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Iraq’s Second Sunni Insurgency
Iraqi demonstrators shout slogans during an anti-government protest in the western city of Ramadi on March 15, 2013. (AZHAR SHALLAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraq’s Second Sunni Insurgency

Kirk H. Sowell

The state of Iraq in 2014 represents a dramatic reversal when compared with four years earlier. National elections in March 2010 took place during a period when the Sunni insurgency, having reached its peak in 2006, was at a low ebb, and key political leaders were making an effort to mold a nationally-unifying coalition. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had resisted Iranian efforts to form a united Shia bloc. He led his own State of Law Coalition (SLC), a predominately Shia Islamist bloc with substantial secular elements. It competed against both the Iranian-aligned Iraqi National Alliance (INA) and the Iraqi National Movement, or Iraqiya coalition, a mixture of Sunnis and secular Shia nominally headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Voters endorsed the most non-sectarian options—Iraqiya came in first with 91 seats, Maliki’s SLC a narrow second with 89, and the INA farther behind, with 70.

The situation today is quite different. By the beginning of 2014, a new insurgency had engulfed Sunni Iraq. With the nation’s security services floundering and Iran-backed Shia militias playing an increasing role, the national elections of April 30 took place in the worst environment possible. Unsurprisingly, the voting was overwhelmingly sectarian: Shia Islamists had an outright majority for the first time—moving from 159 of 325 seats in 2010 to 181 of 328 in 2014. Losses by secular Shia blocs and a decline in Sunni votes meant a corresponding decline in those blocs from 101 seats in 2010 to 76 in 2014. (There had been 10 Sunni Arab seats outside Iraqiya in 2010.) To a stalemate in Anbar was added the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s largest Sunni-majority city in the northwestern province of Ninawa, in early June 2014, at the hands of the jihadist Islamic State and a mix of nationalist insurgent groups. In response, Shia Iraq transformed into a garrison state, with civilian leaders wearing uniforms. Shia militias openly mobilized to face the Sunni challenge, taking over the role of official security in many areas. How did things go so wrong?

Broadly speaking, Iraq’s Second Sunni Insurgency is the result of the interplay of two dynamics. On the one hand were expansive Sunni demands based on legitimate grievances relating to illegal arrests and mistreatment by the legal system. Sunnis also deluded themselves with excessive expectations about Sunni power in the new Iraq. On the other hand, the inability or unwillingness of the Shia-dominated political system to find a middle ground on Sunni aspirations exacerbated matters. This started with the formation of the 2010 government itself; unwilling to allow power to slip into the hands of Allawi’s base—which included many unreconstructed Baathists, both Shia and Sunni, and Sunni Islamists—the Shia Islamist blocs merged into the National Alliance (NA). Maliki’s own SLC later took on more sectarian elements, in particular the Badr Organization, a militia proxy of Iran. Allawi’s base was wrong in expecting to hold power—Shia Islamist blocs had 159 combined seats in parliament compared with 101 for the Sunni Arab-secular Shia factions, with the remainder of the 325 seats mostly held by Kurds, who allied with the Shia because they considered the Sunni driven by ethnic nationalism. But the Sunnis were right in concluding they had lost out, as Maliki and his Shia Islamist allies controlled all key security posts and the vital energy sector.

This paper charts efforts by Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to achieve what they view as their legitimate place in Iraq through six sections. The first two sections relate to a failure of politics: the government’s suppression of Sunni efforts to form autonomous regions through a legal process in late 2011 and the political system’s failure to accommodate legitimate Sunni demands during the early stage of the protest movement, which began in December 2012 and ran through December 2013. In regard to the former, Shia leaders may have had legitimate concerns about the Sunni region agenda. Since the Kurds had an autonomous region with its own independent military and energy policy, a Sunni Arab effort to do the same would have led to the country’s breakup. Nonetheless, Sunni regionalists pushed their agenda through a legal process. Aside from Maliki’s rhetoric about decentralizing governance outside of core areas such as foreign policy, security, and energy, little was done to address Sunni concerns. Indeed, Maliki flagrantly violated a 2008 statute giving governors total control over security units other than the army by maintaining a statutorily-unfounded federal police force whose power vastly exceeded that of local police. Parliament passed another decentralization law in June 2013, the security provisions of which Maliki also ignored. In February 2014, Maliki withdrew a constitutional challenge to the law under political pressure, but many of its provisions remain unenforced.1

A second political failure involved the protests that began in December 2012 in Anbar. Threats of arrest against Finance Minister Rafia al-Isawi sparked the protests, which quickly spread to Sunni areas of other provinces. While early 2013 was still the beginning of this movement, it was in a sense an end to political efforts to resolve the conflict. Between January and mid-April, there was a window in which the Maliki government, pressed by Shia clerical authorities, began offering moderate concessions to Sunnis on issues of legal abuses and debaathification. The reasons the effort failed are multifaceted. The concessions were well short of what Sunnis demanded; Maliki’s Shia Islamist rivals attacked his de-Baathification compromises, leading him to lose seats in the April 2013 provincial elections; and Sunni political and protest leaders themselves sabotaged the compromise. For protest leaders, no negotiations by Sunni ministers with Maliki could be legitimate, and for Speaker Osama al-Nujayfi’s Mutahidun, the fact that Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlak, a Sunni rival, could have benefited politically from the compromise appeared to be reason enough to sink it.

However one lays blame for the failure, two events in late April 2013 ended all efforts at compromise: Maliki’s loss of seats in the elections, which took place on April 20, and the massacre of more than 40 unarmed protesters at the hands of special forces in Huwija, Kirkuk, on April 23. Maliki concluded that compromising with Sunnis only brought political loss, and many Sunnis concluded the only way to deal with his government was through force. What might have happened had Sunni leaders tried to meet Maliki halfway can never be known, and he never tried again.

Sections three through five trace the transformation of the protest movement into insurgency, from the movement’s beginnings to its end on December 30, 2013, when Maliki forced the closure of the symbolically central protest site near Ramadi, Anbar. The predominant wing of the protest movement, that associated with Mutahidun and the clerical establishment, focused on achieving what the 2011 region movement failed to do: address Sunni grievances over government treatment and establish an autonomous Sunni region. There were also other protest sites controlled by fronts for insurgent groups, the most important being the neo-Baathist Jaysh Rijal al-Taraqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN). The Islamist Muslim Scholars’ Association (MSA) and a political front for the Islamic Army also became active.

Section four addresses the period of transformation following the failure of political compromise and the massacre at Huwija, both of which took place in April 2013. The mainstream protest movements’ demands were too expansive for either Maliki or any elected Shia leader to agree to, but up to this point they were framed in a peaceable manner. After Huwija, the mainstream groups in Ramadi began forming militias and converging in views with the pro-insurgency groups. Despite lethal attacks by the jihadist Islamist State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) (which changed its name to the Islamic State (IS) in June 2014) and continued provocation by the JRTN, Iraq managed to avoid a full-blown insurgency in mid-2013 as cool heads in both Baghdad and Ramadi pulled back from the brink.

Section five covers the period from July to the end of 2013, a period which is now identifiable as a countdown to insurgency. The Maliki government increasingly resorted to arrest warrants—valid or not—as a way of intimidating Sunni protest leaders. This drove the mainstream clerical movement toward insurgency. It was during this period that Shaykh Muhammad Taha Hamdun of Samarra came to be the dominant figure in what remained of the protest movement, as earlier protest leaders such as Ahmad Abu Risha and Ali Hatem Sulayman abandoned the movement. The former reconciled with Maliki, the latter opted for insurgency. And the clerics subordinated those political actors who remained to their leadership. While Hamdun’s absolutist political stands were part of the reason for the movement’s failure, he resisted the turn to insurgency until the end of the year, when Maliki moved against Ramadi protesters as part of his reelection campaign.

