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March 4, 2008

Sunni Insurgents Exploit US-Sponsored Militias


by Gareth Porter

For months, U.S. President George W. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus have been touting the program of recruiting tens of thousands of Sunnis into U.S.-financed "Awakening Councils" as a master stroke of Iraq strategy which has weakened al-Qaeda in Iraq and helps reduce sectarian conflict through "bottom-up reconciliation."

But the mainstream Sunni insurgents who have been fighting al-Qaeda appear to have outmaneuvered U.S. strategists by using Awakening Councils to pursue their interests in weakening their most immediate enemy, reducing pressures from the U.S. military, and establishing new political bases, while continuing to mount attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces.

The biggest question surrounding the strategy from the beginning was whether the Awakening Councils – "Sahwa" in Arabic – would be a haven for Sunni insurgents.

High-ranking U.S. officers issued public assurances last year that former insurgents would not be allowed to enter the program, but last month, Iraqi government officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, began raising the specter of "infiltration" of the Awakening groups by al-Qaeda or "Ba'athists." Those are terms which have often been used by Shi'ite leaders to refer to the mainstream Sunni insurgents.

The U.S. command responded by denying that they have been infiltrated systematically by either al-Qaeda or other "extremists." At a Feb. 17 press briefing, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith admitted that individual extremists may have infiltrated some units, but rejected the idea that any "complete unit" of the Awakening had gone "bad."

Nevertheless, by the end of 2007 it had become clear the Sahwa were dominated in many places by the Sunni insurgent groups, and U.S. specialists were openly acknowledging it. The 1920 Revolution Brigades, a major Sunni armed resistance organization, is the primary element in the Sahwa in Diyala province as well as in parts of Anbar province. One commander of the Brigades, Abu Marouf, brought 13,000 of his fighters into the Sahwa in Anbar. His background as an insurgent commander is well-known locally but has never been acknowledged by U.S. officials.

Meanwhile, the 1920 Revolution Brigades also continues to wage war against U.S. forces. In March 2007, it announced the creation of two separate military "corps," one of which, the "Iraqi Hamas," was clearly intended to continue military operations against the U.S. military in Diyala and other Sunni provinces.

The 1920 Revolution Brigades did not join a new "political council of the Iraqi resistance" formed in October to unify the Sunni armed organizations fighting the U.S. occupation – at least in its own name. But the Iraqi Hamas "wing" of the organization, which continues to be affiliated with the parent organization, did join the new council.

The de facto security force in Amiriya district of Baghdad is under the command of Abu Abed, a former Iraqi army captain who led a unit of another major resistance organization, the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI). He claims that the local Sahwa is drawn from both IAI and the 1920 Revolution Brigades. The IAI has distanced itself from Abu Abed, at least publicly, but that move should be understood in light of the great reluctance of Sunni armed organizations to admit that they are cooperating overtly with institutions associated with the United States.

A recent incident in which U.S. troops killed or detained members of the Sahwa during operations against insurgents suggested that the line separating the Sunni insurgents targeted by the U.S. military and the Sunnis working with the U.S. military was nonexistent.

On Feb. 13, U.S. forces carried out an attack on an insurgent target west of Kirkuk, killing six insurgents and detaining 15. But members of the local Awakening Council complained that the six people killed and some of those detained were members of the Sahwa.

One of those detained was the head of the local 700-hundred-member Sahwa and leader of the Baghzawi tribe.

Col. Martin Stanton, who is in charge of reconciliation and engagement for the Multinational Corps-Iraq, acknowledged to the New York Times last December that the Awakening Council members came from the Sunni insurgency.

He described the Sunnis who joined the U.S. paramilitary groups as having been "hammered" by both al-Qaeda and the United States. Stanton suggested that joining the Awakening groups was "probably a distasteful choice" for them, "because, after all, they viewed us as invaders, and they probably still do, but it was a survival choice and they made it."

Stanton had told investigative journalist Spencer Ackerman in November that the participants in the Awakening groups hadn't made "a fundamental break" with the insurgency.

Participation in the Sahwa appears to serve the interests of mainstream Sunni insurgent organizations at multiple levels. It has isolated al-Qaeda's "Islamic State of Iraq" (ISI) and associated jihadist groups, which in turn causes some guerrillas factions to come back to the mainstream insurgency.

It also may have reduced U.S. military pressures on the Sunni nationalist insurgents. As the lines between pro-ISI and anti-ISI Sunni insurgents have hardened during 2007, U.S. military operations have apparently focused more on ISI and the insurgents aligned with it and less on the mainstream insurgents fighting against al-Qaeda.

The U.S. command in Iraq provides no data indicating how many of its operations are directed at each of its adversaries. But Dan Gouré, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a conservative Virginia think-tank, told IPS he estimates that the U.S. military command in Iraq has been targeting ISI in 60 percent of its operations and other Sunni insurgents in 30 percent of them. The other 10 percent, he says, are focused on the Shi'ite Mahdi Army.

Insurgents are still mounting about 700 improvised explosive device (IED) attacks every month, according to the latest statistics issued by the U.S. command. Although they are not broken down by source, the vast majority are certainly carried out by the same Sunni insurgent organizations that fight al-Qaeda and have contributed tens of thousands of men to the Sahwa.

Participating in the Sahwa also gives insurgent groups a new, semi-legal political base. When the rape and murder of two Sunni women, allegedly by Shi'ite militiamen, provoked Sunni protests in Baquba against the government earlier this month, hundreds of 1920 Revolution Brigades fighters belonging to the Sahwa demonstrated to demand the dismissal of the provincial police chief. The organization's spokesman in Baquba said they would "take up arms" against the police and U.S. troops if their demands were not met, as reported by IPS Feb. 13.

One U.S. colonel with long experience in Iraq told Lt. Col. Douglas McGregor (Army ret.), a senior fellow at the Straus Military Reform Project, that the Sunni insurgents' participation in the Sahwa may be a transitory stage in a "fight, bargain, subvert, fight approach" to achieving their long-term aims, as McGregor testified before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Feb. 8.

Those aims include the complete withdrawal of U.S. occupation forces and reducing the power of a Shi'ite-dominated government they believe represents Iranian interests in Iraq.

The Sunni insurgent strategy of flooding the U.S.-sponsored paramilitary forces with their own fighters appears to make the Sunni insurgency stronger than ever. Far from being a device for "bottom up reconciliation," the Awakening Councils have added powder to the powder keg of Sunni-Shi'ite tensions.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore. Visit his blog.

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