Is Iraq about to blow up again?

The Sunni awakening brought a fragile peace, but frustration is starting to boil over

Few things are more emblematic of the gap between mere progress and success in Iraq than the gateway to Falluja. The progress lies in the fact that it is a gateway now, and not the insurmountable barrier it was even just a year ago when Falluja, the most populous city in the mostly Sunni Muslim western province of Anbar, was synonymous with a failing war. It was here in the spring of 2004, 60 km west of the capital Baghdad, that four U.S. civilian contract workers were killed after their convoy was ambushed. Charred remains were hanged from the trellises of a bridge while locals danced and clapped. Today, even the mention of that gruesome incident makes most residents cringe. It’s not like that anymore, they say, lowering their eyes. The people who did that are all gone.

But underscoring how fragile progress can be is the fact that the gateway still exists at all. To make sure militants like the ones who murdered the foreign workers remain gone, the entrance to what remains one of Iraq’s deadliest places is still an imposing array of blast walls, razor wire, checkpoints and military hardware. No one gets in without first being checked and grilled about their purpose. Buses and taxis must drop off passengers outside the complex. They then walk, through metal detectors and body searches, past signs that read, “You are entering a military installation. Wait for instructions.” “No photographs.” “Deadly force authorized.”

If the U.S. had a border with Iran, this is what it might look like. But unlike Iran, Falluja is not supposed to be enemy territory anymore. Nearly two years ago, the Sunni tribesmen who had been fighting the U.S. occupation of Iraq realized that they were wedged between two equally distasteful adversaries. On the one side were the invading Americans, who had deposed their beloved leader Saddam Hussein and transformed their life of privilege and comfort into one of suffering and uncertainty. On the other side were small bands of foreign fighters from places like Syria and Saudi Arabia, working under the umbrella jihadi movement al-Qaeda in Iraq. They had come to wage holy war on the U.S.-led coalition, which for the Sunni tribesmen was welcome—at first.

But along with those jihadis came an ideology Iraqis were unfamiliar with—a militant, puritanical brand of Islam that the foreigners imposed on their hosts with unbending fervour. Believing wholeheartedly that they were on a mission from God, these radicals killed and maimed indiscriminantly, flouted tribal laws and customs, and ultimately angered enough powerful tribes to find themselves on the wrong side of numerous blood feuds. Thus arose the Sahwa—Arabic for “Awakening”—Councils in late 2006, a coalition of Sunni tribes that, according to Yousef Sachit Awad, a Sahwa leader in Falluja, chose to “rise up politically” in Iraq and counter the violent track that al-Qaeda in Iraq had led them on. Their revolt was what the U.S. had been waiting for, and in some cases actively pursuing, offering to employ the tribesmen as unofficial security forces in Sunni-dominated areas, and paying each former insurgent at least US$300 per month to keep the peace. The Sahwa, say most people on the ground in Iraq, including U.S. military commanders, have transformed Falluja.

For Sahwa leaders, there was no other choice. “It was fine when the foreigners were fighting the Americans,” says Awad. “Then they started fighting the tribes. They started wars between the tribes.” Sunni leaders were forced to pick a side—and they chose the Americans.

That alliance, as unlikely as it seems, has survived despite the odds. And with the relative calm, on Sept. 1 the U.S. handed over security of Anbar province to the Iraqis. Anbar, with its capital Ramadi, 50 km west of Falluja, was al-Qaeda’s base of operations. Protected by the region’s tribes, militants had been free to carry out kidnappings, suicide attacks and bombings, tactics that caused havoc for U.S. military planners. The militants also adopted a strategy that would ultimately push Iraq to the edge of civil war—sectarian attacks against Iraq’s Shia majority.

Pulling back from the abyss has been no small feat. That accomplishment says a lot about how the insurgency in Iraq worked, and that the al-Qaeda threat was never as dire as the Bush administration had made it out to be. “There were small groups of them coming to us through Syria,” says one former Sunni insurgent, identifying himself only as Abu Zain. “They were mostly the suicide bombers and some fighters. But the resistance has always been 90 per cent Iraqi. We worked with them because we were fighting the same people.” It was a coalition of convenience, loosely bound by the weak threads of a common enemy. With that alliance shattered, the pace at which Iraq’s violence has dropped is astonishing. It happened virtually overnight.