The last section of this paper outlines the Second Sunni Insurgency as it developed following the failure of the politics of Iraqi nationalism. While most international media have understandably focused on the jihadist wing of the insurgency, represented by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his Islamic State, nationalist insurgents have played an indispensable role in the insurgency’s success. The JRTN has experienced a revival, using front groups to build an insurgent coalition around military councils of “tribal revolutionaries.” Shaykh Hamdun and his clerical allies have played a key role in Sunni media, supporting the insurgency as nationalist “revolutionaries” and downplaying the jihadist role. While there is no reason to think the insurgents will actually achieve their ends—retaking Baghdad or forming a Sunni region funded by the federal budget—they have built broad legitimacy among the Sunni population through years of activism.

The Sunni Autonomous Region Crisis

Maliki’s second government was only months old when many Sunnis began looking for a way to have a stronger say over their destiny as a Shia-led government in Baghdad appeared to be impossible to dislodge. Ironically this came through a dramatic reversal in thinking among Sunnis over a highly controversial issue—the formation of autonomous regions. While the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) sprang fully-formed into being in the new Iraq from an autonomous administration existing since 1991, the 2005 constitution, which was drafted by Shia and Kurdish leaders and passed over Sunni opposition, provided for a right to form new regions.

By mid-2011 some Sunnis reversed course and began moving toward support. Perhaps their vision of reclaiming the power of a strong central authority in Baghdad was waning. Most controversially, Speaker Nujayfi first raised the issue himself in June during a trip to the United States when he said Sunnis might seek “seccession” if Baghdad’s policies did not change. Allies quickly denied that he was seeking to form a “Sunni region,”2 but the impression stuck. Maliki and his allies criticized Nujayfi, but in doing so notably affirmed the right to form a region within Iraq’s unified state. Indeed Anbar MP Ahmad al-Alwani, an Islamic Party leader and Nujayfi ally later to play a key role in the 2013 protests, played down the idea by saying that Sunnis in Anbar wanted only to use the region process to promote decentralization, not secession.3

The idea was more controversial because the Arab Gulf states, in particular Qatar, were viewed as being behind the move. For example, the Shia news site al-Nakhil reacted to Nujayfi’s statements by linking them to Qatar’s regional support for Sunni Islamists and a picture of Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi meeting with Qatar leaders in an article about Nujayfi.4 Buratha News, published by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), framed Nujayfi’s statements similarly, claiming there was evidence that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were funding the formation of a Sunni region independent from Baghdad, like the Kurdish region.5

Then, on October 27, the Salah al-Din Provincial Council voted to initiate the formation of an autonomous region. The immediate cause was a move by Higher Education Minister Ali al-Adib to remove about 1,200 state employees in Salah al-Din and Ninawa, including 140 teachers at the University of Tikrit, for Baathist affiliation.6 Adib is a member of Maliki’s Dawa Party and close to Iran, so the move caused outrage.

The region push was also based on more long-standing complaints, including the arrest of a series of prominent citizens without any clear legal charge and the arrest that month of 650 Sunnis from various provinces based on an alleged Baathist coup.7 Also specific to Salah al-Din are long-standing allegations by Sunnis of conscious efforts to change the demography of Samarra, a predominately-Sunni city just north of Baghdad and the site of the historically-sacred Shia shrine of Hassan al-Askari, whom Shia consider to have been the 11th Imam.8 These efforts, local Sunnis alleged, involved pressured sales of property and in-migration by Shia.

Maliki’s reaction was immediate, condemning the move by arguing that the constitution did not allow regions to be formed “on a sectarian basis,” claiming that it would be a base for Baathists and foreign terrorists.9 The week following the vote, Maliki rallied sectarian allies, meeting with Shia tribesmen from the south of the province. He then traveled to the southern province of Dhi Qar, where he gave a speech warning that Salah al-Din could become “a haven for Baathists.”10 And ISCI, the strongest supporter of a nine-province Shia autonomous region during the previous parliament, now opposed a new region given that Sunnis backed one.11

Neither the constitution nor the law contains any qualification to the right to form a region related to the motives of its founders, but Maliki made it clear he would use all means at his disposal to stop the effort. And when on December 12, Diyala’s Sunni councilmen issued a similar demand, he made good on it. Both federal security services and Shia militias sprung into action, blocking roads between the provincial capital of Baquba and Baghdad and between it and the rest of the province and taking the provincial council building by force. Contemporaneous news reports and videos showed a total collapse of provincial police authority as irregulars, including armed men dressed in black, worked hand-in-glove with security forces. Within three days, a full state of martial law was in place. Land Forces Commander Ali Ghaydan had taken direct control of provincial security, a permanent sit-in blocked use of the provincial council, and Governor Abd al-Nasir al-Mahdawi and pro-region councilmen had fled to Kurdish-controlled Khaniqin in the north of the province.12

The sectarian nature of the Diyala region divide was increased by the activation of Shia militiamen. And leaders of two Shia districts threatened to secede from Diyala itself rather than live under Sunni rule. These were Khalis, in western Diyala, which would have merged with Baghdad, and Baldruz, in the south, which threatened to join the homogenous Shia province of Wasit.

Once the move against Diyala was complete, on December 17 news broke of an arrest warrant for Vice-President Hashemi. The announcement was from the spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command, Qasim Atta, an officer close to Maliki. For days the only public statements by officials on the warrant were by Maliki appointees or members of his bloc, not judicial or legal officials. Two days later, Hashimi was allowed to board a plane and escape from Baghdad, although his bodyguards were detained.

The problem with the Hashemi prosecution is not the improbability of his guilt, but the timing and selective application of prosecution. The Islamic Party, in which Hashemi was a leader until he formed his own party in 2009, had its own militia, and there are so many IP members who have been involved in violent activity that the accusations against Hashemi are not farfetched. Yet Transportation Minister Hadi al-Ameri, for example, actually headed a Shia militia created by Iran, the Badr Corps, which was heavily involved in death squad activity in the 2005-2006 period.

So between the forceful suppression of Sunni autonomy efforts and the Hashemi prosecution, the Iraqi state had become an instrument of Shia power. Sectarian Shia leaders held key positions of power, and Sunnis who were in the political process and supported Sunni empowerment were on the receiving end of the security apparatus.

The Sunni Protest Movement and a Failure of Politics

What I will refer to as the “Sunni protest movement” began in December 2012 following the government’s arrest of several aides to Finance Minister Rafia al-Isawi and threats that Isawi himself, a native of Fallujah, Anbar, would soon be targeted. This provided impetus for passionate protests in Ramadi, Anbar’s provincial capital, and Fallujah. A near simultaneous event to the north in Ninawa, the raping of a local girl by an army officer, helped give impetus to protests there. Ramadi’s protesters met at a site north of the city and set up an encampment astride the international highway that connects Baghdad to Jordan and Syria. In what was to become a landmark statement, on December 26, Isawi stood below the highway sign in front of a large crowd and gave an iconic summary of the protest movement’s demands: “…detainees, political targeting, marginalization, exclusion, debaathification, sectarianism, Counterterrorism Law Article 4, secret informers, bring them all down under your feet!”13

While the protests had the flavor of a spontaneous outburst of popular anger, and for many participants they indeed were that, protest sites were controlled by specific organizations. The sites were divided into two categories. One is the more mainstream movement associated with Mutahidun, a political bloc of Sunni parties created by the debris of the Iraqiya coalition for the provincial elections scheduled for April. The other category were those controlled by groups outside the political process, some of them fronts for armed insurgent groups which had been active in 2003-2007 but had largely gone inactive. Once Anbar and Ninawa’s sit-in encampments were established, groups aligned with each of these two wings set up similar sites in Sunni areas of Diyala, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Baghdad.

