Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

How the "Sons of Iraq" Stabilized Iraq

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

How the "Sons of Iraq" Stabilized Iraq

Article excerpt

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 8, 2008, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and coalition forces commander in Iraq, reported a dramatic reduction in violence levels and civilian deaths from fifteen months before when Iraq seemed on the brink of civil war.1 Petraeus attributed this turning point to the increased numbers of coalition and Iraqi forces, part of the surge declared by President George W. Bush in January 2007, but he gave equal credit to the predominantly Sunni popular movement known as the Sons of Iraq (SOI). "These volunteers have contributed significantly in various areas," he said. "With their assistance and with relentless pursuit of al-Qaeda-Iraq, the threat posed by AQI, while still lethal and substantial, has been reduced significantly"2

Initially known as al-Anbar Awakening (Sahwat al-Anbar), the movement made its appearance in the summer of 2006 when local sheikhs, disillusioned with the insurgency that had ravaged the province during the past two-and-a-half years, offered their support to the coalition forces. While pundits and commentators have varyingly acknowledged the significance of the movement, less is known about the motives and the thoughts of its key participants, including those members of the coalition forces with whom the Awakening worked.

What motivated these Sunni tribesmen to sign loyalty oaths to fight for an Iraqi government with whom they had only recently battled viciously? What were U.S. officers thinking when they provided military training and money for arms and equipment to men who, more often than not, had been their enemies just a short time before?

While the program was successful in reducing violence and quickly spread throughout Iraq, it did not prevent the ruling Shiite elites from viewing the Sons of Iraq with suspicion. Nor have the achievements of the recent past guaranteed that a true reconciliation between feuding sides has been reached. Through a fascinating series of interviews held in late 2008 and 2009-as the program was being unwound-the outlines of this unlikely social and military development can be glimpsed.


The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the collapse of Saddam Hussein's repressive regime unleashed sectarian and religious enmities that had been kept in check by the tyrant. As early as April 2003, while coalition forces were still mopping up the last traces of Baath resistance, a prominent Shiite leader, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who had just returned from exile, was murdered in the holy town of Najaf.3 Four months later, on August 29, 2003, a car bomb exploded outside that very mosque, killing more than 100 people, including Ayatollah Muhammad B aqir al-Hakim, leader of the Iraniansponsored Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).4 On February 1 , 2004, another 100 people were killed in two suicide bombings in the Kurdish town of Erbil.5

While some of this sectarian violence was perpetrated by Islamist Shiite militias that sprang up in southern Iraq in the immediate wake of the invasion, the main instigator was the minority Arab Sunni community, about 20 percent of the total population, which had dominated Iraqi politics for centuries and which resented its exclusion from the new state structures established by the victorious powers.6 In no time, the "Sunni Triangle" - the vast area between Baghdad in the south, Mosul in the north, and Rutba in the east where most of Iraq's Sunni population resides and consisting of the four goveraorates of Baghdad, al-Anbar, Salah ad-Din and Ninawa - was in flames.

For some insurgents, notably members of Saddam's regime and tribe, the overriding motivation was loyalty to the fallen tyrant. For others, such as the tens of thousands of soldiers and officers who had lost their jobs when the predominantly Sunni army was dissolved in May 2003, it was a desire for revenge. There was also a deep sense of humiliation felt by those who had long considered themselves the only people capable of running the affairs of the Iraqi state. …

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