Exclusive: The Sunni tribe that survived a two-year Islamic State siege in Iraq

When ISIS demanded al-Jughayfa’s surrender, the sheikh replied: "We’ll fight to the death."

AL-JUGHAYA tribal members pause for a group photo while fighting ISIS under siege. (photo credit: Courtesy)
AL-JUGHAYA tribal members pause for a group photo while fighting ISIS under siege.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
ISIS swept through Iraq in June 2014, captured Mosul and days later was in Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and Baiji, a major oil-refining town on the Tigris river.
Then its fighters, outfitted with Humvees they had captured from the fleeing Iraqi Army, swept 150 kilometers to the southwest to the gates of Haditha, a town of 25,000.
The extremists called a local and powerful sheikh of the Jughayfa tribe and demanded he surrender. They offered him money. The sheikh responded with an Arabic insult “taksha wa takeb,” in the local dialect meaning something like “screw off.” The sheikh said they’d “fight until we win or die here in Haditha.”
When the siege of Haditha was broken in May 2016, the Jughayfa tribe and its allies had resisted ISIS for almost two years. They were battle-hardened and ruthless. Brett McGurk, the US special envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, tweeted that ISIS had said the Jughayfa would be wiped out. “Not quite. ISIS terrorists impaled themselves.”
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, a member of the tribe who fought ISIS describes why the tribe chose to fight and the issues facing Iraq today. He even thinks it’s time for Arabs to be friends with Israel. To protect his identity he goes by the name Ahmed al-Hadithi.
The Jughayfa are a tribe located in Anbar province, Iraq’s largest, which contains 138,000 sq. km. of mostly desert in the west of the country.
According to al-Hadithi, there are more than 300,000 members of the tribe, with some living far away in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia; Al-Bukamal across the border in Syria; and in Mosul.
The tribe has sub units with their own powerful local sheikhs.
“The tribe had little to do with Saddam Hussein’s government or political matters [before 2003] and lived by fishing, hunting, raising cattle and shepherding,” says al-Hadithi.
However, after the US invasion in 2003, the Jughayfa decided to work with the new regime in Baghdad and they became deeply opposed to the terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida, that were operating throughout Sunni areas.
Al-Hadithi gives a long list of terrorist groups the tribe had to contend with, including Ansar al-Sunnah, Jaish Muhammad, Kata’eb Thorat al-Ashrin and Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. These groups had entered the vacuum created by the post-Saddam chaos. Alongside other tribes, such as the Albu Nimr, the tribe joined the al-Sahwah or Awakening movement in 2006 and partnered with US forces hunting the extremists.
“When the US took Haditha, they established a forward operating base here and supported us to capture and kill terrorists. We took 16 villages around Haditha, including positions held by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [a wanted terrorist].”
Haditha is a strategic town. Around 200 kilometers northwest of Baghdad, it is the third-largest town in Anbar province and located next to Iraq’s second-largest dam, the Haditha. It is also about 20 km. from the massive Ayn al-Asad Air Base, which was a center of US operations after 2003.
When ISIS swept toward Haditha in the summer of 2014 and the sheikhs refused to surrender, the source recalls seeing the Iraqi Army fleeing toward Asad Air Base.
“We stopped them gave them two options, one is to give all their vehicles and weapons and go, and the second is to stand as men and fight alongside us. They picked the second option.”
In the view of al-Hadithi, ISIS’s main core of support in Iraq came from terrorists released in 2012 by corrupt Iraqi politicians close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They joined forces across the border with extremists, who were actually fighting the Sunni-led rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad and undermined the rebellion in Syria.
“The Turkish government allowed ISIS fighters to move through Turkey, believing these fighters were helping the revolutionaries take down the Assad regime,” he says.
But they weren’t, a fact Turkey realized only later.
In this complex arrangement, ISIS was able to draw on tens of thousands of foreign fighters, undermine the rebellion against Assad and spread into Iraq, where it captured masses of equipment from the Iraqi Army.
“In Mosul, they captured banks full of salaries for government employees,” says al-Hadithi, who asserts that many ISIS supporters had fond memories of Hussein.
“Everyone remembers pictures of Saddam on the Humvees of ISIS in Mosul, and Ba’ath Party posters on bridges in Tikrit. They said they were coming in the name of Saddam to remove Maliki, not as jihadists.”