The Ramadi protest site, dubbed “Pride and Dignity Square,” became the symbolic center of the movement and the focus of both national and pan-Arab media attention. It was controlled by two groups, the “Anbar Coordination Committee,” headed by MP Ahmad al-Alwani of the Islamic Party, and the “Popular Committees,” headed by Ahmad Abu Risha, leader of the Iraqi Awakening Conference (or “Sahwa”).14 Both were leaders within Nujayfi’s Mutahidun. In Mosul, Ninawa’s provincial capital, Nujayfi’s local party directly controlled one of the two main sites in the city.15

The Mutahidun’s alliance with the mainstream Sunni clerical establishment was a key factor in the credibility of its protest sites. A week after the protests started, Shaykh Abd al-Malik al-Saadi, a revered senior cleric, visited the Ramadi site. Saadi had been a pillar of the nationalist insurgency a few years earlier and one of Iraq’s most influential Sunni clerics under the Baath. But Saadi has lived in Jordan since 2001 and lacks an institutional role; inside the country, the Iraqi Ulema Council (IUC) is most influential, and it became even more closely aligned with the Mutahidun. Its clerics, who act independently of the state’s waqf leadership, worked with Mutahidun leaders to close other mosques around the protest sites to encourage attendance at the sit-ins.16 And when Ramadi-aligned protest sites arose in other provinces, those controlled by clerics were allied with the Mutahidun—the most prominent being Muhammad Taha al-Hamdun in Samarra, Salah al-Din, and Ahmad Said in Baquba, Diyala.

Yet there was also a wing of the movement not associated with the political process. Of those the largest group was controlled by the “Free Iraq Intifada” (FII), a front group for the neo-Baathist insurgents in the JRTN. The JRTN, led by former Saddam Hussein deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, used the FII to establish protest sites in Mosul, Huwija, Kirkuk, and Tikrit, Salah al-Din. The Popular Sunni Hirak, a front for the Islamic Army insurgent group, was weaker but also had a presence at multiple sites, especially in Fallujah.

Beyond the division between the Mutahidun-aligned protests, which engaged with the political process and the insurgent fronts, there was another key division based on the autonomous Sunni region agenda. While Mutahidun and the IUC backed regionalism, Shaykh Saadi opposed it, and for this reason a Sunni region was not within the Ramadi protesters’ list of formal demands.17 The insurgent wing was also split, with the Sunni Hirak backing regionalism and the JRTN/FII pushing for the restoration of a centralized Baathist state.

The Maliki government’s response to the Sunni protests waxed back and forth between violent overreaction and modest reconciliation. Maliki’s initial reaction was to tell the Anbar protesters, “Bring it to an end, before it is brought to an end before you,” calling them “putrid… empty bubbles” and threatening to suppress the movement.18 But Shia clerical authorities intervened, warning security forces not to clash with protesters and telling Maliki to meet protester demands “consistent with the law and the constitution.”19 So Maliki softened his tone, and a ministerial committee headed by Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani began ordering the release of prisoners, most of them Sunni, who were being held illegally either because their terms had ended or they were held for a long period without trial.

A more significant opportunity for reform arose in March when Maliki and Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlak, a Sunni from Anbar, reached a deal to soften de-Baathification in exchange for a statute formally criminalizing the Baath Party (Article 7 of the constitution bans the Baath but no law does). This was a rare moment in politics when leaders reached across the sectarian divide on a controversial compromise.

The result was that their sectarian rivals united to kill the deal. Maliki’s Shia Islamist rivals, the Sadrists and ISCI, portrayed the deal as an effort to bring back the Baath, and used it against him in the provincial electoral campaign set for April. On the other side, many Sunnis rejected the deal both because it failed to totally repeal de-Baathification and because many were unwilling to ban the Baath.

Then two events in April brought the opening for compromise to a close. One was the result of the elections—Maliki’s SLC lost seats heavily, with its share of Shia-area seats falling from about half in 2010 to one-third. ISCI, which had been most uncompromising on the Sunni protests, gained the most.

The other event, more portentous for the Sunni insurgency itself, was the massacre of more than 40 civilians at a protest site in Huwija, Kirkuk. The killings took place after a tense but non-violent five-day siege by a local army division, when special forces sent from Baghdad stormed the site with live fire against what appear to have been entirely unarmed activists. While the site was indeed controlled by the JRTN’s protest front, there were no armed militants. Video released by the local army unit showing them helping some civilians flee the site helped save the regular army’s reputation. But it convinced more Sunnis the government could only be dealt with through force. After April there would be no further legislative initiatives to resolve Sunni grievances, only threats and incentives to win over Sunni political leaders, as the Sunni insurgency began to pick up steam.

Protest Factions and the Origins of Insurgency

Between the failure of Iraqi leaders to resolve disputes through the political system—represented by the region formation crisis of November-December 2011 and the failed effort at reform in March-April 2013—and the full-blown insurgency of 2014 lay the factional evolution during the Sunni protest movement. It lasted from Maliki’s threats against Rafia al-Isawi in December 2012 to Maliki’s closing of Ramadi’s symbolic protest site on December 30, 2013.

In evaluating statements by Sunni leaders, two points of reference must be borne in mind. One is that despite rhetoric about non-sectarianism and coexistence with Shia, the Sunni protest movement was an explicitly Sunni one. Even its more moderate forms blamed the Shia-led “sectarian government” for all ills with no recognition Shia had suffered under the Baath or from Sunni insurgents. A sermon in Ramadi on December 28, 2012 was representative: with three-star Baathist flags flying, the speaker raged against “this oppressive sectarian government, whose nature is clear from its marginalization, and violations. Yes, we, Sunnis, challenge violations of sacred things [reference to Sunni women arrested and allegedly raped in prisons], customs and identity… we do not fear death…for religion, and demand the immediate release of all freemen of Iraq…”20 (ahrar al-iraq could refer to insurgents, i.e. “freedom fighters,” though there was no explicit reference to armed insurgency).

This was the “moderate” face of the protests. While Friday sermons like this were kept free of anti-Shia epithets—such as references to “Safavids” or “majus,” derogatory terms tying Iraqi Shia to Iran—such inflammatory language could be heard from other protest sites from the beginning. So it is not surprising that by December 2013, when Maliki decided to move against the Ramadi site, the Shia street supported him.

Two, Sunnis’ sense of marginalization was framed around the lingering belief held over from the Saddam era that Sunnis were the demographic majority in Iraq. In most cases, this belief comes across implicitly, as Sunnis speak with the assumption that having “balance” in the state would involve having Sunni Arab government representation make up much more than the roughly 25 percent of the population that they in fact do make up.

