January 19, 2006: Iraq's Wild West (Anbar Province) has been the scene of almost continuous combat operations for nearly a year. American and Iraqi troops went into towns and villages where al Qaeda or tribal militias were openly defying government control, and the bad guys either had to stand and fight, or flee (and take their chances with American helicopters and ground patrols surrounding the area.) Al Anbar is a big place, but only has a population of some 1.2 million, nearly all Sunni Arabs. About 30 percent of American combat deaths have occurred in al Anbar.
By the end of 2005, there were no more places where the gangs were organized enough to stay put and fight. The terrorists are still there, hiding among civilians who either willingly, or because of threats, provided shelter. But public opinion among most al Anbar residents is now anti-terrorist. So many civilians have been killed by terrorists in al Anbar, that nearly all the tribes have agreed to support the government. A result of this was seen with the high turnout during the December 15th voting. Al Qaeda apparently made their big mistake when they indiscriminately, and frequently, killed al Anbar men who had volunteered for the police force. It was much more effective to terrorize these men individually. But this took more time and effort, and didn't get much media attention. Al Qaeda wanted headlines, and blowing up dozens of police recruits did the job. But in addition to the headlines, al Qaeda acquired a growing number of families, clans and tribes that wanted revenge. Al Qaeda told these people that the murder of their loved ones was God's will. There was a disagreement here, that has evolved into war between al Qaeda ( and similar local terrorist gangs), and most of the tribes in al Anbar.
In the last three months of 2005, 139 American troops were killed by IEDs (roadside bombs). This was 56 percent of the 248 U.S. combat deaths in that period. Only about 20 percent died in battles, with both sides firing at each other. Iraqis don't like to fight Americans in person, because they nearly always lose quickly and decisively. Dozens of these battles take place each month anyway, and rarely get reported, probably because most of them result in few, if any, American casualties. But the smaller number of IED attacks almost always get media attention, especially when American troops are killed. During the last four months, the number of IED attacks has dropped, while at the same time the number of explosives caches and bomb workshops found has gone way up. One reason the al Anbar tribes came forward to join the government, was because more and more of their members were informing on the terrorist gangs. The IEDs need explosives, and workshops to assemble them. Skilled men are required to build the bombs and place them. Many of these men are driven by ideology and religion, as well as money. Those with a religious bent, are into it to the end. But the Sunni Arab nationalists can be persuaded, by their tribal chiefs, to get out of the terror business.
The war between al Qaeda and the Sunni Arab tribes has been growing for a year. In many parts of al Anbar, the terrorists are gone. But in other Sunni Arab towns around Baghdad, and neighborhoods of the capital itself, al Qaeda still have a support network. The criminal gangs are willing to deal with the terrorists, if the price is right. The terrorists are still able to hire smugglers to get people and weapons across the border from Syria. But al Qaeda has lost most of its popular support, and most Iraqis are more inclined to take a reward for informing on the terrorists.