Which reveals the Achilles heel in the current state of peace. If Iraq’s Sunni tribes have collectively decided to stop fighting, could they also collectively decide to resume? That possibility is on the minds of everyone, from the former U.S. top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, who has warned repeatedly of the “fragility” of Iraq’s relative calm, to the Sahwa militiamen themselves. “Eighty per cent of the Sahwa are former mujahedeen,” says Zaid, a 20-year-old Sahwa member in Falluja. “I fought the Americans and I will fight them again. So will many of the other fighters I know—if our demands are not met.”

What those demands are depends on who you talk to. For the average fighter, it means a job and a future. For the Sahwa leadership, it means a stronger role for Iraq’s Sunnis in the Shia-dominated government. For both, it also means an end to the occupation. None of that seems achievable in the near future. Any agreement on the U.S. presence in Iraq would keep the American military on Iraqi soil at least until the end of 2011. And it will need the approval of Iraq’s parliament; in fact, quick passage of a deal currently being negotiated is now in doubt as the main coalition of Shia parties, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, and the Islamic Dawa Party led by Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, appears to be on the verge of collapse, in part due to competing visions for the country’s future. Maliki, and the Americans, want an Iraq with a strong central government. The SIIC, whose power base is in the oil-rich south, favours decentralization—in a country that is already effectively split between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds.

For now, Sunnis have been struggling for political legitimacy in Baghdad. But while a breakdown of the Shia coalition would normally be a reason for them to celebrate, the reality remains that Shia will continue to dominate the central government—and the fragile peace brought by the Sunni awakening is now hanging in the balance. The Baghdad government’s promise to integrate 20 per cent of Iraq’s estimated 100,000 Sahwa militiamen into the security forces and government departments appears to have fallen by the wayside—even as the U.S. transferred administrative oversight, including payment, of the 54,000 Sahwa militiamen currently in Baghdad’s Sunni areas over to the Iraqi government in early October. As for Sahwa leaders getting a stronger voice in the government, the Maliki administration now seems more intent on consolidating its own power in the face of the deteriorating alliance with the SIIC—and has even been moving against elements of the Sawha leadership.

Military successes in other parts of Iraq have emboldened the country’s central government. An offensive in March and April of this year against the Mahdi Army, the armed wing of militant Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, which has aggressively fought the U.S. occupation, was touted as the Iraqi army’s first significant victory. Fierce battles in Basra and in the Mahdi-controlled Sadr City district of Baghdad reportedly crushed the Sadrists and restored government control.

Citing that victory as a sign that the Iraqi army is now ready to assume full control over Iraq’s security, Maliki has been pushing the U.S. to set a firm date for the withdrawal of American troops. Politically, the confidence now brewing in Baghdad is transforming the central government, primarily the core ruling elite close to Maliki in the Dawa party. In the past, a policy of appeasement toward regional political groups and their militias was the only way to keep the peace. Now it appears Maliki feels strong enough to attempt to spread central government control over Iraq’s provinces—with potentially destabilizing consequences.

In August, Iraqi forces moved into Khanaqin, an ethnically mixed town of Arabs, Turkmans and Kurds in the restive Diyala province bordering Iran to the east and the autonomous Kurdish region to the north. For months, Khanaqin had been under the control of the peshmerga, a Kurdish militia force that has been a key ally of the U.S. Khanaqin’s Kurdish population took to the streets, demanding that the Iraqi army, made up mostly of Arabs, leave. The standoff was only resolved following intense negotiations, after which the peshmerga were allowed to reoccupy the town.

That incident highlights the unresolved tensions between Iraq’s sectarian groups. In Falluja, the Iraqi army, considered an expanded version of the Badr Organization—the armed wing of the powerful (and Iranian-influenced) SIIC—still has not entered the city, sticking to the outskirts while local police, formerly Sahwa militiamen, run security.

