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Anbar Awakening, Continuing to Deny AQI Safe Haven

7 Mar 2008 | Sgt. Nathaniel C. LeBlanc

Just two years ago, Iraq could have been best described as ‘complete chaos’. Sectarian violence was on the rise, Coalition forces were relentlessly repelling off attacks and al Qaeda in Iraq was gaining popularity. It was a country on the fringes of all-out civil war.

 Al Anbar’s future was dim and bleak; it seemed like a ‘lost’ cause politically, socially, and militarily. The Iraqi people were in a fight for survival, whether it was against al Qaeda or an opposing religious sect. At that time, al Qaeda was inflicting its terror onto the people;

 kidnapping, torturing and murdering anyone who defied them. It wasn’t until a turning point and one Iraqi man standing up against the terrorist group that there was a chance for hope amongst the chaos.

 What had changed the tides were al Qaeda’s assassination of a prominent sheik and their hiding of his body for three days to deny his family from giving him a proper Muslim burial. It was then that Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, a sheik in the Albu Resha tribe, made his stand. He said to the Associated Press last year that “the insurgent’s were killing innocent people, anyone suspected of opposing them. They brought us nothing but destruction and we finally said, ‘enough is enough’.”

 After the assassination, Abu Risha then led the assembly of the Anbar Salvation Council, which would later be known as the ‘Anbar Awakening’. Abu Risha convinced fellow Sunni tribes that al Qaeda was feeding them lies about the American troops and how they wanted to occupy their land and destroy their mosques. It was challenging, but the tribal leaders believed in him and understood that the solution to their infestation problem was to build an alliance with Coalition forces.

 With up to 41 tribes backing the cause to eliminate the al Qaeda presence, Abu Risha and members of the council asked for the aid of the Coalition forces.

 “The awakening was not our move,” said Lt. Col. Bill McCollough, regimental executive officer, Regimental Combat Team 1. “The tribal leaders and people stood up and said, ‘we cannot tolerate what al Qaeda is doing to us any more.’ We had made overtures to them, but they had to come to the final decision to join us in the fight against al Qaeda. Once they did, we built a partnership to rid al Anbar of the murder, terror and lawlessness of al Qaeda.”

 Although Abu Risha was killed by a road-side bomb outside of his home in Ramadi last fall, the alliance has proven to be effective in the past year – pushing out majority of al Qaeda forces, bringing stability to al Anbar, and creating a safer environment for the local people.

 Gen. David Petraeus, commanding general of the Multi-national Forces Iraq, stated during his report to congress, Sept. 10, 2007, that the most significant development in Iraq was the rejection of al Qaeda by tribal leaders, and how it has shown dramatic changes in al Anbar.

 “A year ago the province was assessed 'lost' politically," he said “Today, it is a model of what happens when local leaders and citizens decide to oppose al-Qaeda and reject its Taliban-like ideology."

 Today, not only are the Iraqi Police stations filled with locally recruited officers, but the tribes have also formed rural ‘Sons of Iraq’ security elements to aid in the security efforts. The Sons of Iraq are local men who provide security throughout their tribal areas, as well as intelligence. They are familiar with the area, and can detect suspicious or unfamiliar people or movements. They then notify the Iraqi Police or Coalition forces, denying al Qaeda any safe haven.

 “The combination of the tribes and coalition forces has proven to be just what was required to destroy the al Qaeda grip over the al Anbar region,” McCollough said, who is also the tribal engagement officer. “The tribes couldn’t do it by themselves. And even though we were making progress alone, security wouldn’t have progressed as quickly as it did without the combined efforts.”

 Violence in the region has plummeted drastically in recent months. Coalition forces work closely with government officials and local leaders on a daily basis to sustain the progress, and relations between Marines and sheiks are stronger than ever.

 Recently, a Marine from RCT-1 had reenlisted into the Marine Corps at a sheik’s home, which would not have been possible a couple of years ago.

 Staff Sgt. Tracy Cazee, platoon sergeant, security platoon, RCT-1, and native to Nixa, Mo., had taken his third oath of enlistment at Sheik Talib’s house Feb 21.

 “He felt honored to have one of the Marines do such an event like that in his own house,” he said. Seven sheiks were there to witness the reenlistment that day. “All the Sheiks at the house shook my hand and congratulated me. It was very different and something that I’ll always remember.”

 “A couple of years ago, you wouldn’t see Marines reenlisting outside the wire unless they wanted to do it in the prone position while being mortared. The region has come a long way,” said Cazee, who is on his second deployment to Iraq. “It’s becoming a safer environment. None of this could have been possible if it weren’t for the good relationships we have with the Sheiks and people of this area.”