Despite these commonalities, Sunni factions contained an array of faces. Perhaps it is best to start with a January 10 interview program on al-Jazeera with Muthanna al-Dhari and Yahya al-Kubaysi, representing the polar opposites of the respectable Sunni community—i.e., figures who can appear on mainstream television programs. Dhari’s Muslim Scholars Association (MSA) is behind the rabidly pro-insurgency al-Rafidyan television channel. It always retained an armed wing, the 1920s Revolutionary Brigades, one of the key nationalist insurgents of the first insurgency.21 Here Dhari presented a relatively moderate face, saying he was open to working with those in the political process even while insisting on “revolution” and the need for “regime change.”

Kubaysi, a fellow at the Amman-based Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies, represented the opposite pole, warning that the fact that the protests were explicitly Sunni would doom them, and their rhetoric would be an impediment to success. More importantly, Kubaysi presciently predicted that calls for changing the regime, as opposed to demands for just treatment within it, “will lead to militarization of the other side to defend the regime” and catastrophe. Kubaysi failed to win a seat in Baghdad as a candidate in the April 2014 parliamentary elections, but his prediction turned out to be true.

The Sunni center ground, however, would be held by the aforementioned collection of pro-Sunni autonomous region factions associated with Nujayfi’s Mutahidun and the clerical establishment. They would coalesce into something called the “Hirak,” which is Arabic for “movement.” Sometimes called the “Popular Hirak” or the “Six Provinces Hirak,” the clerics’ group, unlike Dhari’s MSA, actually controlled the mosques. While riven by personality and leadership disputes, the two wings of this current would work in complementary fashion, with the Mutahidun acting on the political scene and the Hirak the religious scene.

The Hirak and Mutahidun began with control of separate protest sites, with the Hirak controlling protests in Samarra, Salah al-Din22 and the Mutahidun having the symbolically central “Pride & Dignity Square” sit-in site in Ramadi and notable sites in Mosul, Ninawa and Tirkrit, Salah al-Din. (The JRTN had a large site in Mosul, Ahrar Square, and one in Tikrit; its presence in Anbar was limited to Fallujah.) Initially the Samarra group worked under the name of the “Samarra Coordination Committee,” with Abu Abayd al-Samarrai as its initial spokesman.23 It was shortly after this that Shaykh Muhammad Taha Hamdun, imam of the mosque at al-Haq Square in Samarrai, began being quoted as the face of the clerical wing. At the time he was a member of the Samarra Ulema Council.24

The Samarra group assumed a position of strength vis-à-vis Baghdad immediately. On Jan 15, the Samarra protesters refused to meet with a Maliki emissary, Salam al-Zoubai. This was a crucial point, as it came just days after Shahristani’s being charged with meeting protest demands. Shaykh Hamdun explained the refusal by saying that they would present their demands only to Maliki or Shahristani directly, not to an intermediary.25 Although there is no reporting of either refusing to meet with Hamdun, this implies that part of the breakdown at this early stage came from Hamdun’s insistence on being able to negotiate as an equal with senior Shia leaders and their refusal to countenance such an idea.

Either way, Zoubai’s mandate ended soon with sectarian controversy. A week after Hamdun’s refusal to meet with him, Zoubai gave a lecture at the University of Samarra in which he offended students by asking why there was no one there with a distinctively Shia name (e.g., “Who among you is named Abd al-Hussein?”).26 When students started walking out, he threatened to not let them leave, and then he got into an argument with professors, and the incident went viral on social media and made the national news.27

On March 22, federal SWAT forces—special forces reporting directly to Maliki—reportedly raided Hamdun’s office.28 Throughout the year security forces would harass clerical leaders by either raiding their offices, detaining them briefly and releasing them, or just by announcing an arrest warrant for unclear reasons; on April 30 they briefly detained Hamdun.29 The government never explained the legal basis for these threats, but given threats of insurgency in sermons, “incitement” would presumably have been the basis. Targeting Hamdun may have helped him consolidate his leadership position.

On March 24, Hamdun explained the development of Sunni protests, which began as isolated protests and moved to sit-ins and common Friday prayers (clerics closed other mosques to increase the size of crowds at protest-focused mosques in each area). Notably, Hamdun framed the movement as an explicitly Sunni movement, persecuted by the government, and described Sunnis as “the primary component in building this country” (the word used for “component,” mukawin, in this context refers to a sectarian group). On this occasion Hamdun said the country faced four choices, of which two were Maliki’s resignation or a change in policy, and the latter two being a Sunni region or insurgency. Hamdun framed the insurgency option as “withdrawal of the clerics [i.e. Hamdun’s group] to open the way for the revolutionaries.”30

The first joint appearance of leaders of the mainstream current together helped sink the Maliki-Mutlak compromise on debaathification (discussed above). On March 27 they met as leaders of the “Six Provinces” as Hamdun appeared on stage in Ramadi with figures such as Ahmad Abu Risha, Said al-Lafi and Ali Hatem Sulayman, to issue “Statement No. 1” of the “Popular Committees of the Six Provinces.”31 Both the group’s statement and Hamdun’s evinced the same assumption of self-evident rightness that required no elaborate defense. Its key point of substance was to reject negotiations between Sunni ministers and Maliki, insisting that only protest leaders had legitimacy to negotiate with the government.

This coincided with an effort by Abd al-Malik al-Saadi, the Jordan-based senior cleric, to regain relevance by proposing negotiations with the government. Despite Saadi’s revered status as the leading Sunni cleric under both the old regime and during the first Sunni insurgency, Saadi was struggling to affect events. Aside from his continued exile, on January 24 Saadi issued a fatwa condemning the Sunni autonomous region agenda central to both the Mutahidun and Hamdun’s group.32 He also seems to have had an even more exaggerated sense of Sunni weight in the country than others. Until March Saadi had viewed it as sufficient to simply make demands and expect them to be fulfilled. One signature initiative of his was to have the Sunni and Shia waqfs reunited, apparently unaware that such an institution would necessarily be Shia-dominated.33

Saadi’s initiative was first announced on March 3, but took three weeks to crystallize. On March 24 al-Sharq al-Awsat quoted leaders as saying a 26-member commission including eight tribal shaykhs and six each of clerics, intellectuals and youth leaders, would lead negotiations. Ahmad al-Saadi, the cleric’s son, would head the delegation.34 But then the effort seemed to stall and nothing more was heard for Saadi’s initiative for weeks.

The JRTN and its protest front, the Free Iraqi Intifada (FII), were simultaneously pushing for war. FII protests were always strident affairs. One sermon from Tikrit, coinciding with the push to negotiations, insisted “we reject all negotiations with this government… [and call for an end to] this constitution written by Bremer, Zionists, Crusaders and Masons.”35 Its protest songs, were released on Youtube as if they were a record label as “The Free Iraq Intifada Division Presents ‘Songs of the Revolutionaries’.”36 As early as February 7, a FII spokesman appeared on al-Sharqiya and explained that “the government has rejected protesters’ legitimate demands, so now we demand the government be brought down and the constitution voided.”37

On March 9, following the arrest of an FII activist in Ninawa, their spokesman, Ghazi al-Faysal, gave the government a 24-ultimatum, saying “protesters will take to the streets in arms… we will never negotiate with the government.”38 He apparently hoped this would lead to an uprising, but it did not. Furthermore, it is notable that at this point the FII was still maintaining the fiction of being an independent entity. Faysal denied the arrested activist was a JRTN member, “despite our pride in the Naqshbandia Army.” But the façade was thin; FII statements were being released on JRTN websites, and the two groups had similar logos, with the FII using a Baathist flag rising up from a green-colored picture of Iraq instead of the entire Arab world.

