulf to the south. Much of the insurgents' and Coalition forces' movement occurred along the WERV, and not within the open spaces of desert. Control of this relatively narrow band was integral to security, but control of what Brigadier General David Reist, former deputy commanding general of the MEF (FWD), called the commercial battlespace was just as important. He coined the term to emphasize the importance of economics and the WERV to the conflict.82 The Awakening, Reist contended, logically moved from west to east, "a wave coming ashore, not a singular event in any way, shape or form." The wave, in this case, started in Al Qaim in the summer and fall of 2005. In early 2006, it followed the WERV to the area around the town of Baghdadi.83 The chief of police in Baghdadi, Colonel Shaban Barzan Abdul Himrin al-Ubaydi, also known as the Lion of Baghdadi, led the fight against AQI. By mid-2006, the Awakening emerged further downstream, in Ramadi.

Sheikh Kurdi summarized the strategic importance of Al Qaim to AQI—not only to AQI's fight in Al Anbar, but throughout Iraq:

[B]y controlling this [Al Qaim] area … they would have supplies, finance, and weapons; everything they needed to support operations. When they lost this strategic location, they lost everything: all the logistics support that came from outside Iraq was cut off. No more support of any kind! That's why when they lost the battle here, they lost everything inside Iraq because everything was coming through the border. Also, it was not just supplies from Al Qaim to Al Anbar province, but supplies to all Iraqi provinces.84

The significance of this terrain was not lost on the Coalition. Blocking the Syrian/Iraqi border along the Euphrates at the Husaybah port of entry and securing Al Qaim was part of the Coalition's larger strategy to restrict the movement of foreign fighters and resources—including suicide bombers and IED materials—from Syria down the Euphrates to Baghdad. This was particularly important as the Coalition and the GOI prepared for the constitutional referendum in October 2005 and for the elections in December 2005.85 CTF 3/6's ability to implement a combined, permanent, persistent presence in the Al Qaim district, starting in September 2005, was critical to the start of the Awakening in all of Al Anbar, and, as a result, security continued to improve. By September 2006, as LtCol Marano, commander, 1/7 Marines, prepared for transfer of authority with LtCol Schuster and 3/4 Marines, the Coalition and Iraqis had developed a fairly sophisticated operation to control the physical terrain with prepared obstacles on the border, and the human terrain with Iraqi Army and police stations strategically placed throughout the AO. Some of those stations had already been turned over to full Iraqi control. COL Ismael, commander, 3rd Iraqi Brigade, indicated that security was so effective in the Al Qaim district that AQI had fled to Rawah, a city along the Euphrates River, approximately 57 miles to the east of Husaybah. This did not mean that there were not pockets of AQI in Al Qaim, but by late 2006, Iraqi Security Forces and the Coalition dominated the area.

In addition to security, a local government had existed since December 2005 when Farhan De Hal Farhan was elected as district mayor.86 Mayor Farhan was a resident of Fallujah through most of 2004, but fled with his family to Al Qaim in September 2004 just before the Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces assault. As a result of his experiences in Fallujah, he was well aware of AQI's methods of operation.

Increasing the Pressure on AQI

At the beginning of this story, in late 2004, AQI and affiliated insurgent forces were seeking sanctuary in Al Qaim and other communities along the Euphrates as they fled Fallujah during Al Fajr, the second battle for Fallujah. The Coalition's success in Al Fajr both eliminated an insurgent sanctuary and provided a window of opportunity for the January 2005 elections to succeed, while the Iraqi and Coalition occupation of Fallujah started to restrict AQI's freedom of movement to the east into the Baghdad area.87 By restricting the flow of foreign fighters and their resources from the west across the Iraqi/ Syrian border, success in Al Qaim bookended AQI in Al Anbar along the Euphrates, with Iraqi and Coalition forces dominant in Al Qaim in the west and Fallujah in the east. With anti-AQI resistance emerging in Baghdadi and Hadithah in early 2006, AQI was running out of places to operate and hide, and it exploited Coalition/Iraqi security gaps in the Ramadi area and to the east toward Fallujah. By early 2006, Ramadi was known as the worst city in Iraq.