During the height of Iraq’s sectarian violence in 2006, the Badr Organization was accused of running secret torture chambers, where hundreds of disappeared Sunnis were killed on the pretext of involvement with insurgent groups. The Iraqi army’s close relationship to the Badr Organization, real or imagined, makes it an unwelcome presence in Sunni-dominated areas. In Falluja specifically, and more broadly in Anbar province, it is viewed with scorn. “The Americans know it,” says one security contractor working closely with U.S. forces, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “They’ve asked the army to stay out for now. They don’t want the Maliki government upsetting the balance they’ve created. It’s precarious. It could crash at any moment.”

So despite the official handover of Anbar to Iraqi security forces, in practice this volatile province is still run by the Sahwa. Nonetheless, it appears Maliki is not about to sit idly by as the Sunnis, many of them former Saddam loyalists, consolidate their power under the umbrella protection of the U.S. Considering their numbers, they represent a potential threat to the Dawa Shias’ overarching aspirations to exert full control over Iraq.

At Falluja’s Sahwa office, Yousef Sachit Awad is paid a surprise visit by Col. Faisal Ismail Hussein, Falluja’s former police chief. Hussein was ousted from his post four months ago by Iraq’s central authorities, accused of being a member of a “terrorist” organization. His son has already been arrested by the Iraqi army and he feels that his time is also coming, though he denies he was ever part of the Sunni insurgency. “I don’t know why they are doing this,” he says, adding that he became police chief in 2006, when Falluja was still a hotbed of insurgent activity. “I brought peace to this city. I met with the sheiks and convinced them to turn against al-Qaeda. My main goal was to bring the police force closer to the Americans and I accomplished this. Now the Iraqi army hunts me like I’m a criminal.”

Hussein is not alone. Over the past few months, dozens of Sahwa leaders have been arrested; hundreds more are on a hit list distributed to Iraqi army commanders. Iraqi authorities claim that they are arresting only those members of the Sahwa who have blood on their hands. But to many observers, it looks more like a witch hunt for influential leaders, intended to weaken the movement. Some Sahwa leaders also argue, and rightly so, that if some of their fighters have killed innocent civilians, so has the government, pointing an accusatory finger at the Badr Organization and its torture chambers.

Reconciliation, however, appears to be a track Maliki is unwilling to follow as the army rounds up Sahwa members, many of whom have been preparing themselves to join Iraq’s struggling political process. In one incident in late May, three Sahwa leaders were arrested only days after they announced they would be running for provincial elections, originally scheduled for this month but now delayed until Jan. 31, 2009. That has prompted many others, like Hussein, to go into hiding, even as U.S. authorities have condemned the arrests, accusing the government of being politically motivated.

But Brig.-Gen. Nassir al-Hiti, the 38-year-old commander of the 24th Brigade, 6th Division of the Iraqi army, based out of Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib suburb, 40 km east of Falluja, scoffs at the accusation. “The Americans created the Sahwa without consulting with us,” says the man responsible for arresting Hussein’s son. “Now we have to clean up the mess. There are good guys and bad guys in the Sahwa. We’re going after the bad guys.”

As for who decides who is “bad,” Hiti points out that he has “interrogated” as many as 4,000 former insurgents and gleaned reams of intelligence from them. “These are uneducated men from poor families,” he says. “They fought for money, not for an ideology, so it is easy to get information from them. And they are terrible soldiers; one of my men could take out 10 of them.” Pointing again to the victory over the Mahdi Army in Basra and Sadr City, Hiti claims that no militia can stand up to the Iraqi army anymore. He suggests the Kurdish peshmerga, arguably the best organized and well-equipped militia in Iraq, should “go back north or face the consequences.”

