Anbar is still violent – but considerably less so than it has been, and the trajectory is heading in a positive direction.
Security firm Olive Group reports that there were 105 security incidents in Anbar in June 2009, compared with 224 in June 2008, 423 in June 2007 and 748 in June 2006. Baghdad (293 incidents in June this year) and Mosul (312) are much hotter flashpoints.
“The security situation in Anbar has improved dramatically since 2005,” says Dr Michael Knights, Olive Group’s director of intelligence for Iraq. “Anbar was the first place in Iraq to experience a ‘surge’ of US forces and new counter-insurgency tactics, literally years before the rest of the country. This has given Anbar a 24-month head start on most Iraqi provinces.”
According to another security firm, AKE Ltd, in the second quarter of 2009 Anbar accounted for 4% of Iraq-wide violence, which compares positively to Baghdad (36%) or Ninawa (33%) but is higher than Basrah (3%) or Salah Al Din (3%).
“Anbar is a largely Sunni province so there are far fewer inter-communal tensions than in other mixed parts of the country. Violence is largely concentrated in the two eastern cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, but police coverage and professionalism continues to improve gradually,” says AKE risk consultant John Drake.
“The security situation is largely stable, but terrorist attacks persist with an average of just one a week over the past few months, compared to an average of 11 to 12 reported attacks a week in Baghdad, and 10 to 11 attacks in Mosul,” he adds.
“Attacks normally involve explosive attacks, including suicide bombings, usually targeting police patrols and checkpoints. However, tribal figures and high-level provincial officials have also been targeted, often with roadside bombings. Small arms fire and sniper attacks have occurred but they are much rarer occurrences.”
A year and half ago, responsibility for security shifted away from coalition forces to local police forces and the Iraqi army, both of which are increasing capacity and improving capability.
A provincial police department was set up in Anbar in May 2006. “But we started fighting Al Qaeda before 2005,” says Anbar’s police chief, major general Tariq Al Asal, who lost seven members of his immediate family in the fighting. “We started with only 30 individuals but that number gradually multiplied and more people started joining.” His forces now number 28,000, at least half of them US-trained.
“The number of attacks has gone down significantly,” he says. “And the co-operation between the civilians and the police is going very well. There is no way we can compare the security situation at this point with 2005 and 2006.”
The battle is not over. In June, Mr Al Asal was injured and one of his bodyguards killed when a suicide bomber attacked his convoy, and in May a senior US State Department official, along with two other Americans, was killed in a roadside bombing.
But, despite ongoing sporadic attacks, Mr Al Asal says Al Qaeda is dead as a political and operational force in the province. “If you see separate incidents and separate fights here – there are just a few – it doesn’t mean that Al Qaeda is back.”
Backing this point of view, a powerful local tribal leader, Sheikh Ahmed Abu Rishah, also says a return of Al Qaeda to Anbar is “impossible”. “Our forces have put pressure on Al Qaeda so it can’t act in the province anymore.”
It was his brother, Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Rishah, who led the ‘Awakening’ movement in which 11 once-competing tribes turned against Al Qaeda and banded together to fight it and other terror groups in the province. This was a turning point for security in Iraq as a whole. Sheikh Abdul did not survive the clashes, however, leaving Sheikh Ahmed as leader.
A new unity
Iraq remains politically fractious, but moves toward cohesion are being made off the back of improved security. “Two years ago, Iraq was fractured into small towns not only provinces. We found unity two years ago and agreed to avoid divisions,” says Sheikh Ahmed.
“Previously there were no officials travelling from one area to another. Now the governors travel across the regions thanks to the security,” he adds.
“Politically, Iraq is progressing. We’ll get away from the religious parties and will be focused on the economic and political parties because we have suffered from the religious resistance. The political and economical parties will build the new Anbar.”
Investment – and the employment it brings – is regarded as a crucial weapon in the continued effort to keep terror groups at bay; but that also makes it a target.
“From the very beginning, we hoped to receive more investments. But the criminals and the leaders of criminal gangs try to prevent investments and progress in this country. They also prevent companies from investing, especially in this area. They always attack the new buildings, just as they attacked the towers of commerce of America on September 11,” says Sheikh Ahmed.
“But since 2006, the governors and police forces have started facing the criminals and they are going ahead in attracting investments. The area is secure.”
Police chief Al Asal shares this assessment. “People are ready to see new markets, new investments and new projects in their province. They are very anxious to spend money and start participating,” he says. “They are waiting for companies and investors to come here. And the people of Anbar will really welcome them, especially because right now unemployment is really high.”
For firms that choose to invest in the province, Mr Drake advises a few measures to help mitigate the security risks.
“Business facilities need to be secured. Guard staff need to be carefully recruited from the local community and trained. Close relationships with local contacts need to be established. Local bureaucratic norms need to be adopted. Business people need to familiarise themselves with the local culture and it will be imperative to develop close relationships with the local business players, such as tribal figures and officials,” he says.
“You also have to have your supply lines secured, with preparations made for transporting goods and personnel to your operations.”