A Continuous Story Line Connected by Relationships and Events

In August 2005, when the leader of the Albu-Mahal, Sheikh Sabah, asked Dr. Sadun Dulaymi, Iraq's minister of defense, for assistance, Sadun turned to GEN Casey for help. GEN Casey responded with funding, equipment, and training to develop the Desert Protectors. Additionally, ODA 582 was assigned advisory responsibility for the development of those tribal forces. While most of the Albu-Mahal tribesmen fled to Akashat, some fled to the Ramadi area, and Mahalawis were later found working with Sheikh Sattar and Sheikh Muhammad Salih al-Suwaydawi in the Ramadi area, supporting the awakening movement there.

In addition to the refugees, there were other ties between the Albu-Mahal and Albu-Risha tribes. Sadun, the principal GOI coordinator for the Desert Protectors, was Sheikh Sattar's uncle, and had grown up next to Sheikh Sattar's family's compound in Ramadi. There was also a connection between Sheikh Sabah and Sheikh Sattar. According to Sheikh Sabah, Sheikh Sattar met him in Jordan to discuss the Albu-Mahal's success against AQI. Sheikh Sattar was increasingly concerned about AQI's grip on the Ramadi area and was looking for ideas on how to counter them.88

During his trip to Jordan, Sheikh Sattar also met with other prominent sheikhs to gain their approval and support for his upcoming fight. Notably, Sheikh Majed Abd al-Razzaq Ali al-Sulayman, co-regent to the Dulaymi Tribal Confederation,89 supported the Albu-Mahal tribe's revolt against AQI in 2005.90 He, along with other notable sheikhs in Jordan, approved Sheikh Sattar's request. This support convinced Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to back the Awakening. Maliki reportedly said that there would be "no Awakening unless Majed and the sheikhs agree to it."91

The types of people participating in the Awakening went beyond traditional tribal leaders. Among those attending the meeting with Sheikh Sattar and Sheikh Majed was Numan Abdul Mahsen al-Gaoud, a businessman and owner of the Doha Group in Baghdad.92 The Al Gaouds are a prominent family in the Hit area and belong to the Albu-Nimr tribe. The Albu-Nimr and Albu-Mahal tribes are closely related and share ancestry.93 Recall that, during the early stages of the Albu-Mahal's fight with AQI, it was Fasal al-Gaoud, a member of the Albu-Nimr tribe and former governor of Al Anbar province, who initially contacted the Americans at Camp Fallujah on behalf of the Albu-Mahal. Additionally, Fasal al-Gaoud attended the announcement of the Awakening by Sheikh Sattar on 14 September 2006 and was an original member of the Awakening Council. Also in attendance, and one of the signatories of the emergency decree, was an Albu-Mahal representative from Al Qaim.

Those connections and relationships were further strengthened by the return of Special Forces teams to the area in 2005 after a short hiatus. As indicated previously, an ODB was deployed to Al Asad with ODAs 582, 555, and 545 deployed to Al Qaim, Hadithah, and Hit, respectively, to work with the tribes and develop those relationships from the bottom up. In fact, Major General James Mattis, 1st Marine Division commander from August 2002 to August 2004, credits Major Adam Such, Special Forces, with making initial contact with the Albu-Nimr tribe as early as mid-2004; Such, per Mattis's account, "actually began what eventually morphed into the Anbar Awakening."94

Disconnected Perspectives, Rather than Disconnected Events

Although some Americans acknowledge the Albu-Mahal tribe's actions in Al Qaim during 2005–2006 as the first tribal uprising against Al Qaeda, most characterize the two movements—in Al Qaim and Ramadi—as isolated and unrelated. Additionally, Al Qaim's awakening is acknowledged more as a footnote than as a major contributor and enabler to the larger movement. In the Coalition's eyes, it might seem that way, but the Iraqis were aware of the tribal communications, coordination, and affiliations. So why do so many Americans view the Al Qaim awakening in such a limited way?

