Baghdad will burn, the resistance leader warns.
"If we hear from the Americans they are not capable of supporting us . . . within six hours we are going to establish our groups to fight against the corrupt government," says the commander, a portly man with gold rings and lemon-colored robes who, perhaps understandably, spoke on condition of anonymity. "There will be a war in Baghdad."
The commander and another insurgent leader interviewed for this story belong to the secret world of Sunni Muslim tribesmen and old military officers who laid down their arms and helped bring relative peace to Iraq in the last two years. They decided to try to fight the Shiite religious parties in control of the government through political channels instead -- but they never renounced the insurgency.
Now the dormant insurgent groups, with men, weapons and networks intact, are approaching their moment of truth. If their efforts to enter the mainstream fail, it appears almost inevitable that they will take up arms again, either after national elections early next year or sooner.
With U.S. forces preparing to withdraw from Iraqi cities next month, insurgent groups see no sign of progress on their demands for the Americans to guarantee their entry into the political system and protect them from the parties in power.
As the insurgents watched and waited, they saw the government continue to jail their fighters, despite their decision to hold their fire. Likewise, they noticed the inability, or unwillingness, of U.S. troops to stop a crackdown against leaders of the Awakening movement, their Sunni brethren who left the insurgency for formal partnerships with the Americans.
The disenchantment of the Sunnis also could have implications for Afghanistan, where the U.S. military hopes to reproduce the success of its alliance with the Awakening movement by reaching out to moderate Taliban elements. But the fate of the Awakening members and the inactive insurgent groups could cause Taliban fighters to think twice before embarking on a similar path.
"Perceptions can be hard to predict, but in principle it could reduce Taliban willingness to realign with us in Afghanistan if we fail to protect our friends in Iraq," said Stephen Biddle, a defense expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In the end, the distrust between the Shiites and Sunnis involved may be too strong to overcome. The Iraqi government views the armed groups as a Trojan horse for Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to return to power and are adamant about blocking a creeping coup from inside Baghdad's government. For their part, the insurgent leaders see a government that is a proxy for neighboring Shiite-led Iran.
A U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says military and U.S. Embassy personnel are frustrated by their inability to reconcile the government and armed groups. They worry that it's only a matter of time before insurgents renew their uprising.
"When they finally realize America is an impotent force, or acting like one, are they going to give up and say it's useless and return to armed conflict to topple the government?" the official asked. "Are they going to take up arms against the coalition as well?"
Contacts between armed groups and the Americans have revolved around insurgent commanders' demands for protection from arrests and harassment by the Iraqi government, the restoration of military officers to their old jobs and help in entering politics. The Americans have not given any firm responses.
Squished in a tiny chair, the Sunni commander, who has as many as 12,000 fighters at his disposal, speaks bluntly about what will happen if the Americans can't deliver.
"Our last option is to go back to resistance, to fighting. We gave our word to the coalition forces, but this is our last option," says the former military intelligence general, who led fighters in Salahuddin province after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
He says that all options will be on the table as the Americans draw down. He makes it clear that because of the U.S. military, his group is hoping for a peaceful resolution, but that that could quickly change.
"If the Americans leave Baghdad in 24 hours, the street belongs to the resistance and the people. The people are boiling. They understand now the government is representative of Iran," he says.
The insurgent commander, who heads a group called the Iraqi Liberation Army, describes stopping his war against the Americans at the end of 2007. He had already turned his guns on the group Al Qaeda in Iraq that year.
After being wounded in battle, he was picked up by U.S. forces and treated on one of their bases. They didn't realize he was on their wanted list. Soon after his release, talks were brokered with the Americans and a truce was struck.
"Our deal was to be friends, not enemies. I believe if we put our hands with those people, it is better than the religious parties. They are human beings. We trust them," the commander says. "We gave orders to stop violence against the U.S. forces. We started negotiations with them."
But the commander complains that as his alliance with the Americans emerged, Shiite religious parties in the government started trying to arrest him.
The commander gestures to the man sitting next to him as his link to the U.S. military. Abu Fatima, a slight figure in a gray suit, belongs to an armed group in the north, estimated to have 2,000 to 5,000 fighters.
Abu Fatima says he helped to persuade armed groups to put down their weapons in late 2007 and early 2008 and created a loose political association that the Iraqi Liberation Army and other groups are backing.
But the truce and formation of their party have brought little tangible benefit, he says. He notes "the betrayal of the Awakening" and talks about the wariness of some resistance leaders to rally behind the truce and endorse elections.
"In fact, some groups have met with us to come under our banner to stop fighting. They ask us, 'What did the Americans do [for us]?' This question has become the most embarrassing question I hear.
"I can get around questions about politics and religions except this one. . . . I'm stumped and embarrassed. I don't have an answer," Abu Fatima says.
"I say, 'Don't lay down your weapons,' because otherwise I would be dishonest to them. I've told Americans, 'If you keep alienating the people, all the Iraqis will fight them, even the government.' "