So even as Ramadi protest leaders were drawing a line in the sand and rejecting compromises by Sunni ministers, they found themselves having to hold back a push from the pro-insurgency wing. On March 24, the JRTN sent a crowd gathered from Fallujah to Ramadi to rush the protest site and demand war. They appear to have hoped they would sway the crowd and push political process-linked protest leaders out. And indeed Lafi, the Ramadi spokesman, and Ali Hatem briefly left the stage. But they came back on after regaining their composure and began to urge peacefulness.39 The March 27 statement noted above also included a call for peacefulness. The call for insurgency failed, at least for a time.

Huwija: A Turning Point

A massacre in Huwija, Kirkuk on April 23 changed the environment significantly. The siege of a protest site controlled by the JRTN’s Free Iraq Intifada began on April 19, the day before provincial elections. After a typically inflammatory sermon—e.g., referring to protesters as ‘jihadists-in-garrison’40—there was an attack on a local security checkpoint that killed a soldier. A unit of the 12th Division—which is locally-recruited and thus Sunni Arab—surrounded the protest site and maintained a four-day siege without killing anyone. Protesters who submitted to a search for weapons were allowed to leave, and at one point a video captures an officer pleading to protesters to just surrender the site, saying “You are our people, we don’t want to hurt you!”41

Conflict came to a head the morning of April 23, when Maliki’s “SWAT” forces took over. They opened fire on the site and continued shooting for several minutes. A video released by a local army unit shows soldiers helping unarmed protesters flee.42 At least 44 people were killed, and while they were undoubtedly supporters of an insurgent group, none appear to have been armed. Another video leaked after the raid showed security personnel walking through the scene immediately after the shooting stopped, mocking people who were wounded, some of them elderly.43 The videos saved the reputation of the local army unit, but the killings hugely enflamed Sunni passions against the federal government.

The pivotal impact of Huwija was to militarize the mainstream protest movement. The evening of April 23, Qusay al-Janabi, a popular Ramadi protest speaker, issued what can best be described as a declaration of war on Baghdad. Beside him wearing a military-style vest stood Muhammad Khamis Abu Risha, the nephew of Ahmad Abu Risha, the tribal Awakening leader who headed the “Popular Committees” (al-lajan al-shaabiya).44 Janabi called on “all tribes and armed factions” (al-fasail al-musalaha, meaning insurgents) to mobilize, sparing “local police,” and demanding “the Safavid government, which gets its direction from Qom and Tehran,” withdraw army and federal police units from Sunni cities in 48 hours.

Ali Hatem, a tribal leader who had some experience leading a militia tribal force from the 2007 turn against al-Qaeda by Anbari tribes, quickly set about touting himself as the leader of the “Army of Pride and Dignity (APD),” a make-shift militia of local tribesmen named after the site itself (“Pride & Dignity Square”). The group put out videos of masked men with rifles who looked more like a village militia than an army, and Hatem unabashedly told al-Hayat he had recruited them from former army soldiers and Saddam Fayadin, a brutal Saddamist militia force formed shortly before the 2003 war.45 Muhammad Khamis was also organizing his own force, and there is a video of him from this time pledging to fight “the dogs…the time for peace is over” in the name of the “Popular Committees”—his protest group. He also mentioned killings attributed to the Iranian-backed Shia militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which was by this point an open ally of Maliki.46

Hatem’s militancy was not entirely created by Huwija; his rhetoric has been sufficiently vitriolic that the electoral commission had already struck his name from the provincial election candidate list. Furthermore, on April 12 he and the embryonic APD had conducted an unarmed march in fatigues. Janabi had also participated; he had preached the Friday sermon that day, during which he grandly stopped in the middle to don a white burial shroud, signifying his willingness to die.47

The movement’s clerical authorities gave clear blessing to the shift from protest to a war-footing. On April 26, Saadi authorized the formation of a Sunni “defense army.”48 On the same day in Samarra, Shaykh Hamdun gave an angry sermon on government repression, concluding tribes from all Sunni provinces had to form their own “tribal army,” with protesters holding signs, “We are all part of the Army of the Tribes.”49 Three days later Hamdun explained in an interview that Salah al-Din protest leaders had taken up procedures to form an autonomous region, which had been initiated a year and a half earlier, and that the formation of a tribal army to defend Sunnis was now essential.50 The process would take months more to fully develop, but this was the starting point for the mainstream Sunni clerics going over to the insurgency.

An incident on April 27 caused some pullback in the meantime. Under circumstances which remain unclear, five soldiers from Ramadi—meaning they were Sunni—were visiting on leave when they were murdered near the protest site. The killings were widely condemned, and Saadi issued another statement clarifying “I never called for jihad,” just Sunni self-defense.51 Whether protest leaders were responsible or not, Maliki pinned it on them, and personally attended the burial service. Arrests warrants for these killings, valid or not, would be important in the drama of the months to come.

Hamdun’s rise to national leadership began at this time. On May 2, the Six Provinces Popular Committees chose Hamdun as spokesman and thus effective figurehead.52 On May 18, Hamdun announced following a gathering in Samarra that the committees had formally decided to pursue the formation of a Sunni region, but that they would postpone formal measures—such as distributing referendum materials—for a week to lessen tensions.53 Three days later, speaking from Samarra after a meeting with other protest leaders in Ramadi on May 20, Hamdun released a video statement in which he escalated by saying that Sunnis faced two choices: armed conflict or an autonomous region. He qualified the first point by saying it was “what the government wants,” suggesting they were being forced into war.54 But this didn’t last long; on May 30 Hamdun told al-Sumaria television that protest leaders had met and rejected the insurgency option.55 Hamdun insisted that an autonomous region was the only option.

Ramadi’s local tribal and political leaders were not willing to be entirely subsumed within a cleric-led organization though. On May 14 they met at Ali Hatem’s farmhouse for the “Anbar Tribes Conference to Support Pride & Dignity Square,” though the statement at times tried to speak for “the Six Provinces” as well. The meeting was attended by leaders of both the Abu Risha and Islamic Party “Coordination Committee” sides of the Ramadi leadership. Aside from reiterating standard demands—withdrawal of the army from cities, abolition of Shia militias—they condemned arrest warrants that had now been issued for Lafi, Zayn, and the younger Abu Risha.56

It is notable that in his speech, Ali Hatem warned Governor Qasim al-Fahdawi against negotiating with the government over the close of the protest site; notable because this precise issue would lead to the confrontation in December.57 Two days later the government raided the farmhouse, so Ramadi’s Popular Committees issued statement No. 45, condemning a government raid that day against the Ali Hatem’s property, as well as the arrest the night before of a prominent activist.58

Saadi also renewed his negotiation initiative. On May 13 a statement from his website and further statements by representatives put forward a “Good Faith Initiative”59—a delegation of Sunnis to be announced would meet with the government at the Shia shrine in Samarra, a Sunni-majority city holy to the Shia, and seek to resolve the conflict. The Maliki government initially said they were “studying the issue,”60 then had the Shia waqf effectively reject it by saying a shrine should not be politicized. In subsequent interviews Maliki would say there was never a formal proposal. He insisted he heard about Saadi’s initiative in the media but there was nothing specific. It would be Saadi’s last effort to engage with the political process.