Colonel Michael Walker, commander, 3rd Civil Affairs Group in Iraq from February to September 2004, offered one explanation for this disconnect. COL Walker pointed to the Al Gaoud family as a key factor in understanding the relationship between events in Al Qaim and Ramadi. He cited the revolt of the Albu-Mahal against AQI in 2005 as the first of several tipping points, and attributed the start of the Awakening to the relationships that the MEF established with the Iraqis in 2004 and, in particular, with members of the Al Gaoud family of the Albu-Nimr tribe. COL Walker attributed much of the Coalition's inability to recognize the relationships to a "Coalition time versus Arab time" mind-set.95 Members of the Coalition, on the one hand, perceived events in Iraq based upon the length of their deployments; Marines, for example, saw the sequence of events in seven-month rotational increments. The Iraqis, on the other hand, visualized and connected events during the entire time frame, which in turn related to their collective memories of events predating the 2003 invasion. They could bridge these events and see continuity where the Coalition could only perceive incremental and disconnected episodes.96

Another reason why many fail to recognize the connections can be traced to a classified intelligence report that was leaked to the press in September 2006, two weeks before Sheikh Sattar announced the Awakening in Ramadi. The classified report concluded that the Multi-National Forces and Iraqi Security Forces were "no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency in Al Anbar."97 It went on to report that the tribal system "wholly failed in AO Raleigh and Topeka and has only limited efficacy in AO Denver."98 The only exception noted in the report was Fallujah, where the tribes still functioned despite "local politics in Al Anbar [being] anemic or dysfunctional due to insurgent intimidation… ."99 While a number of Coalition senior leaders in Al Anbar characterized the report as basically accurate when read in its entirety, the report unfortunately set a despondent tone when select elements were headlined in the media. The report led many to conclude that there was no success on the ground. This perception, however, conflicted with the growing reality, which was that tribes were increasingly siding against AQI in the cities and towns of Al Anbar.

Iraqis awoke to AQI's intentions in 2004 in Fallujah, partnered with the Coalition and GOI to defeat AQI in Al Qaim, and challenged AQI's power along the Western Euphrates in such areas as Baghdadi. By early to mid-2006, the movement had already begun in Ramadi. Colonel Tony Deane, Task Force 1-35 Armor, had been conducting police recruiting drives with Sheikh Sattar and the Albu-Risha tribe in Ramadi since 4 July 2006.100 Several weeks later, on 14 July, COL MacFarland announced on a televised Department of Defense news briefing that "I think we have turned a corner here in Ramadi."101

The Al Qaim events and their relation to the overall Awakening might have retained their significance if the media had not chosen to highlight the elements of the leaked report that so authoritatively and adamantly denied any successes in the Anbar area, with the exception of Fallujah. Much of the U.S. audience was left with the impression that success did not start in Al Anbar until the Army's Ready First Combat Team arrived in Ramadi in June 2006.102 As more detailed research makes clear, however, the Iraqis were well aware of the connections, relationships, and significance of Al Qaim, and they would count it as the physical starting point of the Awakening.

When Sheikh Sattar's successor, Sheikh Ahmed Albu-Risha, was asked about the first instance of an Iraqi tribe turning on AQI, he responded matter-offactly, "Albu-Mahal in Al Qaim."103 He spoke of contacting Sheikh Sabah of the Albu-Mahal in 2005 and offering to help. Sheikh Sabah asked that they contact Dr. Dulaymi, the minister of defense and a member of the Albu-Risha tribe, to solicit GOI support. Sheikh Ahmed's brother Khamis travelled to Baghdad and met with Sadun—and now "you know the rest of the story."


