Fourteen years ago today marks the low point of the Iraq War. Mounting U.S. casualties and raging sectarian violence in an undeclared civil war was the order of the day. That changed late in the afternoon when Sheik Sattar Bezia abu Risha handed me a hand written three page document that would become the charter of the Anbar Awakening. The very thought of Iraqi tribal leaders siding with American forces, especially in Ramadi — the most dangerous city in the world, and the site of the first al Qaeda Caliphate — was unprecedented alliance. Anbar Was Lost was both the front page headline and the consensus intelligence assessment, and any mention of progress was deemed unbelievable. We had found an ally that was willing to fight the terrorist of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) with us. Sadly, most of those freedom fighters are dead today because of the poor policy decisions and neglect of the Obama-Biden White House.
Our newfound Awakening allies began achieving results immediately, bringing in thousands of police recruits and giving Iraqis an alternative to AQI. Within months, President George W. Bush’s “Surge” under General David Petraeus command began charting a new path for Iraq building on the success we achieved in Ramadi. In September 2007, the city government of Ramadi was holding 5K races along streets we feared sending tanks months prior. President Bush flew to Iraq to meet with Sattar and thank him for his efforts. While far from peace, the tide was turning.
By mid-month, General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by then-Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.). Despite voting for “regime change” in 1998, invading Iraq in 2003, and even offering his own plan to divide the country Iraq into three ethnic enclaves in his widely rejected Unity Through Autonomy in Iraq Op-ed in 2006, 2007 Biden was firmly against the war — for now. Petraeus and Crocker delivered a somber but cautiously optimistic assessment in a carnival-like atmosphere, against a shameful “General Betray-Us” backdrop. A chorus of presidential hopefuls including Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Biden himself attempted to score political points, all while being interrupted by shrieking Code Pink “activists.” Days later, Sheik Sattar was murdered by an AQI terrorist. Sattar’s brother, Sheik Ahmed Bezia abu Risha, was elected to lead the Awakening Council and bravely announced “Although they killed Sattar, there are a million Sattars in Anbar.”
By December 2008, U.S. causalities had dropped significantly, the Iraqi Security Forces were finding their footing, and Shias and Sunnis were working together to piece Iraq back together, despite simmering tensions. With the United Nations mandate expiring, President Bush signed a long-term security agreement with Iraq, calling for the withdrawal of American troops from the cities by June 2009, and combat units out by 31 December 2011, to be replaced by a robust and agreed-upon advisory effort. While causing confusion at the time of what exactly that meant, the expectation of both the Iraqis and the U.S. military was that the Obama administration would negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in the coming months.
As the New Yorker reported, during a 2009 national security meeting, President Obama turned to now-Vice President Biden and said, “Joe, you do Iraq.” This allowed the President to turn his attention to the “Good War” and its abortive “Surge” in Afghanistan. Vice President Biden, back again supporting the Iraq War, and rejecting his own partition idea, took on the task with vigor. He made seven trips to Iraq and 64 phone calls to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, attempting to forge the SOFA agreement before the December 2011 deadline. Although a vocal front man for the administration, Biden was strangely silent in January 2010, when Iranian stooge Maliki disqualified five-hundred candidates from the upcoming national elections, including the presumptive next prime minister, Sheik Ahmad, the widely-supported leader of the Iraq Awakening Council, on spurious charges of being Ba’athists. Despite Maliki’s Dawa Party losing to a Sunni and Shia coalition party led by secular Shite Ayad Allawi — an Iraq judge allowed Maliki the opportunity to form a government, violating accepted parliamentary practices and the nascent Iraqi rule of law.
In the ensuing months of Iraqi political upheaval, Biden was uncharacteristically silent during this period as well, although he ham-handedly called Allawi telling him that he couldn’t form a government. Iraqis security forces were leading attacks against the last of the terrorist organizations plaguing the country. On April 18, 2010 Abu Ayyub al-Masri was killed, an event Biden called a “potentially devastating blow” to al-Qaida in Iraq. Unbeknownst to him, the leadership of AQI passed to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who reshaped it in his “austere religious scholar” image. Biden continued working with Maliki towards the expected SOFA agreement, saying as late as October 2010 that “I’ll bet you my vice presidency [that] Maliki will extend the SOFA.”
In December 2010, Maliki finally formed a government by including parties affiliated with the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an Iranian puppet and leader of the Madhi Army. Once firmly in power, he purged rivals and the country moved further under Iranian control. By March 2011, the Arab Spring was in full force and al Baghdadi was leading the remnants of AQI fighting in Syria against the last Ba’athist government of Bashar al Assad in order to re-establish the caliphate.
