(follows the Preface)
As he navigated through the cramped hallways of the battle-scarred Government Center in Ramadi, Iraq, award-winning photographer John Moore tried to stay out of the way of gruff U.S. Marines hustling from one room to another. For months, the Government Center had been ground zero in the fight to win back control in the most important city in Anbar Province. Moore lifted his camera as his practiced eye glimpsed a hand-written note on a whiteboard. There, in a careful, cursive script (rare in military settings) some anonymous bard-in-cammo had written:
America is not at war.
The Marine Corps is at war;
America is at the mall.
Moore took the photo in January 2007.1 It was published in U.S. newspapers, then circulated around the blogosphere for a few weeks, but faded quickly from America’s collective consciousness — which ironically proved the nameless author’s point. No doubt his words were quickly erased as well, as such cutting cynicism is not the message the Marine Corps wants to project to the public.
But for those who had fought vicious battles to secure Ramadi in late 2006, known then as the Sunni insurgency’s “heart of darkness”, the cynic’s lines perfectly captured their mood. It was a hard-edged sentiment, with equal parts pride and disgust. Pride at what they’d endured and accomplished. Disgust and disillusionment that it was so casually disregarded, even actively devalued, by most of their countrymen at home.
Today, that same bitter mixture still circulates in the veins, synapses, and buried memories of those who have served in our nation’s most recent wars. Take the time to really talk to a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan about his or her experiences there, and you will likely hear some version of “America is at the mall.”
In the summer of 2007, Wasit Province was the last place anyone thought the Sunni-led, Marine-fostered tribal “Awakening” would reach. South and west of Baghdad, the province’s population was predominantly Shiite and operated under an entirely different dynamic than the Sunni areas. Iranian puppets were basically in charge of the provincial capital, Al-Kut. Large parts of the city were controlled by armed militia groups, primarily the Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army) or JAM. The government and police there were heavily infiltrated or co-opted by JAM or other groups backed by Iran.
Through a convoluted assignment process, I was an Air Force officer working at Camp Delta, just outside Al-Kut. I was attached to an Army staff loosely coordinating a mixed bag of units and personnel. Our mission was ambiguous at best, defined as “interdicting accelerants”, which meant keeping weapons, money, and deadly Iranian-made IEDs from transiting into Baghdad and the “belts” of suburban and rural communities surrounding the capital. It was an economy-of-force operation, at the margins of the surge of U.S. forces under command of General David Petraeus.
There was some violence in the area, but not much. A few times a week a rocket or two would impact inside Camp Delta, to little effect. Inside the city, a Police Training Team composed of Army Military Police soldiers had a shootout with Shiite militiamen but escaped casualties. A few weeks later, two private security contractors weren’t as lucky. They were killed when their vehicle was struck by an explosively-formed penetrator (EFP), exactly the kind of accelerant we were trying to interdict.
Part of my job was to support a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) as they engaged local tribal leaders and found surprising willingness among them to join the burgeoning “Sons of Iraq” program. I attended a few of these meetings with the sheikhs. We didn’t know how legitimate they all were, but it was clear they wanted to support the government and form legal security forces in their areas. Things were changing.
It was an exciting time to be in Iraq. I could sense the momentum shifting every day as the surge and active partnering with Iraqi forces started to take effect. But it was the Awakening movement that had really swung the needle, and it had finally reached Al-Kut and Wasit Province. That experience was the genesis of this book. I was already keenly interested in the phenomenon that went by several names — Anbar Salvation Council, Sons of Iraq, Concerned Local Citizens, or in Arabic, Harakat al-Sahwah al-Sunniyah, “Sunni Awakening Movement.” I’d been reading up on it since 2006 and at that point, my understanding matched the standard narrative.
The typical account of the Awakening starts in 2006, when Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, was the most violent city in Iraq and the central battleground against the rabid jihadists of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The foreign-led extremists and their allies declared Ramadi the capital of their Islamic “caliphate.” U.S. Marine and Army units battled every day against increasingly brazen, black-clad insurgents, flitting through the blasted ruins of the downtown area to attack checkpoints and patrols. It was an apocalyptic scene that only seemed to be worsening.
But unappreciated by most (particularly the press), that summer Sunni tribes in and around Ramadi began to turn decisively against al-Qaeda and the radicals. Influential tribal leaders recognized the hopelessness and destruction brought by the extremists. And when the sheiks withdrew their support for the terrorists and foreign fighters, the killers of AQI targeted them and their families.
In August, a prominent tribal leader was assassinated for encouraging his kinsmen to join the Iraqi security forces (ISF). The killers then hid his body in a field, denying him the swift burial called for by Islamic belief. This was a catalyst. In the wake of the outrage, 35-year-old Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha stepped to center stage. He had lost his own father and three brothers to AQI and had had enough. On August 21st, Sattar declared “The Awakening”, an alliance of Sunni tribes willing to take up arms against al-Qaeda in Iraq. As he told a reporter:
We held a meeting and agreed to fight those who call themselves mujahideen. We believe that there is a conspiracy against our Iraqi people. Those terrorists claimed that they are fighters working on liberating Iraq, but they turned out to be killers. Now all the people are fed up and have turned against them. –Sheikh Sattar2
He quickly reached out to other sheiks and together they started cooperating with U.S. forces, recruiting members of their tribes to serve as policemen and sending their own fighters to battle the jihadists head-on. Soon hundreds of police recruits were signing up and neighborhood “emergency response units” were formed, an early iteration of the Sons of Iraq. Within just a few months the situation in Ramadi changed dramatically. By early 2007, attacks were down substantially, and weeks would pass with no U.S. casualties. Rubble was being cleared from the streets. Families and businesses were coming back. And as AQI’s bloodthirsty grip on the city slipped, the tribal rebellion against them accelerated and spread.