Al Qaim's awakening was one of the first significant examples of a successful counterinsurgency operation in Iraq. But the battalion commander refused credit for the strategy, citing operations in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969: "[T]his is nothing new, it is just protecting the population. In order to do that you've got to live where the population is."104

Conditions in Al Qaim—security, governance, and economics—continued to mature and stabilize. In addition to restricting the flow of foreign fighters and their resources into Al Anbar and Iraq, success in Al Qaim had other critical, far-reaching effects: The word was out that AQI could be beaten. Events in Al Qaim provided a glimmer of hope to other Iraqis, saying to them, "We can do this; we can beat AQI." Subsequently, developments in Al Qaim set a precedent for other towns and cities in Al Anbar, providing them with psychological encouragement, strategies, and examples passed along via societal networks and relationships. The awakening, or sahawa, became the Sahawa, a collective effort by communities along the Euphrates, driven to its peak in Ramadi as the insurgents ran out of room to hide.105 This collaboration, grounded in Iraqi culture and societal networks, albeit unrecognized by most outsiders, provides a deeper, more coherent, and continuous story line of the Awakening movement.

About the Author(s): Dr. William (Bill) Knarr, Resident Senior Fellow at the Joint Special Operations University, was a project leader at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) when this article was written. Ms. Mary Hawkins is an analyst at IDA.


1. Dr. Knarr was a project leader at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) when this article was first written.

2. Dr. William Knarr, Col Dale Alford, USMC, and LtCol David Graves, USMC, interview with COL Ahmad Jelayan Khalaf, former commander, Desert Protectors, Husaybah, Iraq, 18 April 2010. (Col Alford appears as LtCol Alford in the text. He has since been promoted.)

3. Knarr, Alford, and Graves, Ahmad interview, 18 April 2010. Also found in Col Gary W. Montgomery and CWO-4 Timothy S. McWilliams, eds., Al-Anbar Awakening, Volume II: Iraqi Perspectives (Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps University Press, 2009), 141. Sahawa is Arabic for awakening.

4. It is a commonly held belief that the events in Al Qaim and Ramadi were unconnected. Individuals with this perspective include James Soriano, U.S. Department of State, Provincial Reconstruction Team Leader in Iraq, 2006–2009, and LtCol Kurtis Wheeler (see CWO-4 Timothy McWilliams and LtCol Kurtis S. Wheeler, eds., Al-Anbar Awakening, Volume I: U.S. Marines and Counterinsurgency in Iraq, 2004–2009 [Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps University Press, 2009]).

5. Two such historians include Bing West (The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq, New York: Random House, 2008) and Bob Woodward (The War Within, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008).

6. Sahawa, or Awakening with an uppercase "A," refers to the overall movement. The term sahawa, or awakening with a lowercase "a," refers to individual movements in specific areas such as Al Qaim or Ramadi.

7. The COIN practices that were used in Al Qaim and several other Iraqi cities as early as September 2005 were some of the same practices that were later codified and institutionalized by the publication of FM 3-24 in December 2006.

8. Col Dale Alford, USMC, briefing on 3/6 Marines in Al Qaim, Iraq, August 2005 to March 2006, presented at the Institute for Defense Analyses, Alexandria, Virginia, 16 February 2010.

9. Dr. William Knarr, Col Dale Alford, USMC, and LtCol David Graves, USMC, interview with Sheikh Kurdi Rafee Farhan al-Mahalawi, at Sheikh Kurdi's guesthouse, Ubaydi, Iraq, 17 April 2010.

10. "And that's a fact!" exclaimed Sheikh Kurdi, obviously proud of the fact that his tribe was one of the first to oppose the Coalition—the occupiers. Sheikh Kurdi was the on-theground leader of the Albu-Mahal tribe after Sheikh Sabah, the paramount sheikh of the Albu-Mahal tribe, fled to Jordan. From Knarr, Alford, and Graves, Kurdi interview, 17 April 2010.

11. Forced was a descriptor used by many Americans to describe marriages of foreign fighters to local women. However, most of the Iraqis whom the authors interviewed in the Al Qaim area did not agree with the use of the word forced. Sheikh Kurdi explained that because the foreign fighters were there on a jihad, they could not simply take a woman because religiously that would be improper, so they "arranged" the marriages. However, these marriages were not always without some sort of intimidation. Unfortunately, once the foreign fighter died or left Iraq, there was no one to take care of the widow and children.

12. Camp Gannon was named for Maj Richard Gannon, commanding officer, Lima Company, 3/7 Marines. Maj Gannon was awarded the Silver Star for his actions on 17 April 2004 while attempting to save members of his company. He was killed in action.

