The Islamist tide in Iraq

Armed ConflictsUnrest, Conflicts and WarIraqCivil UnrestTerrorismNational SecurityReligious Conflicts

Today, former White House policy aide Rivkin and Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, debate the apparent decline of Sunni Islamist groups in Iraq. Previously, they discussed troop withdrawal and the large drop in civilian and military deaths in Iraq. Later this week, they'll talk about the political surge and other issues.

OBL shivers By David B. Rivkin Jr.
It would be premature to announce that Iraq's Sunni Arabs have entirely forsaken Al Qaeda. Nevertheless, great strides have been made, and are being made, toward this goal.

Al Qaeda's campaign of murder and intimidation against Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq's strategic Anbar province has backfired. Sunnis have not only turned against Al Qaeda but are actually making war on the terrorist group that so long claimed to represent their cause. Thanks in part to the efforts of devout Sunni Arabs, Al Qaeda in Iraq's leadership cadre has been decimated.

This is a momentous development, with tremendous strategic implications, both for Iraq and the greater Middle East. Al Qaeda has never before encountered this kind of resistance from within an Islamic society. Al Qaeda's claim to represent the aspirations of devout Sunnis has been given the lie. Its reputation for invincibility has been lost, perhaps irretrievably. Sunnis, fighting for their right to be left in peace, have dealt the terrorists a series of punishing blows. Best of all, they have done so in close cooperation with the forces of the United States. This development is one of the most important benefits of Gen. David H. Petraeus' new counterinsurgency strategy. Indeed, despite all of Al Qaeda's depredations against them, it is highly questionable whether the Sunni tribes would have launched an all-out war against Al Qaeda without being assured that the U.S. military would support them.

The benefits of this cooperation extend far beyond Anbar province, let alone Iraq. The entire Islamic world can now see traditional, and undoubtedly religious, Sunnis making common cause with the United States military against a terrorist organization that purports to carry the banner of Islam. Clearly, the Sunnis of Anbar province have recognized American soldiers as allies in securing their families and communities, rather than as the "Crusaders" of Al Qaeda propaganda. Such an alliance must send shivers down Osama bin Laden's spine. Its example will be well worth the cost of perseverance in Iraq.

David B. Rivkin Jr. is a partner in the Washington office of Baker Hostetler LLP. He served in a variety of legal and policy positions in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, including stints in the White House, at the Justice Department and at the Energy Department.


Kill you tomorrowBy Brian Katulis
David, your analysis of why Iraqis of all sectarian stripes have turned against these foreign fighters highlights yet another flaw in the conservative worldview on Iraq as well as the broader fight against global terror networks. It also helps explain why so many conservatives have substituted mindless cheerleading for a more serious analysis of trends inside of Iraq these days.

That wouldn't be a problem if the conclusions of these analyses had no consequences, but conservatives have offered up strategies that unfortunately undermined America's military readiness, wasted billions of dollars, made Americans less safe from the threat of global terrorists and provided the best rallying cry and recruitment tool Al Qaeda central could ever want.

The simple fact is that Sunni Arab insurgent groups and tribes in Iraq were never all that close with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its affiliates. Reports of divisions and outright fighting between more local-minded nationalist groups and those aligned with AQI had been bubbling up since 2004. In October 2004, a group of local Sunnis went after foreign fighters in Fallouja; in the summer of 2005, citizens in Ramadi took up arms to defend their Shiite neighbors against foreigner fighters. But these initiatives did not pick up steam until the United States started sending clear signals that its military presence in Iraq would at some point come to an end.

The broadly held perception among Iraqis that the United States was looking to remain inside Iraq with permanent military bases motivated Iraqi insurgents to form alliances of convenience with foreign fighters. In other words, the first four years of the Bush administration's Iraq strategy drove secular nationalists into the arms of more extremist Islamist elements, motivating forces traditionally opposed to each other to find common cause in their opposition to the American occupation of a Muslim-majority country.

These dynamics changed last year, when AQI attempted to take control of the overall insurgency by forming the "Islamic State of Iraq." AQI reserved brutal and vicious treatment for Sunni insurgent and tribal groups opposed to its bid for hegemony over the overall insurgency; as a result, a number of Sunni insurgents and tribes turned on AQI and sought the help of U.S. forces. In effect, they concluded that AQI was a greater threat to their overall survival and local prerogatives than U.S. forces.

So the Iraqi Sunnis' turn against AQI should come as no big surprise, given AQI's brutality; had the United States begun to redeploy its forces in 2005, it would have been more likely to see the same results of Iraqis turning against these foreign fighters even earlier. We shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking that the Sunni forces now taking money from the United States will be trustworthy allies in the long run. "I want to kill you, but not today," was the sentiment expressed by a Sunni fighter currently cooperating with U.S. forces about a possible continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

The separate question posed, about whether Iraq's Shiites will follow the Sunni turn against Al Qaeda, is actually somewhat misguided — Iraqi Shiite elements have been largely opposed to the Sunni foreign fighters and Iraqis affiliated with AQI from the get-go. The fact that this is even a question may hint to the dangers of conservative rhetoric that has clumsily lumped divergent and frequently opposing trends within Islam into one unfortunate label of "Islamo-fascism."

On one key point, you and I seem to agree, David. Al Qaeda is a fringe group that has a radical and extremist agenda lacking any broad base of support with most Muslims around the world. That's why it is vital that we stop giving people around the world an excuse for making common cause with these extremists. Invading and occupying a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks will go down in history as one of the greatest strategic blunders in the history of U.S. national security. It is time to move beyond these mistakes and take back control of our national security in a strategic reset of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for the American Progress, is the coauthor of the forthcoming book, "The Prosperity Agenda."

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