When the sheik had followers.

Source: AFP/Getty Images

The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Iraqi Sheik

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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There was a time, not long ago, when Sheik Ahmad Abu-Risha al-Rishawi was the face of a revolution. Known as the Awakening, it was a movement of Sunni Arab tribes to drive al-Qaeda from the western provinces of Iraq. Sheik Ahmad was one of the leaders and founders of this coalition along with his brother, who was assassinated in 2007.

Today Sheik Ahmad is rarely in his native Anbar province. He spends an increasing amount of time, according to other tribal leaders and people with whom he still communicates, in Dubai and other Arab capitals outside Iraq. In his home country, Sheik Ahmad lacks the stature and respect -- according to other tribal sheiks and former U.S. officials -- to lead any kind of coalition against the successor organization of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State.

The fate of Sheik Ahmad illustrates how serious a challenge President Barack Obama now faces, as he sends more military advisers to Iraq to try to win back Ramadi, the city that fell this month to the Islamic State.

For nearly a year now, the U.S. has committed to training and equipping the tribal forces that had success in 2007 and 2008 against the Islamic State's predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. But in 2015, many of the tribal leaders that risked their security to fight al-Qaeda back then have either been killed or are in internal exile. Those that remain in Anbar Province have largely been cowed into supporting the Islamic State.

The jihadist group has become so confident in its campaign in recent weeks that it shares photos of staged events with tribal leaders pledging fealty on Facebook.  If Obama is going to have any success in taking back Ramadi and defeating the Islamic State, he will need to find a new Sheik Ahmad, because the old one is in no condition to lead another revolution.

Last month, Sheik Abdulrazzaq al-Dulaym, one of the leaders of the the powerful Dulaym tribe that has members in Iraq and Syria, told a small group in Washington that Sheik Ahmad's political coalition had failed in Anbar. "My visit is not to talk about abu-Risha, but the man has lost his popularity," he said. Sheik Wissam al-Hardan, an Anbari leader I interviewed in February in Baghdad, accused Sheik Ahmad of trying to undermine the fight against al Qaeda through his own incompetence. "He has no influence today," he told me.

Even Peter Mansoor, a retired colonel who served as executive officer to General David Petraeus during the surge in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, acknowledged that Sheik Ahmad and his tribe lack the influence they held during the counter-insurgency campaign.

"The founders of the awakening had a lot of influence on the tribal movements up until the time the United States departed Iraq in 2011," he told me. "Once the Maliki administration turned on them, the power really devolved again to the tribes that had always been more important."

Mansoor said the U.S. should still treat Sheik Ahmad with respect. "Sheik Ahmad al-Rishawi is still a good friend of the United States and quite frankly the United States should have met with him if only to thank him and his tribe for siding with us," Mansoor told me. "But unfortunately, he can not bring together 40 tribes against the Islamic State the way they could before." (Efforts to contact Sheik Ahmad for this column were not successful.)    

Despite Ahmad's falling stature in Iraq, he has nonetheless advocated for the tribes in Washington. In January, he led a group of sheiks in Washington and tried to get high level meetings. At the time he wasn't able to meet with White House officials, but he did talk by phone with former president George W. Bush.

There was a time when Ahmad could get a meeting with anyone he wanted in Washington. Nearly every major U.S. political figure visiting Iraq in 2007 and 2008 flew out to Anbar to meet with the man leading the revolution against al Qaeda. Obama himself even met with Ahmad in 2008  when he visited Iraq while still a senator.

But the sheik's fortunes began to decline after the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011. Many of the Anbari fighters, known as the Sons of Iraq, were never paid by the Iraqi government, then led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. What's more, Sheik Ahmad told me in 2012 that his contacts with the U.S. government stopped after the last troops pulled out. The sheik still publicly aligned himself with Maliki and the central government, even thought that government was failing to provide basic security in western Iraq.

These failures by  the Baghdad government created the conditions for the Islamic State's take over of Anbar. According to research from Craig Whiteside, a professor at the Naval War College and a former U.S. Army officer who worked with tribes in Iraq, al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State continued a campaign to assassinate tribal leaders even in 2009 and 2010, when the group was widely considered to be finished. 

Whiteside told me that in this period, many leaders of what was then called al-Qaeda in Iraq began to meet quietly with tribal leaders to identify the sheiks that might switch their allegiances and those that would need to be eliminated.

The jihadists also learned from mistakes made in the past. No longer did they kill tribal leaders at random. "The Islamic State is smart about who they assassinate," Sterling Jensen, a former U.S. army translator who served in Anbar at the beginning of the surge, told me. "Since the Islamic State has informants from most all tribes, they figure out who are the ones who worked closely with the Americans and are working with the Iraqi government to undermine their capabilities. They target these leaders. They might try to blackmail them, but they will also assassinate them if they think they will get more out of it that way."

That killing campaign has also made it much more difficult for the U.S. to now try to recruit a new tribal militiamen to fight the Islamic State. Whiteside's own research estimated that 1,233 tribal fighters were killed by al-Qaeda in Iraq between 2010 and the end of 2013.

There are no good statistics for how many tribal fighters have been killed since 2014, but there is evidence that the campaign has continued. One leader, who is still in Anbar and asked that his name not be used, told me: "The assassination campaign hasn't stopped since 2005. When they have the opportunity, they assassinate. The campaign intensified since June last year when they took Mosul and now in Anbar after they've taken Ramadi. It makes tribal leaders easier targets, so they flee."

In this context it's not surprising that Sheik Ahmad doesn't live in Anbar anymore. The fighters he once led against al-Qaeda are either dead or have likely made their peace with the Islamic State. The man who once liberated Anbar from al-Qaeda is a cautionary tale, a warning to any sheik foolish enough to align with the Americans. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net