Silverman: "The Sons of Iraq and Iraqi Politics"

Adam L. Silverman writes in a guest editorial for IC:

On 1 April 2009 Juan Cole briefly wrote about the events surrounding the arrest of the Fadl District Sons of Iraq (SOI) leader. Cole, in commenting on remarks reported in al Sharq al Awsat [“The Middle East”] correctly indicated that by siding with the Coalition Forces, members of the Awakening Council Movement had placed themselves at risk. Moreover, their disarmament in the Fadl District would likely put their lives in danger and the predominantly Sunni residents would be unlikely to look kindly on the mostly Shia security forces that were sent in.

While I was not assigned to work with any brigade within the city of Baghdad, my teammates and I did have many opportunities, in our operating environment (OE) to observe, interact with, and interview some of the tribal leadership, from which the Awakening Councils were most often drawn. While there is no doubt that some of the Sons of Iraq leadership and membership have dubious pasts and those who do should legitimately be brought to justice when and where the evidence of serious past wrongdoing exists, Cole’s analysis is most likely very accurate.

The last interview I conducted was with one of the tribal leaders who had led the Awakening Movement in our OE. He specifically asked me to meet with him so that he could tell me the history of how the area was cleared of, and secured from, the extremists and insurgents. This sheikh made it very clear that one of the US’s initial problems was that it had chosen the wrong friends, those who were not concerned with the welfare of the people in the area, or even of Iraq itself. He made it very clear that the Awakening Council wconsisted of reliable friends to the US and that the US was a reliable friend to the Awakening Council.

Another Council/tribal leader in the area, a Shia, also made it clear at the time when the Government of Iraq was beginning to take over payment and supervision of the Sons of Iraq that he and his men had stood with the US military, that they had fought side by side with them, and that they deserved to be treated well in the transition. His biggest worry was that Baghdad was going to turn his Sons of Iraq into the walad shabb chai – the boy who brings the tea.

My teammates and I were fortunate, while interviewing the sheikh of another tribe who is also an SOI leader to be able to speak with his younger brother, a member of the Iraqi Army, who was home visiting on leave. We asked him what would happen if the Iraqi leadership set the Iraqi Security Forces/ISF (Iraqi Army, National Police, and Iraqi Police) against the Awakening Council. His response was very illuminating: he would desert his post, come home, return to being a Son of Iraq, and resist the ISF with his brother and the rest of the SOI in the area.

Finally, every single tribal leader, local resident, and Internally Displaced Person (IDP) we talked to all said the same thing: the disputes in Iraq are not really about Sunni or Shia theology and dogma, but about control of resources, and the manipulation of religion by extremists to gain that control. So it is very important that the events in Fadl and other parts of Iraq need to be understood in that light.

While much has been written about the Awakening Movement, much of it intentionally distorting its origins in order to score political or policy points, one thing is absolutely clear: the decision to support the movement and foster its growth is one of the best examples of Counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.

By recognizing and then encouraging an indigenous movement and its organic development, the US military and its Civilian Agency partners (Department of State, US AID, Department of Agriculture, etc) were able to capitalize on two of the most important aspects of COIN: work from the bottom up (population centric) and empower the lowest level (population centric). By doing this, levels of violence began to drop and while this drop cannot be solely attributed to the establishment of the Sons of Iraq, the program’s existence certainly helped. The one thing that is missing, however, is that the Sons of Iraq (the bottom or population level) need to be tethered to the highest level – the Government of Iraq. The transition to Iraqi government control, however flawed, is an attempt to do so. If it is not done correctly a lot of very hard work will ultimately be for naught.

The key issue is that the politics within the GOI will prevent this from becoming a true transition. As a number of analysts have pointed out, including Marc Lynch and Sam Parker, there are two basic groups in Iraq: those that have power and those that by and large do not. (Lynch and Parker refer to these two groups as the Powers that Are and the Powers that Aren’t.) Power in this case is a large enough stake in the government to feel represented and effect change. Those that have this power–the Islamic Mission Party (Dawa), the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and its paramilitary, the Badr Corps, the Kurdish Parties, and the Sunni Parties– all have one thing in common. They are really not all that concerned about Iraq as Iraq. ISCI and Badr are Iranian creations and their leadership, along with that of the Dawa Party, is composed of exiles that largely do not have an indigenous constituency and are widely recognized as Iranian proxies.

The Kurdish Parties seek ever greater autonomy, if not independence, and their leadership is also tied to Iran as the Iranians tried to use them as an internal hedge against Saddam Hussein. Finally, the Sunni Parties are largely made up of Iraqi Sunnis who were also exiles and have little indigenous support. In contrast, both the Awakening Councils (composed primarily of Sunnis, but also some tribally oriented Shia) and the Sadrists (despite the ties of some of them to Iran), believe in the concept of Iraq as a centralized state. While the Sadrists do have some representation in the government and the Provincial Governments, they have had ever less influence since the Spring 2008 Iraqi Security Forces’ Operation Charge of the Knights.

Many members of the (Shiite) Badr Corps, the militia of ISCI, were quickly and almost seamlessly incorporated into the ISF by the governing coalition, a coalition of which ISCI forms a majority. That process throws obstacles in the way of Awakening Councils being taken over by the Baghdad government, and raises serious questions, among Sunnis, of favoritism and a double standard.

My teammates and I repeatedly heard complaints about this favoritism from tribal and SOI leaders when we interviewed them, regardless of sectarian identification. They often said that Abdul Aziz Hakim is a Zoroastrian, that he’s not a Muslim. They say that the al-Hakims aren’t even Iraqi, they were born and raised in Iran, they are all fire worshipers and they’re illiterate – they took some Badr members who can’t read or write and made them officers. (It was mostly other Shiites who used this language.)

The major concern as things move forward is that if the Awakening Council transition succumbs to the politicking in the government of Iraq, especially in relation to both the Security Agreement vote in June, as well as the national elections later in the year, the consequences for the stability of Iraq and the expensive progress that have been made to this point are significant. The Sons of Iraq throughout Iraq have shown remarkable restraint during the transition. While it is not an issue that gets great amounts of press in the US, SOI members have suffered through both leveling of their wages and long delays in their payment since falling under GOI control, the erection of barriers to long promised employment in the ISF, and GOI and ISF attempts to disrupt Awakening Council members form forming legitimate political parties.

The fact that the Awakening Council in Anbar Province did not resort to violence in the confused aftermath of the Provincial elections is a good sign, but no one should be surprised if the patience and forbearance of the Awakening Movement’s members runs out. All of these attempts to erode the Awakening Council and SOI, all clearly part of the politics and politicking within and around the GOI, seriously undermine the transition from Coalition Forces’ control to Iraqi control. While the SOI are hardly perfect, in many neighborhoods and areas they were perceived as being an important component to establishing and enhancing security, and have often been well regarded by their local ISF counterparts. The GOI’s unwillingness and/or inability to properly incorporate them into the ISF and the GOI structure, will make progress going forward that much harder, risks the hard won and expensively fragile stability that has developed, and risks destabilizing Iraq as US and Coalition Forces began to pull way back and transition out of theater over the next twelve to eighteen months.
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Adam L. Silverman, PhD is a Social Science Advisor with the US Army’s Human Terrain System and was previously deployed in Iraq from April through October 2008 as the Field Social Scientist and Socio-Cultural Advisor for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team/1st Armored Division assigned to Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 (HTT IZ6). The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army’s Human Terrain System, the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, the 2BCT/1AD, and/or the US Army.

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