Another group originally focused on Fallujah that became prominent in Ramadi in April-May was the Popular Sunni Movement, or Sunni Hirak. (Confusingly, the cleric-led group headed by Hamdun increasingly called itself “the Hirak,” and sometimes the “Popular Hirak,” though these are entirely separate groups despite having similar views.) Focused on promoting a Sunni autonomous region, the Sunni Hirak appears to have been a thinly-veiled front for the Islamic Army. Statements from the IA single out the Sunni Hirak for praise and there is a total overlap between their ideologies.61 The IA is one of the armed groups left over from the previous insurgency. Fronted by a cleric calling himself Faruq al-Thufayri,62 the Sunni Hirak frequently used its social media to promote the work of Shaykh Taha Hameed al-Dulaymi, a Saudi-backed cleric who frequently appeared on the Salafist al-Wisal television channel. Its constant reference to sectarian frames of reference matched the slogan on Dulaymi’s website: “Devoted to the Best Means of Confronting the Shia Threat.”

The group first made a visible appearance in Ramadi on March 29, when its representative, Hussein al-Dulaymi, gave the Friday sermon. He began appearing in Ramadi frequently afterward.63 Ramadi leaders never explained why they chose to include the Sunni Hirak. They simply began working together, but Huwija seems to have been key. The Sunni Hirak was always an insurgent front, whereas the Ramadi groups were fronts for political and tribal actors. Once the two Ramadi groups began moving toward insurgency after Huwija, the coincidence of their political ideologies made cooperation natural.

A New Governor, and a Reprieve

Despite deteriorating security conditions brought on by the increasing lethality of attacks by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, an al-Qaeda offshoot which had become an independent organization, Iraq avoided a full-blown insurgency in April-May when cool heads prevailed despite tensions. Provincial elections had been postponed in both Anbar and Ninawa for “security reasons,” but went forward on June 20.

The delay probably helped factions favoring closer cooperation with Baghdad. Mutahidun won eight of 29 seats in Anbar, enough for a plurality but a rather weak one considering that the Anbar Mutahidun included the Islamic Party and Rafia al-Isawi and his Fallujah base and was the only bloc running associated with the protests. Overall, blocs favoring an autonomous region won about half the seats, and those opposing the other half. The vote may not have been an accurate poll of public opinion given that many hard-core pro-insurgency Anbaris would not have voted. But still it was an underwhelming result given the protesters’ claim to represent the entire province.

The post-election wrangling was tougher than Mutahidun expected, but still it was able to elect a protest organizer it trusted, Ahmad Khalaf al-Dhiyabi. (Immediately after taking office, he dropped “al-Dhiyabi,” his tribal name, and began going by “al-Dulaymi,” the province’s tribal confederation.) Ahmad Khalaf bested the incumbent governor, Qasim al-Fahdawi, who was closer to Maliki, but among the protester-supported candidates he was the moderate. Protest leaders advocated Mutahidun nominate Zaydan al-Jabiri,64 a prominent tribal leader known for his hardline rhetoric. Jabiri would go on to become a key figure in the insurgency in 2014.

No sooner had Governor Dulaymi been sworn in that he began looking for a way to reconcile with Maliki. Part of what motivated him was self-preservation—after his election on July 31, Maliki unveiled an arrest warrant, declaring that he was one of the protest leaders implicated in the April 27 killings.65 But on October 7 Dulaymi visited Baghdad and met with Maliki, supposedly to talk about protester demands.66 Then he stopped criticizing Maliki and the arrest warrant went away. The governor explained in an interview that day with al-Arabiya that it had just been a “misunderstanding,” and there had never been a valid arrest warrant anyway.67

Another protest leader whose anti-Maliki fire had died out was Ahmad Abu Risha. And the reason appears to be the same as that for the governor. Even before his nephew Muhammad Khamis began talking about Persian dogs and forming a militia, Babil Province’s Counterterrorism Investigative Office told the media in March that terrorists from the al-Qaeda-linked Fatah al-Mubin Battalion had “confessed” receiving support from both Abu Risha and Ali Hatem.68 Since then Abu Risha had gone silent, even during the midst of the Huwija uproar. By July media reports began appearing about his reconciliation with Maliki,69 although it would be December before he openly flipped. And so the evidence tying Abu Risha to terrorism went away, but Ali Hatem kept course.

It was in this context in August that the clerical establishment executed what was essentially a “soft coup” in the protest movement, with the Iraqi Ulema Council and its pointman, Shaykh Hamdun, at the head. Hamdun organized a conference in Ramadi August 3-4, which featured both clerical leaders and what remained of protest leaders tied to the political process. Hamdun both opened the conference and gave the final statement, with political and tribal figures—including Ahmad al-Alwani and Muhammad Khamis Abu Risha—playing a supporting role.70

The purpose of the conference, as Hamdun explained it, was to reorganize the protest movement and emphasize the Hirak—meaning the cleric-led movement—as “the sole legal and political representatives of Iraqi Sunnis.” Explaining disingenuously that the movement had “lacked organization,” Hamdun announced there would be a new structure in each province, organized with groups for clerics, tribes, youth and academics and with “crisis cells” and centralized committees. This was disingenuous because the Ramadi site and others were quite well-organized before. They were just organized under someone other than Hamdun. The intention to subordinate political actors, whether Speaker Nujayfi or Governor Dulaymi, was unmistakable.

By September the protest movement was clearly struggling. Attendance at events had peaked early, began to decline, peaked again after Huwija, but then began to decline again. Some leading protest sites, those controlled by the JRTN’s protest front, were empty, and Free Iraq Intifada social media was now simply posting news reports about attacks on the Iraqi army. In Anbar the governor they elected, Ahmad Khalaf al-Dulaymi, had betrayed them. And the Mutahidun itself was strained, with Abu Risha out of the picture and its leader, Speaker Osama al-Nujayfi, seemingly more focused on whether he would be Iraq’s next president than anything else. Nujayfi even made a trip to Tehran in mid-September in what was widely viewed—and attacked among Sunnis—as being a kind of campaign swing for the post. Adding insult to injury, Nujayfi attended a memorial service in Iran for the mother of Iran’s infamous special operations head, Qasim Sulaymani, and then gave a very Iran-friendly interview on al-Sharqiya when he returned.71

On November 25, Governor Dulaymi led a delegation to Baghdad to meet with Maliki, reaching a deal which would help lead to the outbreak of full insurgency a month later. Although Dulaymi and Provincial Council Chairman Sabah al-Halbusi presented the meeting as focusing on “the demands of the protesters,” it appears in fact to have been a quid pro quo under which provincial authorities agreed to support closure of the “Pride and Dignity” protest site, which at this point remained the symbolic center of the nationwide Sunni protest movement, in exchange for concessions from Maliki which mainly benefited Anbar officials.

According to news reports following the meeting, the deal included some economic elements, including projects for an oil refinery, an airport, and irrigation. Such projects might have benefited residents in general beyond the opportunities for patronage which normally attend them, but the protests were not about economics. More crucially for the governor, Maliki reportedly agreed to allow Dulaymi to replace both Anbar’s police chief and counterterror chief, to augment police personnel under Dulaymi’s command, and even give Dulaymi some say regarding activities of the army commands in Anbar. Given Maliki’s highly centralized style, these concessions were highly unusual, especially in dealing with a Sunni governor.

