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Posted by on Aug 22, 2008 in Places, War | 2 comments

Key Iraq Strategy in Peril?

Just as it seems that the Bush administration is on the point of signing off on that draft security agreement with the Iraqi government (WSJ), there are disturbing allegations that a cornerstone of the surge—the success of the “awakening groups”—may be on the point of collapse (McClatchy).

The New York Times writes:

The Shiite-dominated government in Iraq is driving out many leaders of Sunni citizen patrols, the groups of former insurgents who joined the American payroll and have been a major pillar in the decline in violence around the nation….

[F]ormer insurgent leaders contend that the Iraqi military is going after 650 Awakening members, many of whom have fled the once-violent area they had kept safe. While the crackdown appears to be focused on a relatively small number of leaders whom the Iraqi government considers the most dangerous, there are influential voices to dismantle the American backed movement entirely.

“The state cannot accept the Awakening,” said Sheik Jalaladeen al-Sagheer, a leading Shiite member of Parliament. “Their days are numbered.”

The government’s rising hostility toward the Awakening Councils amounts to a bet that its military, feeling increasingly strong, can provide security in former guerrilla strongholds without the support of these former Sunni fighters who once waged devastating attacks on United States and Iraqi targets. It also is occurring as Awakening members are eager to translate their influence and organization on the ground into political power. (NYT)

It was always a risky strategy, according to some. A January 2008 article at (“A Dark Side to Iraq ‘Awakening’ Groups) pointed this out.

How, when thousands are joining each month, can spies and extremists be reliably weeded out? How can the members’ loyalty be maintained, given their tribal and sectarian ties, and in many cases their insurgent pasts? And crucially, how can the movement be sustained once the U.S. turns over control to a Shiite-dominated government that has been wary of and sometimes hostile toward the groups?

Despite the successes of the movement, including the members’ ability to provide valuable intelligence and give rebuilding efforts a new chance in war-shattered communities, the U.S. military acknowledges that it is also a high-risk proposition.

It is an experiment in counterinsurgency warfare that could contain the seeds of a civil war – in which, if the worst fears come true, the United States would have helped organize some of the Sunni forces arrayed against the central government on which so many American lives and dollars have been spent. (More; emphasis added)

So…the new developments could undo the current achievements, knocking us back to Square 1 (where Square 1 = out of control sectarian violence).

The American military…contends that any significant diminution of the Awakening could result in renewed violence, jeopardizing the substantial security gains in the past year. United States commanders say that the practice, however unconventional, of paying the guerrillas has saved the lives of hundreds of American soldiers.

“If it is not handled properly, we could have a security issue,” said Brig. Gen. David Perkins, the senior military spokesman in Iraq. “You don’t want to give anybody a reason to turn back to Al Qaeda.” Many Sunni insurgents had previously been allied with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other extremist groups. (The New York Times)

This development may explain why Gen. Petraeus was extremely cautious in expressing optimism for the security agreement currently under negotiation.

We have to let go, and we’re not reluctant to do that. And the Iraqis are not reluctant to take control,” Gen. Petraeus said….

But the general added that no one is “giving each other high-fives.” Although extremist groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq and rogue Shiite militias have been weakened, he said, they could gain strength again.

“There is a measure of hope in Iraq that was not present 18 months ago,” he said. “Now, that’s just a measure of hope. It’s not a celebration.”(WSJ)

The Awakening Group members feel that the government isn’t keeping its promises. So far, it’s recruited only about 5200 of them. (NYT) According to an article in McClatchy, the Shiite-dominated government is indeed hostile to them: “”We cannot stand them, and we detained many of them recently,” said one senior Iraqi commander in Baghdad, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue. “Many of them were part of al Qaida despite the fact that many of them are helping us to fight al Qaida.””

Now Abu Marouf, one of the key players, is fleeing arrest. He said:

“Some people from the government encouraged us to fight against Al Qaeda, but it seems that now that Al Qaeda is finished they don’t want us anymore,” said Abu Marouf, who, according to American officials, was a powerful guerrilla leader in the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade west of Baghdad. “So how can you say I am not betrayed?”

After he said he discovered his name on lists of 650 names that an Iraqi Army brigade was using to arrest Awakening members west of Baghdad, Abu Marouf fled south of Falluja. His men, he said, “sacrificed and fought against Al Qaeda, and now the government wants to catch them and arrest them.” (NYT)

Col. Kurt Pinkerton, “the former American battalion commander who oversaw the Awakening program established west of Abu Ghraib last year,” considers the efforts of Abu Marouf to have been “critical” to stopping the violence. (NYT) But General Nassir says he has orders to arrest Abu Marouf. (NYT) He considers reconciliation to be impossible. He says he’d quit before he’d work with former insurgents. (NYT)

Another leader of the awakening groups, Abu Azzam, who traveled to Baghdad to meet with government officials, also expressed pessimism. He said the discussions aren’t going well.

“Our men worked hard and deserve appreciation and not punishment from the government,” he said….

“For now, everything is stopped,” he said. He also said he feared the pullout of American troops, whom he saw as restraining the Shiite government from taken even harsher action against the Awakening. “America is the only one asking us not to fight the Maliki government.”(NYT)

While Americans are insisting that the program to pay the militias continue, they seem unsure about how they can make the Iraqis do this if they decide they don’t wish to continue.

Joe Klein says: “Uh-oh.” He also says:

This, of course, was the fallacy of McCain’s “We’re winning” argument from the start: Who are “we” at this point? It’s the reason why David Petraeus has never been as sanguine as the neocons about the situation on the ground. Without true political reconciliation, the success of the Surge is, by definition, temporary and ephemeral. So now there are three possible scenarios:

–the Maliki government comes to its senses and makes a major effort to reconcile with the Sunnis.
–there is renewed ethnic cleansing of Sunnis by Shi’ites.
–the Sunnis return to the insurgency (if not to the arms of the jihadis).

Options two and three are not mutually exclusive, of course, and the smart betting in Iraq has always been on the side of pessimism. (Swampland)


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