There is an unfortunate tendency in many accounts of the Iraq War to conflate the Awakening with the surge, superimposing them on the timeline. But this obscures important realities. The open rebellion against AQI was underway months before the surge was announced, nearly a year before all five “surge brigades” were on the ground executing General Petraeus’ campaign. The Awakening was a precursor to the surge and was probably a prerequisite.
When John Moore snapped his photo of the whiteboard in the Government Center, the corner had been turned in Ramadi. By the time President Bush’s surge of American forces to Iraq began, the Awakening had multiplied across most of Anbar and places that had been no-go areas for U.S. and Iraqi troops were amazingly peaceful. And by the time I put my own boots on the ground in May, 2007, the waves of positive change were spreading further into Baghdad and beyond.
But like almost everything in Iraq, it’s not that simple. The origins of the turnaround in Ramadi can be traced further back to before 2006. The full history of the Awakening involves multiple layers of intermeshed personalities and factors that are often shrouded in hazy memories, the fog of war, conflicting claims, and sometimes intentional deception. As I finished my 2007 tour and returned to the States, I began a long search to understand the fuller picture of what I’d experienced.
The currents and passions that led to Sheikh Sattar’s formation of the Anbar Salvation Council, and the Americans’ willingness to support Sunni tribes, did not spring from a vacuum. They were a product of several interconnected trendlines: American overtures to prominent tribal sheikhs, political maneuvering in Baghdad, more imaginative U.S. military leaders, better counter-insurgency techniques, the desperation of everyday Iraqis, and the compounding cruelty of the jihadists. Moreover, Sheikh Sattar was following in the footsteps of other tribes, in other places, that had previously turned against the extremists. There were awakenings before the Awakening.
The available record of these is fragmentary, often vague, and usually provides just a few tantalizing clues. But as early as 2004, there were stirrings among certain Anbari tribes, a visceral dissatisfaction with outsiders bringing radical Islamist ideology and disruption to their lives.
One of the first instances of tribal forces actively turning against the jihadists came in the villages along the eastern bank of the Euphrates opposite the city of Hit. In early 2004, a small U.S. Army Special Forces team, or Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA), forged a tight relationship with a branch of the Albu Nimr tribe in the Al-Phurat area. In classic Green Beret fashion, ODA 555 formed, funded, and trained a “provisional company” of tribesmen that began to challenge the foreign-led jihadists for control of their local area.
But the larger political picture doomed this promising early effort. In June of that year, the funding for the provisional company in Al-Phurat was stopped. By the Fall of 2004, all Special Forces ODAs were withdrawn from Anbar and this type of tribal engagement ceased. The Green Berets, the U.S. military’s recognized experts in training and advising foreign indigenous forces, were taken off the case.
Even so, throughout 2004 and early 2005, there were scattered instances of what U.S. troops called “red-on-red” violence*. A mysterious exchange of mortar fire would erupt in an area where no coalition forces were operating. Or soldiers on night watch would see an unexplained firefight break out in a neighborhood, with a flurry of tracers arcing back and forth, but none towards their position. Such outbreaks added to other evidence of a growing split between Iraqi “nationalist” insurgents and the foreign-led jihadist groups.
The first place where that split became an open fissure was the district of Al-Qaim, in the far west along the border with Syria. Tribal forces there had initially sided with the jihadists to fight against the coalition, seeing the foreign fighters as allies in a battle against invaders. But as the foreigners imposed draconian rules, beating men for not having a sufficiently Islamic beard, cutting smokers’ fingers off, taking local “wives” through intimidation, the tribesmen began to chafe. When the interlopers started skimming off a lion’s share of profits from their long-established smuggling operations, the most prominent border clan decided to fight back.
Pivotal time, pivotal place
As I began studying the early years of the Iraq War, 3/2’s first deployment to Al-Qaim did not stand out. To a writer’s eye, other stories seemed more dramatic. Certainly, Marine units in other times and other places performed magnificently in the legendary battles for Fallujah, Najaf, Ramadi, and elsewhere. In the context of 3/2’s own history, the battalion’s 2006/2007 tour in Habbaniyah, located between Ramadi and Fallujah, seemed perhaps more notable as it coincided with the momentous events of Sattar’s Awakening movement and the beginning of the surge.
Even examining the fight for Al-Qaim, there were worthy contenders for attention. Two other Marine battalions, 3/7 and 1/7, fought bitter struggles there and paid a heavy price in casualties. There is also much to tell about 3/6, which replaced 3/2 in late 2005 and enjoyed great success in stabilizing the area. I certainly acknowledge the accomplishments and sacrifices of those units. But as I continued to dig into the record, I realized the Marines of 3/2 were sent to a pivotal place at a pivotal time. They arrived during the dark days when the U.S.-led coalition was struggling to find a successful strategy and the body counts were rising. America was losing. Nowhere was that more obvious than Anbar.
* Enemy forces are typically referred to or shown on maps as “red” and friendly forces as “blue”. Thus “red-on-red” refers to suspected engagements between enemy elements.