As Dulaymi moved to fulfill his part of the deal, meeting with tribal leaders to try to persuade them to go along with closing the Ramadi sit-in, it immediately escalated tensions between him and what was now an accelerating push for insurgency. On December 6, the Friday sermon at the Ramadi site by Shaykh Mustapha Ghalib called for the immediate formation of “popular committees from our heroic youth to defend our honor and our land,”72 or as everyone understood it, a nationwide Sunni militia. This and the assassination of Khalid al-Jumayli, a leading organizer, his killing blamed on Shia militias, created an internal crisis. Abd al-Razzaq al-Shamari, the leading remaining member of the original protest leadership for whom there was not an arrest warrant, issued a clarification, saying that Ghalib’s statement represented the tribes, but that protest leaders were still “studying the issue” of the formation of an army.73

Despite months of threats, it appears that by this point of all the original protest organizations, only the JRTN’s protest front, which was never a real protest movement to begin with, had fully joined the insurgency. The “1920s Revolution Brigades,” the armed wing of Harith al-Dhari’s MSA, was nominally active, but they don’t appear to have been engaged in any serious military operations in 2013. They had only been active at the sidelines of the protest movement, mainly using daily broadcasts from their al-Rafidayn television to incite anger toward the government and lay the groundwork for insurgency.

Yet Maliki was determined to force the issue, and despite the failure of the governor and other officials to persuade Anbar tribal leaders to support a shut-down of the Ramadi “Pride & Dignity Square,” he indicated in a December 22 speech following the loss of a senior commander in an operation that he planned to shut it down. On December 25, Maliki gave a now famous Christmas Day speech declaring the Ramadi site to be “an al-Qaeda headquarters.” Early in the morning on December 28, security forces arrested parliamentarian Ahmad al-Alwani, the Islamic Party leader who headed one of the two main Ramadi protest groups (the “Coordination Committee”). The forces killed al-Alwani’s brother and sister. The government claimed Alwani’s guards resisted a warrant for his brother’s arrest, while the Alwani family claimed they were executed in cold blood. Later that evening, the government ran a propagandistic “confessions” video on state television which claimed that Muhammad Khamis Abu Risha, who headed the other main Ramadi protest group, was an “emir” of the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.74

An undeclared state of martial law also went into effect in Ramadi the same day, with roads blocks imposing a curfew and cell phone communication shut down. Hamdun and other protest leaders issued a press statement on December 29 to say these actions showed that the government was determined to stir conflict but the Hirak urged “reasonable minds” to find a peaceful solution.75 But Maliki was determined. On December 30, security forces bulldozed the “Pride & Dignity” encampment. The same day insurgents launched an all-out assault on federal security forces as the call went out to challenge the curfew. Sunni parties threatened to withdraw from the political process if Maliki did not pull back the army from Anbar’s cities, thus throwing the country into insurgency. When Maliki did so, both jihadist and nationalist insurgents took over, seizing control of Fallujah and parts of other cities. At that point it was too late and Iraq’s second Sunni insurgency had arrived.

It may be debatable whether this new insurgency was inevitable. Despite talk of negotiations at various points throughout the year, there does not appear to have ever been any arms-length talks. Maliki’s tactic with Sunni leaders was to always co-opt some of them, either through legal threat or patronage, and then engage in “negotiations” with those compromised individuals. Nonetheless, even had the government been run in a more sensible manner, there is no reason to believe it could have satisfied Sunni protest leaders, as no elected Shia leader would ever have agreed to a Sunni region with its own army funded by the national budget.

What might have worked would have been unilateral government concessions on issues such as legal justice reform, prison conditions, and de-Baathication. Even talk of de-Baathification reform prior to the April provincial elections brought Maliki criticism from his Shia rivals, and protest leaders would not likely have repaid moderate concessions with gratitude. But such reforms, justifiable on their own terms, might have fatally undermined Sunni public support for a protest movement struggling with attendance by mid-year anyway. And Hamdun’s December 29 call for peace, despite his previous threats, suggested no pre-determined plan for insurgency. Yet Maliki had his eyes on national elections four months away, and Hamdun would soon head to Kurdistan to support the newborn insurgency out of the reach of Maliki’s arrest warrants.

The Second Insurgency in Full Bloom

Following the collapse of security in Anbar, most international media attention understandably focused on the arrival of the jihadist ISIS in Ramadi and Fallujah, dramatically advertised by their parades of men in black with guns riding through the streets in pick-up trucks.76 Although ISIS quickly found it difficult to maintain a settled presence in Ramadi, at most contesting government control in neighborhoods such as Malaab and al-Bu Farraj, it quickly established itself as the strongest group in Fallujah. There it periodically demonstrated his preeminence by parading its black flag.77

Yet alongside the jihadists a series of “military councils” sprang up, claiming to be “tribal revolutionaries.” The names of the groups differed and in many cases claimed to be the local “military council” of a given city or district. Many of these groups were solely fronts for the JRTN. None of them directly claimed to be JRTN or used the term “Baath,” but those groups who were first announced on JRTN-linked social media—and by no other—and use their rhetorical style may be assumed to be either fronts or tied in some way. Numerous groups like this appeared after the beginning of the year in Anbar and in scattered locations throughout the country.78

A typical example would be a video published by the FII’s YouTube account called the “Military Council of Tribal Revolutionaries in Karma,”79 an east Anbar town near Fallujah. The men were masked but wore various types of quasi-military clothing. They claimed to be former regime army officers. They made a reference to “Qadisiya,” the name of an early Islamic battle which the Baath took to rename the Shia province of Diwaniya. The group claimed to have responsibility for the area between Abu Ghrayb and Fallujah and enjoined other “revolutionary” groups to join under their wing.

JRTN’s Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the former vice-president under Saddam Hussein, made appearances only by audio, first in early January80 then again in April81 and July, after the fall of Mosul.82 Duri’s voice is weak, and he is now in his 70s. He speaks as head of the Baath Party and as the “Commander-in-Chief” of the “Higher Command for Jihad & Liberation” (HCJL), a group first established in October 2007 as an attempt to create an umbrella organization. It includes individuals who are not “card-carrying” Baathists (the name was amended to “Jihad, Liberation and National Salvation” in 2009 but Duri doesn’t use the term in statements).83 JRTN statements, including Duri’s own, typically speak as if the HCJL were leading the entire insurgency. What made Duri’s speech on Mosul notable was that he mentioned several other groups by name, including the Islamic Army, the 1920s Brigades, the Jaysh al-Mujahidun and, “above all, the Islamic State.” Then he thanked its leader (without mentioning his name), Abu Bakr, for issuing a pardon to all Iraqi soldiers and police who defected from the government.

The breadth of the JRTN’s network is illustrated by two individuals heading linked organizations, Zaydan al-Jabiri, who announced the “General Political Council of Iraqi Revolutionaries” on March 4,84 and Abd al-Nasser al-Janabi, a Salafist who recently returned from exile in Qatar to be Duri’s deputy in the HCJL. Jabiri was involved with the Ramadi protests but mainly behind the scenes, and as noted, was a potential candidate for governor of Anbar last year. Although Jabiri does not openly call himself a Baathist, his group’s insignia mimics that of the JRTN, and Jabiri himself stated that Baath Party was one of the council’s main components.85 As for Janabi, he played no role in the protests and only returned from Qatar in February.86 The very fact that Duri would take a Salafist as his deputy—albeit for an umbrella group, not the Baath—says much about their ideological flexibility.