13. Dr. William Knarr and Col Dale Alford, USMC, interview with Col Stephen Davis, USMC, former commander, RCT-2, at Davis' office, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, 25 May 2010.

14. MajGen Tom Jones, USMC (Ret.), interview with Maj Frank Diorio, USMC, Camp Pendleton, California, 8 February 2011.

15. During his initial in-country briefings, Maj Diorio had heard of the "fire truck." It was reportedly laden with explosives and embedded in a village near Al Asad. The Coalition did not dispose of it because of the collateral damage it could cause in the area. The truck, a high-value resource to the insurgency, had been whisked away by the insurgents to be used against a future high-priority target.

16. Knarr and Alford, Davis interview, 25 May 2010. Images taken from insurgent video footage provided by Col Davis.

17. Jones, Diorio interview, 8 February 2011.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Knarr, Alford, and Graves, Amhad interview, 18 April 2010.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid. Also found in Montgomery and McWilliams, Al-Anbar Awakening, 141.

23. Knarr, Alford, and Graves, Kurdi interview, 17 April 2010.

24. Hannah Allam and Mohammed al-Dulaimy, "Iraqis Lament a Call for Help," Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 May 2005. The authors indicated that other Al Qaim tribes, in addition to the Albu-Mahal, were also resisting AQI, but our research found no support for that contention.

25. Global Resources Group, "Iraq Tribal Study: Al-Anbar Governorate," 18 June 2006, 4-17, 4-28: http://turcopolier.

26. Allam and al-Dulaimy, "Iraqis Lament."

27. A Mahalawi is an Albu-Mahal tribal member. publication of FM 3-24 in December 2006.

28. Kevin Flower, Enes Dulami, and Kianne Sadeq, "Hunt for Insurgents near Syria Ends,", World, 14 May 2005:

29. Allam and al-Dulaimy, "Iraqis Lament."

30. Ibid.

31. The tribe has also been referred to as the Karabilah tribe.

32. Knarr, Alford, and Graves, Ahmad interview, 18 April 2010.

33. Bill Roggio, "Operations Spear in Anbar Province," Long War Journal, 17 June 2005:

34. Dr. William Knarr, interview with Col Timothy Mundy, former commander, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment (3/2 Marines) in Al Qaim from March 2005 to September 2005, School of Infantry at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, 14 January 2011.

35. Knarr, Alford, and Graves, Kurdi interview, 17 April 2010.

36. Knarr, Alford, and Graves, Ahmad interview, 18 April 2010.

37. Dr. William Knarr, Col Dale Alford, and LtCol David Graves, interview with Dr. Sadun Dulaymi, former minister of defense, at Dulaymi's home, Baghdad, Iraq, 24 April 2010.

38. Jones, Diorio interview, 8 February 2011.

39. The narrative is true; however, the contact names and their specific locational data have been changed.

40. Jones, Diorio interview, 8 February 2011. The quotes from Diorio on the following two pages came from this same interview.

41. Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer, "Insurgents Assert Control over Town near Syrian Border," The Washington Post Foreign Service, 6 September 2005.

42. At the time, it was the Iraqi Transitional Government, or ITG; however, we will use GOI throughout the article to indicate the Iraqi Government.

43. Knarr and Alford, Davis interview, 25 May 2010.

44. Ibid.

45. RCT-2 Briefing, Regimental Combat Team 2, "Viking in the Valley," briefing presented to Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University, Quantico, Virginia, 15 September 2006.

46. Col Davis, commander, RCT-2, credits the increase in force structure to General George Casey's understanding of the situation and intent to exploit success in the WERV.

47. The previously deployed ODA was 1st Group, which was there from January 2004 to fall 2004. Brent Lindeman, "Better Lucky Than Good: A Theory of Unconventional Minds and the Power of ‘Who,'" (master's thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2009), Dec/09Dec_Lindeman.pdf

48. 5th Group, 3rd Battalion, B Company, now 5322.

