Baghdad's misguided crackdown on the Sons of Iraq
Prime Minister Maliki's Shiite-dominated government risks security gains by taking on U.S.-backed Sunni forces.
By Shawn Brimley and Colin Kahl
August 26, 2008
There is a gathering storm on Iraq's horizon. Over the last several weeks, its central government has embarked on what appears to be an effort to arrest, drive away or otherwise intimidate tens of thousands of Sunni security volunteers -- the so-called Sons of Iraq -- whose contributions have been crucial to recent security gains. After returning from a trip to Iraq last month at the invitation of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, we are convinced that if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his advisors persist in this sectarian agenda, the country may spiral back into chaos.
Much of Iraq's dramatic security progress can be traced to a series of decisions made by Sunni tribal leaders in late 2006 to turn against Al Qaeda in Iraq and cooperate with American forces in Anbar province. These leaders, outraged by Al Qaeda's brutality against their people, approached the U.S. military with an offer it couldn't refuse: Enter into an alliance with the tribes, and they would turn their weapons against Al Qaeda rather than American troops.
Throughout 2007, U.S. commanders capitalized on this Sunni movement, the so-called Awakening, to create an expanding network of alliances with Sunni tribes and former insurgents that helped turn the tide and drive Al Qaeda in Iraq to near extinction. There are now about 100,000 armed Sons of Iraq, each paid $300 a month by U.S. forces to provide security in local neighborhoods throughout the country. In recognition of the key role the Awakening played in security improvements, President Bush met with several Sunni tribal leaders during his trip to Anbar last September, and Petraeus, who cites the program as a critical factor explaining the decline in violence, has promised to "not walk away from them."
But Iraq's predominantly Shiite central government seems intent on doing precisely that. Maliki and his advisors never really accepted the Sunni Awakening, and they remain convinced that the movement is simply a way for Sunni insurgents to buy time to restart a campaign of violence or to infiltrate the state's security apparatus. In 2007, with Iraq's government weak and its military not yet ready to take the lead in operations, the Maliki government acquiesced to the U.S.-led initiative and grudgingly agreed to integrate 20% of the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi security forces. Now, a newly confident Maliki government is edging away from this commitment.
During our trip, a common theme among U.S. military commanders, intelligence officers, diplomats and Iraqi political leaders we spoke with was the growing hubris of Maliki and his closest advisors. Recent government successes in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul seem to have convinced Maliki's inner circle that Iraq's army does not need American help as much as it used to. A newly emboldened prime minister is now moving out aggressively against his adversaries, including the Sons of Iraq.
Plans to integrate these Sunni fighters into Iraq's security forces or provide them with civilian employment have been consistently "slow rolled." While Maliki has committed to incorporate 20% of the 100,000 Sons of Iraq members under U.S. contract into Iraq's army or police forces by the end of this year, only a small fraction have actually been hired. When asked if the Iraqi government had created stumbling blocks to integrating the Sons of Iraq, Petraeus said in a recent interview, "That certainly has been the case."