The 1920s Revolutionary Brigades, which remained largely in the shadows during the protest movement, has become more prominent. The 1920s Brigades, the armed wing of Harith al-Dhari’s MSA, appears to be working in close conjunction with the JRTN.87 The MSA even issued a public letter of guidance in January to the “General Military Council of Iraq,”88 which appears to be a joint project of the two. (This should not be confused with Fallujah’s well-known “military council” headed by the Salafist cleric Abdullah al-Janabi, which included these groups and others, but is now largely defunct due to a conflict with IS which IS has gradually won.89)

Ali Hatem Sulayman has also returned to the fore, having spent most of the latter half of 2013 in the shadows. He now heads a group called the Anbar Tribes Military Council (ATRC). While he normally appears in media alone and often simply speaks as an individual, on January 13 his group held a rare press conference in Ramadi to declare their revolt to be solely in self-defense to protest Sunni rights.90 Ali Hatem makes frequent appearances on both Iraqi and pan-Arab television, and is probably the most widely interviewed insurgent leader. Yet it is not all clear what if any fighting forces his group commands. Unlike with Duri’s JRTN or Dhari’s MSA, there are no armed groups with identifiable ties to Hatem that undertake combat operations. Moreover, his many appearances are rambling repetitions of the same catch-phrases with no detailed explanation of how insurgents might achieve their goals. In a July 23 interview with al-Arabiya, for example, Ali Hatem admitted that there were jihadist foreign fighters and insisted that he and his allies rejected the Islamic State’s expulsion of Christians from Mosul. But then he went on to talk about Shia militias without explaining how he could be taken seriously when the Islamic State seems so much more powerful than whatever forces, if any, he actually controls.91

Muhammad Taha Hamdun has now relocated to Kurdistan, as have other key clerical leaders, and is doing interviews openly from Irbil in the name of the insurgency. He regularly appears on mainstream Sunni television channels, including Baghdad TV, a channel aligned with the Mutahidun and owned by the Islamic Party, to which the recently elected new speaker, Salim al-Jiburi of Diyala, belongs. Like Ali Hatem he frequently speaks as if he were the spokesman for the entire insurgency. Unlike Hatem, he has a recognizable organization behind him. In a June 16 interview from Irbil, shortly after the jihadist-led offensive that took Mosul, Hamdun spoke of “the revolutionaries” taking Mosul and Telafar, referring to the Islamic State as “imaginary.”92

A point of continuity between the protest movement and the insurgency is the complex relationship between Hamdun’s organization and now-former speaker Nujayfi’s. When appearing on a recent program on Baghdad TV, the presenter asked Hamdun a loaded question as to why Sunnis hadn’t rallied around their leaders, meaning Nujayfi. Hamdun responded that Sunnis were rallying around their leaders, and then began to list who those leaders were—the Iraqi Ulema Council (for which Hamdun’s Hirak is a front), other senior clerical leaders, Harith al-Dhari and other “groups that fought the occupier.”93 Even now the clerics are determined to bring the politicians to heel.

Nujayfi himself has moved rhetorically closer to the insurgency as Sunni Iraq has radicalized under his feet. He tried to woo Shia support for a shot at the presidency last fall. But after the insurgency began he swung the other way, running Mutahidun’s electoral campaign for the April 30 parliament elections on a platform that accused the Shia-led government of waging war against Sunnis. He even claimed in a party conference in March that Maliki’s reelection would lead to “genocide” against Sunni Arabs.94

This language put him firmly in line with the language used by insurgent leaders. Following the fall of Mosul—and his own family estate in Ninawa—to their control, Nujayfi became more explicit about his relationship to the nationalist insurgency. In an interview on July 13, three days after Mosul’s fall, Nujayfi declared the Islamic State to be the enemy, but also described nationalist insurgents as “having a just cause” resulting from the government’s failure to meet the demands of peaceful Sunni protests.95 Nujayfi has repeated this theme subsequently, including in an interview with Sky News on July 2.96 So has his brother, Ninawa Governor Uthil al-Nujayfi, who since the fall of Ninawa has spoken openly for the first time of the JRTN as a partner. In a July 13 interview with the mainstream television channel al-Sumaria, he even implied he might resign as governor as part of a deal with the insurgents.97 What is most baffling is why Nujayfi has convinced himself that any elected Shia leader would fund a government run by Saddam Hussein’s former deputy.

On July 16, insurgent political forces were for the first time able to hold an open conference in Amman, Jordan entitled, “Conference of Iraqi Revolutionary Forces.” The conference was held under the auspices of the Amman-based Shaykh Saadi, who since issuing a fatwa endorsing the insurgency after the December 30 Ramadi raid had largely remained behind the scenes. The conference’s concluding statement was vague, avoided the autonomous region issue, and in defense to Jordanian authorities, did not even make a direct reference to Maliki. The façade of unity was marred by some high-profile non-attenders, including Ali Hatem, and by an interview by the Sunni Hirak’s Faruq al-Thufayri, who sat behind the speaker as the final statement was read but gave an interview afterward attacking other participants. According to Thufayri, the statement’s failure to mention “Sunnis” by name was because the JRTN and the MSA wanted to present the movement as non-sectarian. The JRTN, Thufayri asserted, had a few token Shia members who meant nothing, and the MSA was a Sunni organization so, he said, it should just admit being so.98

Interestingly, the Baath Party attended in its own capacity, and associated groups attended at the same time. In statements after the conference, which might spoil Nujayfi’s plan and perhaps embarrass the Jordanian government, Janabi made statements endorsing the role of the Islamic State.99 Despite clear tensions, the jihadist-nationalist insurgent alliance may not be broken so easily.


The Second Sunni Insurgency was not easy to start. Following the defeat of the first insurgency in 2007-2008, it took the remnants of that conflict years to recompose themselves. Then it also took an extensive period of provocation on behalf of those groups determined to start a new war. But that alone was not enough; it took years of abuses and a handful of egregiously bad decisions at the highest political levels in Baghdad to give the insurgency the boost it needed to ensure it had take-off speed. Yet now, combined with a rejuvenated jihadist movement in the form of the Islamic State, safe in its base in eastern Syria, it has “liberated” much of the country and brought the wages of years of bad governance to Baghdad.

We may expect Sunni Iraqis will suffer enormously from not only the violence but the economic collapse slowly descending on their areas as the federal government stops paying salaries to territories lost. Yet Sunni insurgents, in particular the jihadist and Baathist elements among them, have received a huge boost. The JRTN in particular has proven especially adept the past 18 months in harnessing the evolving environment from protest to insurgency to its advantage. It may be hoping that the jihadists, who are taking the brunt of the fighting with security forces, will wear themselves thin, allowing the Baath and its allies to fill the void.

Whether more mainstream groups will gain anything from the conflict is more doubtful. The clerics may be taking center stage in Sunni media, but there is no reason to believe they will secure their ambition of a Sunni autonomous region. Similarly, the Nujayfis and their political bloc, who seek the same end, are in a much weakened position following their loss of seats in the election followed by their loss of their own home to the insurgents. While the Nujayfi brothers seem to put much stock in their ability to work with the JRTN and other nationalist insurgents, if anything it seems that the JRTN is exploiting them to gain political legitimacy.

A question of greater importance for the country and the region as a whole is the relationship between the nationalist insurgency and the jihadist Islamic State. There have been scattered reports of clashes between IS fighters and other insurgents, but broadly they have cooperated operationally and avoided confrontation in public. In areas in which IS becomes strong enough to begin demanding loyalty oaths, as it has in Syria, the greatest potential for anti-jihadist Sunni rebellion exists. But as long as the government continues to rely on Shia militias to the extent that it is now, it will be hard for such a reaction to gain momentum.

Ultimately whatever happens on the ground, Shia Islamists dominate the government, have a huge demographic and material advantage, and control the bulk of Iraq’s resource wealth. A movement based on Sunni identity and empowerment has only isolated Sunnis thus far. There is every reason to think that will continue to be the case.