Tough talk like this is not making the Iraqi army any friends among its rival sectarian militias. It’s also questionable whether the relatively untested Iraqi forces are up to the task of taking on a well-organized militia like the peshmerga or even the Sahwa without American support. The victory over the Mahdi is a poor measure of their readiness: it came only after the offensive suffered early losses, forcing the Americans to intervene, and against an emaciated enemy. Muqtada al-Sadr, who had ordered a unilateral ceasefire in August 2007, seven months prior to the Maliki-ordered spring offensive, never gave the order for his militia to resume an all-out battle, letting rogue elements within the Mahdi movement do the bulk of the fighting. The reasons for his restraint vary—perhaps his Iranian backers held him back. Over the past year, Sadr’s movement has softened its approach to Iraq’s occupation, some suggest at the behest of Iran, transforming itself into an Iraqi version of the Lebanese Hezbollah with a focus on social programs and what Sadrists describe as their own kind of “awakening”: a program of religious education. Like Hezbollah, the Sadrists now claim that they will only keep a core group of highly trained soldiers who will defend Iraqis against “American aggression.” Some observers also argue that by letting uncontrollable fighters die in a hopeless fight while holding back his hard-core loyalists, Sadr gave himself the opportunity to cull his forces of renegade elements, leaving him with the type of men he needs to build a more effective militia.

But while it is difficult to characterize the Iraqi army’s victory over the Mahdi as a notch on any military belt, the campaign was a signal that the Maliki government is committed to confronting Iraq’s militias militarily and crushing any sectarian group that challenges the Shia-led government. Arresting Sahwa leaders is another manifestation of that strategy, as was Khanaqin and the standoff with the Kurdish peshmerga. Most military experts, including American commanders in
Iraq, admit that this policy is destined for failure. Without a political solution to Iraq’s deep sectarian divides, more conflict—and perhaps a dreaded civil war—remains a very real possibility.

But politically, Iraq is not much better off than it is militarily: the same deep divisions plague its parliament. On the Shia side are the dominant SIIC, to which Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party had aligned itself until the recent row, and the Sadrists. The Kurds also have their own bloc (Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, is a Kurd, as is the foreign minister and the chief of army staff), as do the Sunnis. None of these groups get on well with each other. The breakdown in the SIIC-Dawa alliance is only the latest step in a broader parliamentary collapse. In early June 2007, parliamentarians from the Sadrist bloc boycotted parliament after a Shia shrine in Samarra was badly damaged by Sunni extremists. Around the same time, Sunni parliamentarians from the Iraqi Accordance Front had also left parliament over the sacking of the house speaker, a Sunni. After rejoining the government in mid-July of the same year, they left again two weeks later, this time abandoning their cabinet posts to protest the Maliki government’s refusal to respond to a list of grievances, including reversing the de-Baathification program that had barred mostly Sunni leaders from the Saddam era from political participation in post-Saddam Iraq. In April 2008, Maliki complied, allowing some former Baathists to return to their posts, offering some hope that Iraq’s government could overcome its inter-sectarian mistrust.

Many observers, though, are not optimistic. “I do not consider the Iraqi Accordance Front rejoining the governing coalition as evidence of real non-sectarian leanings [in the Maliki government],” warns Michael Hanna, Iraq program officer at the Century Foundation, a public policy think tank based in New York. Maliki’s approach has been to consolidate his power in Baghdad, and then push central control out into the provinces, Hanna adds.

It is a process that could reignite anger among the Sunnis, who represent a real political and military danger. Certainly the Sahwa movement has coalesced into a powerful military and political force with the potential to challenge Maliki’s grip on power as Iraq moves toward provincial elections. “Maliki sees us a political threat,” says Awad. “He never expected us to transform into a unified political movement. It’s taken him by surprise and all of these arrests are a sign that he is panicking.”

Whether the Sahwa can stay unified remains to be seen. Unlike the Shia, who follow a branch of Islam with a tradition of loyalty to a single leader (Shia Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad’s leadership and spiritual authority were passed to his heirs, and leaders such as Muqtada al-Sadr, for example, base their legitimacy on claims that they are direct descendents of the Prophet), Sunni leadership is much less clear. Loyalty tends to be based on more prosaic, tribal structures.

Anbar’s tribes have a history of switching sides to suit their own agendas, whether on a national scale or simply regional. They propped up Saddam and allowed him to extend his rule well beyond what most people would have thought possible after the embarrassing stalemate in his war against Iran during the 1980s and the subsequent trouncing of Iraq in the first Gulf War. Those same tribes have been co-opted by the U.S. to focus their fight against al-Qaeda. Now those Sunnis want a piece of Iraq’s destiny. But in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, a power struggle between tribes is already shaping up, according to Faisal.