49. Dr. William Knarr and Mary Hawkins, interview with Captain Jim Calvert, commander, ODA 582, Institute for Defense Analyses, Alexandria, Virginia, 26 November 2010. Pseudonym used at the request of the service member and his unit.

50. Multi-National Force–Iraq Campaign Progress Review, 12 December 2004.

51. Knarr, Alford, and Graves, Dulaymi interview, 24 April 2010.

52. Image is courtesy of the 3/6 Marines.

53. Alford briefing, 16 February 2010.

54. Ibid.

55. 3/2 Marines gave one of its rifle companies to Al Asad for base security; 3/6 Marines wasn't required to do that.

56. Alford briefing, 16 February 2010.

57. Image is courtesy of the 3/6 Marines.

58. Image is courtesy of Col Stephen Davis.

59. Alford briefing, 16 February 2010.

60. Those forces swung south through the desert to remain undetected as they moved to the border area, and then moved north to reposition for the assault.

61. RCT-2 Briefing, "Viking in the Valley."

62. Knarr and Alford, Davis interview, 25 May 2010.

63. Image is courtesy of Col Stephen Davis.

64. Dr. William Knarr, Col Dale Alford, USMC, and LtCol David Graves, USMC, interview with MAJ Mukhlis Shadhan Ibrahim al-Mahalawi, Husaybah, Iraq, 18 April 2010.

65. Image is courtesy of MAJ Mukhlis.

66. Knarr and Hawkins, Calvert interview, 26 November 2010.

67. Image is courtesy of the 3/6 Marines.

68. Alford briefing, 16 February 2010.

69. Image is courtesy of Col Nick Marano, USMC. (At the time of the events described, he was a LtCol.)

70. Dr. William Knarr, interview with Capt Brendan Heatherman, former commander, Kilo Company, 3/6 Marines, Marine Corps University, 24 February 2010. The quotes from Heatherman in the following paragraphs came from this same source.

71. ASCOPE: Civil considerations in tactical planning concentrates on an in-depth analysis of Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People, and Events. Headquarters, Department of the Army, "Counterinsurgency," FM 3-24.

72. Alford briefing, 16 February 2010.

73. Dr. William Knarr, LtCol David Graves, USMC, and Mary Hawkins, interview with Sheikh Sabah al-Sattam Effan Fahran al-Shurji al-Aziz, principal sheikh of the Albu-Mahal tribe in Al Qaim, Amman, Jordan, 3 February 2011.

74. Knarr, Heatherman interview, 24 February 2010.

75. Ibid. The quote from Heatherman in the following paragraph came from this same source.

76. Dr. William Knarr, Col Dale Alford, and LtCol David Graves, interview with sBG Ismael Sha Hamid Dulaymi, commander of 7th IAD, at Dulaymi's office, Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, 15 April 2010. 3rd Bde/7th IAD would later be reflagged as 28th Bde/7th IAD.

77. MajGen Tom Jones, USMC (Ret.), interview with Col Nick Marano, USMC, former commander, 1/7 Marines, at Marano's office, Camp Pendleton, California, 9 February 2011.

78. Image is courtesy of Col Nick Marano, USMC. In the figure, Ismael is spelled Ishmail.

79. Knarr, Alford, and Graves, Kurdi interview, 17 April 2010.

80. Joshua Partlow, Ann Scott Tyson, and Robin Wright, "Bomb Kills a Key Sunni Ally of U.S.," The Washington Post, 14 September 2007:

81. Dr. William Knarr, interview with BG (formerly COL when commanding the 1st BCT) Sean MacFarland, 13 October 2010. Sheikh Sattar's characterization was related in one of the early meetings with MacFarland and is consistent with his initial actions in partnering with the Coalition but not embracing the local provincial government.

82. This information and following quote are from Dr. William Knarr, LtCol David Graves, USMC, Col Tracy King, USMC, and Mary Hawkins, interview with BrigGen David G. Reist, USMC (Ret.), former deputy commanding general (Support), I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) Multi-National Force–West from February 2006 to February 2007, Alexandria, Virginia, 4 October 2010.