The source claims that ISIS deceived local people by naming their local offices as Majlis Askaria, or “military councils” and created a core of Saddam-era officers to rebuild their new ISIS military units.
“This made people think they are officers from the previous government, which made most of the Sunni join them, and they even hid their [black] ISIS flags.”
Then ISIS began killing anyone who opposed them, massacring more than 1,600 mostly Shi’a Iraqi cadets at Camp Speicher in June of 2014, recording it in bloody videos.
They killed members of the Nimr tribe who resisted.
“For us, al-Jughayfa tribe, we were collecting intelligence on al-Qaida members because we had sources and intel about terrorists who had met six months before Mosul fell.”
He says the tribe realized the connections between the former al-Qaida they had been fighting and ISIS.
“Why should we join a group of terrorist killers?” In the fall of 2014, ISIS continually pressed its offensive against Haditha and Asad Air Base, which became the tribe’s only lifeline to the outside world. In February, ISIS closed in on the air base and in May it captured Ramadi. But the Jughayfa held on.
On social media, tribal members put up the logo of the local comic book Punisher with two AK-47s above it. There would be no quarter given to ISIS.
“The Iraqi central government did not support us with one rifle. We bought our own ammunition and guns from the black markets and recovered many heavy weapons from ISIS’s failed attacks,” al-Hadithi says.
In addition, US forces and coalition air strikes helped the tribe weaken the enemy. “It made them afraid to get closer to the city.”
Nevertheless, ISIS fighters continued to throw themselves at the tribesmen. One tribal fighter named Abu Muhammad told reporter Alia Allana that in 2014 they came in human-wave attacks, seeking “martyrdom” and charging the lines of the defenders. The battle of Haditha became a symbol of resistance to ISIS and has shown that there are many Sunnis willing to fight and oppose the extremists.
But al-Hadithi thinks ISIS will not be defeated easily in the coming months, because the Iraqi Army continues to employ “bad officers and corrupt officers.” He says there are cases where local police were bribed to delete the names of wanted ISIS members, and that in Falluja security forces found payments to one ISIS member while his brother sits on a local council in Anbar.
As Sunnis in Anbar, tribes like Jughayfa that lost so much fighting ISIS do not see themselves receiving political benefits for their sacrifice.
The source says they should receive support from foreign countries to encourage them to keep fighting terrorism and extremism.
The Iraqi Army doesn’t want local Sunni tribal forces becoming too strong. “Neither the Western countries [in the anti-ISIS coalition] nor the Iraqi government listen to our needs.”
He argues that the influence of Iranian-backed Shi’a militias in the war against ISIS is merely the “other face of terrorism.” This has drawn the Jughayfa closer to the Kurdish forces that have been fighting ISIS.
“I will be happy for them to announce themselves as an independent country, and 10 years from now we will see a strong country, which is good for them,” he says.
Hadithi also thinks other minority groups such as Yazidis and Christians will never be safe in Iraq from terrorists such as ISIS or al-Qaida and should create their own militias and armies to fight and defend themselves.
In his most controversial statement, Hadithi says the US might be more safe with Donald Trump and that Western countries should be wary of extremists among Muslim immigrants.
Asked if accusations that Trump is anti-Muslim don’t bother, him he is adamant: “America gave [the lives] of 5,000 soldiers in Iraq and because of stupidity of the [administration of US President Barack] Obama they pull out from Iraq. In Arab culture if someone is killed, someone else should take revenge for them.”
He implies that Trump’s policies would lead to less chaos and intervention while backing up US words with actions. He argues that the West needs to take seriously the need to support armed groups that will hunt down and kill terrorists.
When it comes to Israel’s role in the region, he sees a country with strong technology and says many are afraid of Israel’s power.
“They [Israelis] have a right to raise the Israeli flag because they made that land the most beautiful in the Middle East,” he says, recalling stories his father told him about a Jewish trader who lived in Haditha in the 1970s and sold rice. “Hopefully, we will have them back like in the past when we used to live together as friends and partners.”
Today, Haditha’s siege has been lifted. The blue waters above the dam are calm, and the road to Baghdad is open. The tribal fighters continue to oppose ISIS, as Iraq’s army sets its sights on Mosul.
However, for those tribal members who fought for two years, the uncertainty over the future of Iraq and their role in it remains.