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The Islamic state’s offensive in Iraq: can tribal unity prevail in the al-Anbar province?

By Romain Quivooij - posted Friday, 16 January 2015

The recent fall of the town of al-Wafa confirmed the Islamic State’s (IS) grip over the al-Anbar province. Some Anbari tribesmen are playing a key defensive role against the IS: members of the al-Bu Alwan and al-Bu Fahd tribes, both parts of the locally dominant Dulaim tribal confederation, are reported to be on the frontline in the ongoing battle of Ramadi.

General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has highlighted the crucial need for training and advising Anbari tribes. These uncohesive social groups gather several thousand fighters geographically scattered in a strategic area located between Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Baghdad. Their support is a crucial step in defeating the enemy. From 2006 to 2008, around 30,000 Anbari tribesmen had taken an active part in the struggle against AQI, motivated by tribal power dynamics, AQI’s extreme brutality and its competing money-making activities. American forces had skillfully played on local rivalries to target the Jihadist group and its own tribal allies. Will this successful experience be revived in the current struggle against the IS? 

The Tribes between the IS and the ISF  


The Iraqi origins of the IS have greatly facilitated its territorial implantation. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the organisation, is said to be a member of the al-Bu Badri tribe from the Iraqi province of Saladin, north of Baghdad. Drawing lessons from AQI’s excesses, which made it lose its base of popular support, the IS implemented a successful tribal approach which involved a sectarian emphasis on the Sunni identity, coupled with the provision of money, weapons and/or autonomy over local resources management. Strong feelings of discontent against the former government of Nouri al-Maliki were helpful in building active and passive support networks. Despite the initial success of the Anbar Salvation Council and its national implementation, the Awakening movements, fighters who actively contributed to the eviction of AQI were socio-economically and politically marginalised. This was a major source of resentment, further compounded in the predominantly Sunni province of al-Anbar by the Iraqi Shia-led central government’s repressive and sectarian policies.

The crucial issue of weapons increases these tensions, as members of Anbari tribes have complained about weak logistical support from Baghdad in their struggle against the IS. From Baghdad’s perspective, while empowering reliable tribes is an undoubtedly short-term asset, arming tribal entities without distinction could deal a serious blow to the stability and the unity of the Iraqi state. Recent meetings between new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Anbari tribal leaders in Jordan, however, reflect a spirit of increased engagement. Tactical partnerships between the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and some tribes have also been noted. This was particularly relevant last summer, during the defence of the city of Haditha where members of the Jaghayfah tribe played a significant role. In the Fallujah district, information given by Faisal al-Esawi, one of the leaders of the al-Bu Esa tribe, confirmed ‘limited’ cooperation with the ISF, of which most members themselves have tribal bonds.

Effects of IS’ tribal victimisation 

Exacerbating matters for IS is that its habit of targeting a growing number of tribes and clans on the basis of their opposition or perceived unreliability toward the organisation could well backfire. Tribal groups accused of collaboration with American forces have paid the highest price. According to Ghazi al-Kaoud, prominent leader of the hard-hit al-Bu Nimr tribe, the IS would lead a ‘policy of genocide’against al-Bu Nimr tribesmen. As the American-led counter-offensive gains momentum, it is difficult to assert whether the IS will intensify tribal outreach or if it will generalise repression. Local allegiances are known to depend on self-interested logics of power-maximisation, which could lead the IS to place greater reliance on enticement. On the other hand, military setbacks and the IS’ loss of self-confidence in its offensive capacities might break the cycle of incentives and cooperation. One-time allies and undecided factions could then be expected to take a firm anti-Jihadist stance, similar to what happened in the mid-2000s.

Prospects for a renewed alliance

Restoring mutual bonds of trust is a challenging task, both with the government and between tribes. Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, head of the Dulaim tribal confederation and the Military Council of Anbar Tribal Revolutionaries (MCATR), has stated that a ‘tribal revolution’ is taking place in Al-Anbar, whose main objective would involve the granting of a larger degree of provincial autonomy, rather than the defeat of the IS which he says is a minor threat. By contrast, Ahmed Abu Risha, current leader of the ASC, considers that ‘al-Qaeda is the biggest problem’. Signs of tribal fragmentation are getting intense. In early November, the execution of at least 495 prisoners of the IS, all members of the al-Bu Nimr tribe from the town of Hit, were carried out by individuals belonging to the same tribe as well as other Anbari tribesmen.


A central issue is to determine whether the most influential groups have the will and the means to act together. The National Guard project is viewed to represent the hopes for the revival of the ASC and the Awakening movements. Aimed at creating a reaction force with a common purpose, this long-term initiative seeks to gather tribal fighters of diverse backgrounds, Peshmergas and Shiite armed forces into provincial armed militias, on a cross-tribal, ethnic and religious basis. An estimated 2,000 individuals would have volunteered in al-Anbar, but it is unclear how this top-down approach could overcome tribal parochialism given the many political and administrative obstacles involved, not to mention the lack of strong on-the-ground American support. Whether this strategy will successfully unite most Anbari tribes or if it will further increase Iraq’s fault lines, remains to be seen.

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About the Author

Romain Quivooij is an Associate Research Fellow at the Center of Excellence for National Security, Singapore.

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All articles by Romain Quivooij

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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