A young, bright-eyed officer finishing his third tour of duty in Iraq, facing a Frenchman who’s haranguing him in the lobby of the Al Rasheed – the one remaining luxury hotel still more or less running in the heart of the famous, heavily fortified “Green Zone” of Baghdad – Dexter F. hesitates… “Sorry, Frenchie, I’m not authorized to speak to you, as you well know.” We do know. For about a year, the Iraqi authorities have done the same thing and have forbidden their police, army and even medical staff from talking to the press; notably on the topic of bombings, attacks, and the numbers of victims. Fortunately not everyone obeys…
In the end, the American paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne drops onto the black leather bench-seat. We had met him early in 2007 in Pizza Hut at Camp Victory, the huge logistics base of about 60,000 men and women built by the US Army like a Texan suburban town close to Baghdad’s international airport. Back then, Dexter was starting his third tour of duty in Iraq which would last fifteen months. He was beside himself:
“Frankly”, he admitted to the first question, “I’m glad we’re going home; I can’t take any more; not now we’re forced to sip tea with guys who were shooting at us less than six months ago; who are maybe still shooting at us after nightfall. Who knows? Guys who have killed some of ours, who have tortured, maimed and beheaded civilians. It disgusts me!” All of Baghdad is only talking about these “guys”, the “Sahwa militia”, the “Sons of Iraq”, the “Popular Self-Defense Committees” and the “Concerned Local Citizens”, as the US Embassy has curiously dubbed them.
Whatever the name, these are the same men, the same groups, all with the same pay and the same mission, who were recruited about a year ago to help, at an average of ten dollars a day, to establish and maintain the Pax Americana in Iraq in their neighborhoods, in their towns, or within their tribes. Essentially, it’s paying the enemy off. Pay-rolling “bad guys”, “bandits”, “rebels”, “insurgents” and “terrorists” to change sides, to become the army’s eyes and ears, to stop, at the very least, shooting at “our boys” and planting bombs beneath their feet.
The idea – which according to General David H. Petraeus, commander of Multi-National-Force Iraq (MNFI), “has largely contributed” to reducing by 60 to 70 percent attacks and bombings over the past eight months – was so simple that some at the embassy are now wondering why it took 4,000 dead soldiers, 29,000 wounded and, according to the WHO, at least 150,000 Iraqi victims, for this situation to arise.
The first reason is simple: strategists in Washington did not foresee it. It was a small tribal clan in the vast Sunni province of al-Anbar – the longtime stronghold of anti-Western jihadists – who, in late 2006, first approached the area’s American commanders. The father and two brothers of Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, a local chief who until then was said to be interested only in the best way of robbing vehicles that cross “his” tribal land, had had their throats slit by members of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Why? Refusing to cooperate, no doubt. We’ll never know how many thousands of civilian Iraqis, notably Shi’ites, were massacred in the hundreds of blind attacks, including dozens of “freedom fighters” opposed to the occupation but who were judged to be too “heathen” by the hard-line obscurantists of the jihad. In Diyala and Mosul, where they have been engaged for the past eight weeks in “a drawn-out offensive” against “the last terrorist concentrations”, US and Iraqi soldiers are discovering more than mass graves at the rate of more than one a week. 20, 30, 40 bodies every time, most of them with their hands tied behind their backs, a bullet in the neck, and some bearing traces of dreadful torture.
It was due in no small part to these massacres that the Awakening movement (sahwa in Arabic) arose. The tribal sheikhs were being assailed by their followers, who could no longer stand the medieval moral standards that Salafi fanatics were imposing in their villages or the neighborhoods of Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi and Bakuba. Dozens of the chiefs, many of them more important than Abu Risha (who would be assassinated in September, ten days after unwisely shaking President Bush’s hand before the TV cameras), ended up following his example and offering their services to America.
The second reason for the lateness with which American high command engaged in the most daring and dangerous tactical gamble of the Iraqi conflict is explained by an infantry lieutenant-colonel, he too remaining anonymous because, according to the unbreakable rule, he “is not authorized to talk to the press”. “We kept ourselves blind” , he says, “we believed our own propaganda which made all those who were attacking us either hardcore Ba’athists or fanatical Islamists under the orders of al-Qaeda”.
On the eve of his definitive departure from Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, second in command of MNFI, said much the same thing. Having admitted that America had made errors “in 2003 and 2004, in the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the eviction of Ba’athists from administration, etc.”, in February he stated to Newsweek that he had realized too late “that lots of those who were fighting us were’nt really insurgents. They weren’t really ideologically opposed to progress. (…) They were just trying to survive”.
In January 2007, the Concerned Local Citizens numbered less than 1500 when President Bush, staking his all, decided to send 30,000 extra soldiers to strengthen MNFI – then at an estimated 135,000 members of US military personnel – from June onwards and for one year. “Our politicians were demanding swift and visible results in the field”, Dexter recalls. “We needed a change of tactics.”
