What is the Anbar Awakening?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2019
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The Anbar Awakening was the first of a series of “Awakening” movements which reshaped the political landscape in Iraq during the American-led Iraq War of the early 21st century. In these Awakenings, ordinary citizens united in an attempt to increase security and protect their communities, often with the support and assistance of Coalition forces. The Awakening model generated a great deal of interest among military leaders, along with concern from the Iraqi government, which vowed to break up the Anbar Awakening along with other Awakening movements before they became a third military presence in Iraq.

Several factors contributed to the Anbar Awakening, known in Arabic as Sahawah al-Anbar. The first was the presence of Al Qaeda, a known terrorist group, in Iraq. Al Qaeda used a variety of tactics to intimidate and coerce Iraqi citizens, in the hopes of getting them to fight the Coalition forces in Iraq. Al Qaeda also pushed ethnic minorities in Iraq out of their traditional homelands, and more generally threatened the safety of many regions in Iraq.

In Anbar Province, a tribal sheik, Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, decided that the situation had come to a dangerous point. He approached American forces in Spring 2006 and requested their assistance in organizing numerous tribes together in a collective alliance which could be used to fight Iraqi forces. American leaders agreed, moderating a series of meetings with tribal militias with the goal of uniting them in a common cause.


On the surface, the Anbar Awakening seems to have worked. Al Qaeda was indeed driven back in Anbar Province, and Awakenings modeled on the Anbar movement experienced some success in other parts of Iraq. However, the Anbar Awakening also caused some serious logistics problems. Many of the tribes involved had disagreements, some of which were centuries old, and after the assassination of Sheik al-Rishawi, the new leader of the Anbar Awakening was unable to control the tribes, leading to instability in the area. This problem was mirrored in other Awakenings as communication and leadership broke down.

For the Iraqi government, the Anbar Awakening also created a dangerous situation in which a third, largely uncontrolled military force was allowed to gain ground in Iraq alongside Iraqi and Coalition forces. The Iraqi government viewed the Anbar Awakening as a threat to the political stability of Iraq, vowing to regulate tribal militias more closely to avoid the creation of a monster. American forces, on the other hand, viewed the Anbar Awakening as a public relations coup, showing that their efforts in Iraq to unite the people in opposition to Al Qaeda were working.


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