83. Baghdadi is near Al Asad, between Al Qaim to the northwest and Fallujah to the southeast.

84. Dr. William Knarr, Col Dale Alford, USMC, and LtCol David Graves, USMC, interview with Sheikh Kurdi Rafee Farhan al-Mahalawi, at Sheikh Kurdi's guesthouse, Ubaydi, Iraq, 17 April 2010.

85. Knarr and Alford, Davis interview, 25 May 2010.

86. Dr. William Knarr, Col Dale Alford, USMC, and LtCol David Graves, USMC, interview with Farhan De Hal Farhan, mayor of Al Qaim district, Ubaydi, Iraq, 17 April 2010.

87. William Knarr and Robert Castro, "The Battle for Fallujah: AL FAJR—the Myth-buster," Institute for Defense Analyses Paper P-4455, September 2009.

88. Knarr, Graves, and Hawkins, Sabah interview, 3 February 2011.

89. The Dulaymi Tribal Confederation is the largest and most influential tribe in Al Anbar. The tribe has a rich history in Iraq, dating back before Islam was born.

90. Dr. William Knarr, LtCol David Graves, USMC, and Mary Hawkins, interview with Sheikh Majed Abd al-Razzaq Ali al- Sulayman, Amman, Jordan, 3 February 2011.

91. Ibid.

92. Dr. William Knarr, LtCol David Graves, USMC, and Mary Hawkins, interview with Numan al-Gaoud, owner of the Doha Group in Baghdad, Amman, Jordan, 13 February 2011.

93. Dr. William Knarr, LtCol David Graves, USMC, and Mary Hawkins, interview with Jalal al-Gaoud, Iraqi businessman in Jordan, Amman, Jordan, 5 February 2011.

94. McWilliams and Wheeler, Al-Anbar Awakening, 24–25.

95. Dr. William Knarr, LtCol David Graves, USMC, and Mary Hawkins, interview with Col Michael Walker, via telephone, 6 January 2011.

96. Ibid.

97. Thomas E. Ricks, "Situation Called Dire in West Iraq," The Washington Post, 11 September 2006. Officially, the report is known as the "State of the Emergency in Al Anbar," I MEF G-2, 17 August 2006 (no author named). It was cleared for open publication 16 December 2010 by the Office of Security Review, Department of Defense and declassified by U.S. Central Command Memorandum 10-012, at the request of Dr. William Knarr.

98. "State of the Emergency in Al Anbar," 1.

99. Ibid., 4.

100. Dr. William Knarr, interview with COL Anthony Deane, former commander, Task Force 1-35 Armor, also known as "Task Force Conqueror," in Ramadi, from June to November 2006, at COL Deane's office, Battle Command Training Program, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 12 October 2010.

101. COL Sean MacFarland, DoD news briefing/interview, televised 14 July 2006; in a 29 September 2006 DoD news briefing, MacFarland announced, "I think we've actually tipped. Attacks are down 25 percent over the past couple of months, and coalition forces, together with the Iraqi security forces, have steadily increased their presence inside of the city."

102. The intent here is not to marginalize the RFCT's accomplishments, which were dramatic and significant, but to point out that they were made much more so as a result of the dismal tone of the leaked report.

103. Dr. William Knarr, Col Dale Alford, USMC, and LtCol David Graves, USMC, interview with Sheikh Ahmed Bezia Fteikhan al-Rishawi, paramount sheikh of the Albu-Risha tribe and president of the Mutammar Sahwat al-Iraq (The Iraq Awakening Party—MSI), at Sheikh Ahmed's guesthouse, Ramadi, Iraq, 22 April 2010.

104. Alford briefing, 16 February 2010.

105. In fact, expelling the insurgents from Al Qaim probably exacerbated the situation in Ramadi. Ramadi became AQI's Alamo. AQI was being rejected along the Euphrates; the jihadis had no other place to go except eastward. As they moved east, they moved farther from any sanctuary support in Syria, making a tough situation tougher. Although AQI was not completely defeated, Ramadi was its last significant urban staging area and the last, and largest, symbol of its power.

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