The idea developed by Bush was to open “a window of opportunity” for the Shi’ite Nouri al-Maliki government so that he could quickly take all the legislative and practical steps for a “necessary national reconciliation” between local communities. For the most part, America is still waiting. But the famous “surge”, the effort whose success or failure is a subject for political debate during the run-up to the US primaries, has clearly worked, because General Petraeus has been able to benefit from two rather unexpected developments: the suspension, since August 2007, of the armed operations of the 60,000 men of the Mahdi Army founded by radical Shi’ite preacher Muqtada al-Sadr, and the surprising rise in power of the Awakening movement.
Today, the back-up troops number about 80,000, with 82% of them Sunnis and “at least half of them former terrorists”, as a high-ranking Shi’ite officer quipped. General Petraeus summed up his motivation in Time magazine on February 11: “We cannot kill an entire insurrection; we cannot defeat everybody. We must turn them to our side.” Precisely this has seemingly been achieved. The only question worrying the region is: for how long?
Spread across almost 150 back-up militia groups, the “Sons of Iraq” are mainly based in the northern half of the country, save for in Kurdistan, where the autonomous powers do not want them under any circumstances and rail against the groups that have been established around their region, on the outskirts of Mosul and Kirkuk. The Kurds are not alone in distrusting the phenomenon. “It’s surreptitious”, says an alarmed Shi’ite junior minister in charge of a large administration in Baghdad, “it’s a new army, a huge Trojan Horse, a militia more powerful and more dangerous than all those which already exist and which the Americans created. Does Washington really want to repeat the mistakes made in Afghanistan? To increase the numbers of warlords who then can never be disarmed? To prepare the next civil war perhaps? To put the Sunni minority in power to thwart Iran and to satisfy their Sunni allies in the Gulf: the Saudis, Jordanians and Egyptians?”
Alaa Abu Ahmed, a well-built, almost-beardless man of “about 30 years old”, a mechanic by trade and a paid member of the militia created last year in the tense district of al-Dora in the south of the capital, explains how the “Awakening” came about for him. Yet first, he unabashedly admits to having taken part in the ethnic cleansing of Shi’ites who used to live in his district. “Yes, I killed a few”, he confesses with a wry smile. “The real bastards, anyway. (…) My brother now lives in a small house that belonged to a killer in the Mahdi Army”, to al-Sadr’s militia accused by the many Sunnis chased out of the capital’s former mixed districts of being the spearhead of the interfaith carnage that took place in 2006 and a large part of 2007.
“In April 2007″, resumes Abu Ahmed, “our sheikh called us to the mosque. About fifty of us. He said that the people of al-Dora, honest tradesmen, the last doctors and teachers, were saying that they’d had enough of the fighting and raids by renegades”. (In the coded language in use since the start of the civil war, the “renegades”, to Sunni activists, means Shi’ites, while takfiris – or “ex-communicators” – to their Shi’ite counterparts means Sunnis). “He said that an infidel officer had suggested stopping the fighting, of building anti-bomb walls around our neighborhoods, and letting us protect our streets and homes ourselves. He said that the “Amrikis” were offering to organize us, to supply us with guns and vehicles if necessary, and to even pay us 14,000 dinars a day (about 10 dollars or 7 euros)! Some of us called it betrayal. Others accepted.”
Like many of those who have begun cooperating with the “invader”, the leader of Alaa’s group, a certain Saleh Kashgul Saleh, was a colonel in the internal security forces – the infamous Mukhabarat – under Saddam Hussein. “What did we have to lose?” continues our interlocutor. “Most of us agreed to let the infidels take our photos and fingerprints to put our identities on their computers in exchange for a badge that allows us to carry arms. Not me. When I go out, I borrow my cousin’s. I prefer to stay anonymous. One day, the “Amrikis” will leave. The lists could fall into the hands of the mujahedeen. Or into those of the “Iranians” who govern us and who we’ll have to deal with later…”
Since October, at least two hundred militiamen of the Sahwa committees, including several dozen clan sheikhs, have been assassinated, sometimes on al-Qaeda’s orders, and often on those of members of their own small army or tribe. To some, this is a new civil war, now between Sunnis, starting in Iraq. “The Sahwas are almost all infiltrated or in league with the rebels”, we are repeatedly told by officers in the Iraqi army and police, who are nearly all Shi’ites and as wary of the “Sons of Iraq” as of the plague.
The US military admits that there “might be traitors” among their new groups of back-up troops. Several dozen of them have been arrested for acts of violence against civilians or for “extrajudicial murders”. In the field, many, like Dexter, never turn their backs on their new allies; but officers are confident. “Our selection process is good”, claims Rear Admiral Greg Smith, spokesman for the US Army.
