The Weight of the Past in Iraq

The Americans invaded Iraq in 2003. The Sunni minority, which had traditionally dominated Iraq, didn’t like the invasion or the empowerment of the Shi’a majority, so they fought a guerrilla war against the Americans. Then Al Qaeda in Iraq joined in as allies of the Sunni. Then, Al Qaeda in Iraq sought to foster a civil war between Sunnis and Shi’ites in order to a) make the American position in Iraq unsustainable, and b) punish the Shi’ites for being “in error” about religious truth. Death squads and suicide bombings and car bombings and deaths-by-power-drills abounded.

Then Al Qaeda in Iraq tried to force their Sunni allies to submit to “sharia” (Islamic religious law). The Sunni Iraqis living in Anbar Province didn’t much like this. In 2006 many tribal leaders began to turn against Al Qaeda in Iraq, forming “Awakening Councils.” They sought a truce with and help from the Americans. The Americans responded positively, then General David Petraeus made this a central part of his “surge” strategy in 2007. Awakening Councils spread from Anbar Province into the other areas with large numbers of Sunnis. With the US paying $300 a month and providing equipment to each “volunteer,” there were soon about 80,000 Sunni militia men fighting against Al Qaeda rather than against the Americans. Al Qaeda in Iraq took a savage pounding, while the Sunni component of the insurgency all but disappeared.

American politicians and even many in the media are prone to down-play the role of the “Awakening Councils” in the ending of the insurgency. Instead, they laud “the Surge” of American troops into Iraq. As is so often the case with American political discourse, the reality was different. In 2009 there were about 30 million Iraqis. About 20 million were Shi’ite Arabs; about 5-6 million were Sunni Kurds; and about 5 million were Sunni Arabs. US Army counter-insurgency doctrine held that 20 soldiers per 1,000 people were needed to defeat an insurgency. The US would need 100,000 troops, just to deal with the Sunni Arab part of the country, with many more troops required to garrison the Shi’ite parts. Thus, the “Awakening Councils” and their fighters made possible a radical shift in the balance of forces.

What did the future hold for the “Awakening Councils”? One problem is that the Sunnis have multiple hostilities. Al Qaeda had risen to the top of the list in 2007-2008, but next on the list were the Shi’ites and then the US itself. To take one example, the leader of a Baghdad neighborhood “Awakening Council” was a former officer of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. In 2008, he saw the Iraqi government as a pawn of Iran. Another problem was that the Americans hoped to see the councils and their militias integrated into the police and military of the new Iraq. The Shi’ites always opposed this and wanted the militias disbanded as soon as possible. They foresaw a civil war following the American withdrawal. Finally, in the absence of a single strong leader among the Sunnis, the various Awakening Councils fell fall into conflict with one another as they struggled for turf, weapons, American aid, and control of the local economy.

Thus, by early 2008 it was possible to foresee ugly developments. It all depended upon what the Shi’ites did with power once the Americans departed. Now we know.

Putting the pieces back together again isn’t going to be easy. Islam allows “taqiyya” (dissembling) to avoid persecution. Long oppressed by the Sunni minority, the Shi’ites are regarded as habitual dissemblers. How to build trust once again?

“The Sunni Awakening,” The Week, 1 February 2008, p. 9.

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