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February 15, 2008

Surge Exposing Iraqi Political Tensions

by Ali Gharib

Despite assertions by the George W. Bush Administration that the escalation strategy in Iraq – known as the "surge" – has been a rousing success, many of the problems of pre-surge Iraq still exist and, along with new issues, are exacerbating a tenuous political situation there.

With the five-year anniversary of the US-led invasion looming, two Washington think-tanks released reports today on the subject of increasing multilateral sectarian tensions in Iraq.

"The conventional wisdom among most conservatives and Washington policy elites is that the surge has 'worked'," starts the Center for American Progress report, titled "Awakening to the New Danger in Iraq." "This conventional wisdom ignores the fact that the fundamental objectives of the surge – to create a more sustainable security framework for Iraq and advance Iraq's political transition – have not been met," according to the report.

The surge period has, in fact, quelled violence across Iraq to some degree, but critics argue that the drop in violent attacks has less to do with the increased number of US troops and more to do with the newfound cooperation of Sunni groups who used to align themselves with the violent insurgency.

"Rather than facilitating reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis," said Brian Katulis, lead author of the Center for American Progress report, "the main concern we raise in the paper is that these efforts are undermining the overall effort of getting to a political reconciliation among Iraq's leaders."

"I think that there's a very real risk that one aspect of the surge – supporting these Sunni militias – could amount to a US policy of supporting different sides in an Iraqi civil war," Katulis said.

The so-called "Sunni Awakening" (or Sahwa), saw Sunni militias – both rural tribal groups and more urban neighborhood militias – cease their attacks on Americans and the central Iraqi government in favor of working to diminish the influence of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

Numbering over 73,000 soldiers, these militias – about ninety percent of whose ranks are paid 300 dollars a month by US forces – have little central structure save a loosely federated group of tribes called the Anbar Awakening in the troubled Iraqi province of the same name.

Having lessened some of the violence, the groups are now clamoring for the further political involvement that their new US allies promised them. But at least in Anbar, they expect these political gains to come at the expense of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, which participated in the last round of elections in 2005.

The Awakening groups had expected that provincial elections would be held in the spring. When the central government announced elections for the fall, the Anbar Awakening groups angrily said that the current officials had thirty days to give up their seats or the groups would take up arms against them.

But even with the political empowerment of the Awakening groups, some critics of the "surge" strategy fear that the tensions being exposed between the Sunni groups are likely to work against the goal of political reconciliation.

"It's really a long-shot strategy," said Ilan Goldenberg, policy director of the National Security Network. "And there's a real danger associated with it. It's a low probability of at least trying to bring some of these guys in. But I think the much higher probability is that when you introduce a competitive electoral process into this type of situation, things tend to go worse not better."

The National Security Network also released a report today – titled "Sunni Infighting Threatens Iraqi Stability" – which criticized the overall "surge" strategy with regard to the Awakening. The report cites recent violence and the possibility of further impending turmoil.

"America's 'Awakening Strategy' in Western and Central Iraq," said the National Security Network report, "rests atop a complex and unresolved set of conflicts. A policy that focuses on temporarily reducing violence while not addressing the underlying political crisis is risky and unstable."

One of the goals of political empowerment for the Awakening movement is to gain control of Iraqi central government resources flowing into various provinces, in addition to the vast amounts of US material support they are already receiving.

The groups claim that the Shia-led national government has been too slow to incorporate the militia members and leadership into Iraqi police jobs – often blaming Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki by name.

The groups claim that the Shia dominated Iraqi security forces are abusive in their territories in a way that they are not in rural and urban Shia territories, and hope to replace them and police their own turf. The power-struggle has already yielded several minor but deadly spats.

"[The US] efforts in a sense have helped make the process of achieving a sustainable political agreement among Iraq's political factions much more difficult by heightening tensions between Iraqi security forces and these independent militias," said Katulis.

"Sahwa leaders calculate that the prospect of Iraq sliding further into chaos if they dissolve or turn back to insurgency will force Maliki to accept them," said the National Security Network report.

This approach of threatening violence – or at least ceasing to help abate it – has done little to endear the Awakening movements to either the Sunni parties they hope to replace, or Shia parties controlling the government in Baghdad.

All of this – concluded both reports – continues to show that despite the Bush Administration's trumpeting of the successes of the "surge" strategy, the strategy could actually be causing the very tensions it hopes to subdue to boil beneath the surface. In a worst-case scenario, these sectarian differences could explode into a civil war.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.

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