The one thing that is certain is that the process, started in April 2003, of disbanding the army and all the national security services, and of banning members of the Ba’ath Party from holding any public office, has been fully reversed. In Adhamiyeh, one of Baghdad’s last Sunni bastions, the new bigwig was a former police officer, Colonel Riyad al-Samarrai. Killed on January 7 in a suicide bombing, he was immediately replaced by a well-built man in a leather jacket, also a Ba’athist officer: Faruk Abdu Sattar al-Obeidi.
To the satisfaction of the US Army generals, the “work of the heroic martyr”, as described on the mourning posters pasted on the decrepit and bullet-riddled walls, continues. The hundreds of militiamen recruited to “defend” the place continue this “work”. They can be seen at all hours, day and night – some in civilian clothes with a red-and-white keffieh on their heads, others bareheaded, in vaguely khaki tunics, Kalashnikov in hand – setting up blockades on strategic thoroughfares and sites, searching cars and passers-by, and checking the ID of anyone entering or leaving the district.
In Fazl, another central district of the capital, Adel al-Mashhadani, a former officer of the old dictator’s Republican Guard, is now the “Lion of Baghdad” – albeit in the service of the Americans. That the walls of his streets are covered in graffiti glorifying the “great martyr Saddam” or demanding “death to Maliki”, the country’s Shi’ite prime minister, matters little. The “Lion” controls several hundred armed men and states to anyone who will listen that “never will the police or the army of the “Persians” who run Iraq enter “his” zone”.
In Amriya, it’s a certain Abu Ahmed, former captain in the Ba’athist army and one-time leader of a unit of the Islamic Army in Iraq, one of the main organizations of “resistance”, who runs the local “Awakening” group. In the western part of Greater Baghdad, which notably includes the Abu Ghraib prison, Abu Maruf, once the local “emir” of a nationalist resistance unit known as the 1920 Revolution Brigade, now controls the zone with 13,000 “contracted employees”.
Ramadi, Bakuba, Diyala… the same thing is happening almost everywhere. And friction, which sometimes turns into armed conflict with the Iraqi police or army, is growing. The Shi’ite majority, which has dominated the government since the 2005 election, remains wary of the American volte-face. Since a year ago, when General Petraeus called for the integration of at least a quarter of his Sunni auxiliaries into the army and police, it’s said that less than 12,000 of them are “ready” to be accepted.
Initially very critical of the phenomenon, Prime Minister Maliki and his main political ally, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, head of the biggest Shi’ite party in the Assembly, have tempered their stance and now publically welcome “the patriotic turnaround of their Sunni brothers”, which has led to a decrease in the intensity of the carnage. Their decisions give no sign of what they truly think.
No question, for example, of giving the Americans – who want to go up to 100,000 back-up troops – all of their demands for their “new friends”. No “Awakening” HQ in Baghdad, no heavy arms and no Humvees. Even the reestablishing of public services – running water, electricity, the rebuilding of schools, transport, refuse collection, etc. – promised by the US Army to its back-ups in tribal areas, villages and urban districts, are late in coming. “Government unwillingness and corruption are obvious”, we were told by one of the self-proclaimed “fathers” of the Awakening, Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Ali Suleiman, “prince” of the large Dulaimi tribe.
Growing the Sahwas has proved on-the-ground efficiency: in al-Anbar Province, attacks against Americans have decreased by 90%. Yet the Generals refuse to claim a victory and Rear Admiral Greg Smith continually warns against “any untimely triumphalism”.
General Petraeus and his deputies hold a similar line and also demand that once the majority of the 30,000 reinforcements of the “surge” are back home – by July in theory – his contingent remains at “at least” 135,000 men for “the whole of 2008 and undoubtedly for longer”. In Baghdad, almost everybody is convinced of that, whoever is sitting in the Oval Office of the White House next year, the Americans are not about to leave.
What will happen to the Awakening movement? A mystery. “Any undertaking is a gamble”, states Labid Abbawi, under-secretary of state for foreign affairs. “A formidable gamble on the future of Iraq.” Whether they have changed sides for the money (on top of the pay for the back-ups, “donations” of tens of thousands of dollars are discreetly handed out to the sheikhs of pacified tribes), as a refusal of fanaticism, in a patriotic turnaround, or whether theyare following a mere tactic of waiting for better days, the Sons of Iraq now want a role in politics.
An “Awakening Party” is in the budding. Some are already demanding ministerial posts. The good thing for the Shi’ite majority, for the moment, is that the new back-up army does not answer to one leader but to 100 or 1000. It is disunited, fragmented and divided. “Thank God”, say some reassured people in the “Green Zone”.