“It’s not like Falluja there,” he says. “There is no central police station like there is here. Every district has its own station run by a different tribe.” Politically, that makes for a complex matrix of alliances and animosities. As elections approach, whoever controls key areas like Ramadi and Falluja wields immense powers. They will be in a position to make political appointments to everything from the police force to government revenue departments. In a tribal context, that ultimately means the power to take care of your own—raising the spectre of real inter-tribal conflict.

For now, though, Sunnis are enjoying some degree of harmony and unity in an increasingly fractious Iraq. But the real test will be in the months to come, after the U.S. transfer in October of oversight of Baghdad’s Sahwa militiamen to the Iraqi government (the remaining 46,000 or so are primarily in Anbar, and will remain under the direct oversight of the Americans). What the Maliki government chooses to do with these men will likely determine whether or not the insurgency breathes new fire. Already, the signs are not promising. Arresting Sahwa leaders is clearly not conducive to building an atmosphere of trust. Nor is the unfulfilled promise of absorbing Sunni militiamen into Iraq’s existing security forces.

In Adhamiya, one of Baghdad’s key Sunni districts and at one time the site of running gun battles between U.S. forces and insurgents, the edges have begun to fray. The monuments to the past fighting are everywhere, from the bullet-riddled walls and charred remains of storefronts to the garbage-strewn streets. Much of the district remains desolate, even after a year of relative calm, as families who fled the fighting trickle back and try to rebuild their destitute lives. “Adhamiya used to be the pride of Baghdad,” says Abu Omar, a 40-year-old former insurgent now working as an administrator at a Sahwa office in Adhamiya’s al-Qaim neighbourhood. “Now look at it. It’s destroyed.”

For the Sahwa militiamen who call Adhamiya home, there is little left to do but man checkpoints and wait for the next chapter in Iraq’s ongoing saga. Looking for work in other districts is not an option: one of the by-products of Iraq’s sectarian killing fields was a partitioning of the city into tightly knit communities where familiar faces are welcomed but outsiders are regarded with suspicion, and often outright scorn.

The militiamen in Adhamiya have little faith in the Maliki government sticking to its promises. “You can follow a liar and hope eventually he will tell the truth,” says Abu Sahfa, the commander of the al-Qaim Sahwa. “Or you can turn your back on him.” For Sahfa’s men, turning their backs will not be enough. All of them say that they will return to fighting if the government abandons them.

“Maliki wants to finish us,” says Abu Ali, a 53-year-old militiaman. “I say no! We have done so much to bring peace to Iraq. Now we’re under attack from al-Qaeda. If the Iraqi army or police come here and tell us to leave, we will fight them. We are ready to continue on fighting for years.” Integrating the men into the security forces is the only solution, Ali adds, pointing out that the deep mistrust of outsiders means that the local people will not accept anyone but local men to police their area.

But according to Sahfa, the pace of the integration process is nowhere near where it needs to be. “I’ve sent 450 of my men into the police force,” he says. “But I have thousands more wondering what they will do if the Sahwa is dissolved.” The US$300 per month the militiamen receive from the Americans is barely enough to live on in Baghdad. If the Maliki government refuses to continue those payments, desperation could force many of these men back onto al-Qaeda’s payroll.

That would mean a sudden, and possibly irrevocable, end to the peace in Iraq. The danger is never very far away. Adhamiya still has al-Qaeda sympathizers, Sahfa warns, as does Anbar province. They are around, waiting in the shadows for the Sahwa to disintegrate. The current peace has presented an opportunity for Iraq’s central government to reconcile with Iraq’s sectarian groups, but Maliki’s centralizing approach is not winning him many friends. Neither is his government’s inaction on giving Sunnis a share of political power and jobs. For now, Sunnis are holding their frustration in check. But the alternative, according to Sahfa, can be summarized in one word: “Dark.”

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