Biden’s SOFA agreement talks completely broke down on 21 Oct 2011, much to the surprise of the Iraqis and the American military alike. Although Maliki offered to sign an executive order giving American troops legal protections, the Obama-Biden White House demanded the Iraqi Parliament ratify the agreement, a demand that both the Iraqis and Americans knew was unattainable. On 12 December, a ceremony in Washington celebrated the last American forces leaving Iraq, and the end of what could have been. No sooner than Maliki’s plane hit the tarmac in Baghdad, a purge of Sunnis from the government and military began, starting with Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who allegedly was responsible for numerous terrorist attacks. Although Hashimi fled to Qatar before being arrested, he was eventually convicted in absentia and sentenced to death.
Over the course of the next three years, Iraq disintegrated into sectarian violence, mainly perpetrated by the Iraqi government against the minority Sunni population, and the rise of al Baghdadi’s newly rebranded Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). Derided as “the JV Team” by President Obama, the fanatical ISIS jihadists pummeled the Iraqi military, now stripped of competent commanders by Maliki and devoid of U.S. advisors or support. Average Sunnis were forced to choose between an oppressive government and the devil they knew (ISIS/AQI) and began siding with ISIS. By the summer of 2014, ISIS had overrun Mosul and most of Anbar Province, and was driving to the outskirts of Baghdad. In Mosul’s grand mosque, Al Baghdadi declared himself Calif. International jihadists flocked by the tens of thousands to the new Mesopotamian caliphate.
One Sunni group was still fighting ISIS — our allies in The Awakening Council — still headed by the abandoned Sheik Ahmed. ISIS held a particular hatred for the Awakening fighters, seeing them as apostates for siding with the Coalition in 2006. In January 2015, Sheik Ahmed led a delegation of Sunni leaders to Washington, pleading for direct support from the U.S. to continue fighting ISIS. Although the Iraqi government was publicly pledging support for the Sunnis, privately Maliki was funneling arms and ammunition to Iranian-controlled Shia death squads — now masquerading as Popular Mobilization Forces. According to the readout on the meeting, Vice President Biden met with the delegation briefly, and “he expressed support for the Iraqi government’s efforts to enlist fighters from all of Iraq’s communities to help reconstitute Iraq’s security forces. The Vice President encouraged the delegates to continue to work constructively with (newly installed) Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi government on these important efforts to forge a durable security for Iraq.”
What the Awakening Council members heard was the U.S. was not jeopardizing ongoing nuclear talks with Iran by supporting our allies who changed the course of the war in 2006-2007. Politico reported that one Anbar leader summed it up by saying: “The truth is that our Ministry of Defense is owned lock, stock, and barrel by Tehran — and Joe Biden knows it. So he smiled, patted us on the back, and sent us on our way.” As proof, Sheik Ahmed produced a widely circulated picture of Iranian Quds Force commander and wanted terrorist Qassem Soleimani hugging Iraqi Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri. (Soleimani, responsible for the death and maiming of over a thousand American troops, was killed by a drone strike on 3 January 2020 at the Baghdad airport. Al-Amiri, oddly enough, was a White House guest 2011 and was the mastermind of the 2019 New Year’s Eve attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.)
Shortly after the meeting, the ISIS onslaught proved too much for the Awakening Council forces and the inept Iraqi security forces, and Ramadi fell. The tribal militiamen who fought alongside us in 2006, and were indispensable in defeating AQI were slaughtered. What I never understood during this period was the reluctance to embrace our allies in the Awakening. My only guess is that victory, or even a stable Iraq. was never the desired outcome. It was all about keeping the Iranians happy.
What came next is well-documented. The ISIS conquered and terrorized swathes of Iraq and Syria while gleefully committing genocide against the Yazidis around Sinjar and televising atrocities that made even Al Qaeda disavow them. Facing international outrage and regional destabilization, the Obama-Biden administration reluctantly responded with humanitarian aid, and then a series of air strikes. Eventually, Operation Inherent Resolve was established and elements of the 1st Infantry Division we ordered back to Iraq — and later Syria — to fight alongside the remnants of the Iraqi Army and dominant Shia militias.
That is what you get when Joe does Iraq.
Colonel Anthony E. Deane (US Army, Retired) commanded Task Force Conqueror in the Battle of Ramadi and was instrumental in fostering the start of the Anbar Awakening. He spent his last two years in the Army as the senior trainer for Counterinsurgency. He is the author of Ramadi Declassified: A Roadmap to Peace in the Most Dangerous City in Iraq.