Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki Draws U.S. Troops into Crackdown on Sunnis

By Porter, Gareth | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2009 | Go to article overview

Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki Draws U.S. Troops into Crackdown on Sunnis


Porter, Gareth, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


WHEN U.S. troops and Apache helicopters joined Iraqi forces in putting down an uprising by Sunni "Sons of Iraq" (SOI) militiamen in central Baghdad on the last weekend in March, it was a preview of the kind of combat the U.S. military is likely to see increasingly over the next three years unless a policy decision is made in Washington to avoid it.

Although the arrest of a Sunni Awakening Council leader and seven of his deputies that triggered the uprising was spun both by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and by the U.S. command as an anti-terrorism issue rather than sectarian repression, it was in fact part of the long-term struggle for power between the Shi'i-dominated government of Iraq and Sunnis who have been disenfranchised.

That Sunday's battle in Fadhil was a warning signal that the U.S. command has allowed itself to be drawn into a campaign by al-Maliki to pick off individual commanders of the Sunni neighborhood security groups made up of former insurgents. The detention of a popular Sunni commander there may have touched off a process of sending a large proportion of the Sunni Awakening Councils movement, which is supposed to be on the government payroll, back into underground insurgency.

The uprising in Fadhil marked the first time that Awakening Council units had responded with force to a government campaign of repression of selected Sunni militia leaders that began as early as spring 2008.

Despite reported U.S. efforts to reassure Sunnis that they are not being abandoned to repression by the Shi'i government, the U.S.-assisted operation against Sunni militiamen protesting the arrest of Adel al-Mashadani in the Fadhil neighborhood has already prompted threats by Sunni militia commanders in other neighborhoods to go back to armed resistance.

Given the present U.S. definition of its mission in Iraq, U.S. forces are likely to be directly involved in more such operations against Sunni militiamen in the future, analysts of Iraqi military affairs say.

The Awakening Councils or Sahwa, which U.S. military officials have generally called "Sons of Iraq," were created in 2007 through arrangements reached by Multinational Forces-Iraq with Sunni tribal chiefs and some commanders of armed resistance groups, under which former Sunni insurgents became paid local security forces in Baghdad neighborhoods as well as in nearby Diyala Province and in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province.

But al-Maliki has never hidden his hostility to the U.S. scheme to set up neighborhood Sunni security units. "These people are like a cancer, and we must remove them," one Iraqi general was quoted by Shawn Brimley and Colin Kahl of the Center for New American Security as saying last summer.

Iraqi army units and special operations forces which were controlled directly by al-Maliki began arresting SOI leaders in Diyala and Baghdad, and the arrests continued through the fall.

Despite the evidence that al-Maliki intended to destroy them, the United States agreed last October to turn over control of all 90,000 Awakening Council members to the Iraqis. The government agreed, in turn, to continue paying the neighborhood Sunni security forces $300 a month.

However, the government stopped the payments more than a month ago-a development that U.S. officials have explained as a bureaucratic glitch rather than a deliberate policy.

John McCreary, a retired senior defense intelligence analyst on the Middle East, said in an interview that the detention and subsequent battle in Fadhil "is only the opening round" in a new phase of al-Maliki's campaign to eliminate the Awakening Councils as a potential threat to his regime before U.S. troops complete their withdrawal in 2011.

"He has to neutralize his enemies while he still has the Americans there to help keep him in power," McCreary said.

Al-Maliki has cleverly exploited the partnership between the U.S. military and the Iraqi army to draw the United States into such a campaign. …

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