Onetime U.S. allies in Sunni Awakening sit out new Iraq conflict

Members of a newly formed brigade of Iraqi Shiite Muslim fighters parade on June 24 in the southern city of Basra. Members of the Sunni Awakening movement have so far largely stayed out of the fight against an Al Qaeda splinter group.
Members of a newly formed brigade of Iraqi Shiite Muslim fighters parade on June 24 in the southern city of Basra. Members of the Sunni Awakening movement have so far largely stayed out of the fight against an Al Qaeda splinter group.
(Haidar Mohammed Ali / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images)

The aging ex-general remembers another era not long ago, when American military commanders would visit him at his compound and sip tea as they sat on plastic chairs in a tidy garden ringed by date palms.

Back then, Mustafa Kamil Shibib was an important U.S. ally against Al Qaeda in Iraq militants, leading 2,000 Sunni Muslim fighters who helped drive the insurgents out of south Baghdad by 2008 as part of a tribal uprising called the Awakening.

With much of Iraq now besieged by an Al Qaeda splinter group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Shibib is in no hurry to pick up his weapons again. To do so, he said, would be to defend a corrupt government that has cast aside or jailed his former fighters and systematically oppressed his fellow Sunnis.


“If ISIS were to show up here, I would step aside and point them in the direction of the Green Zone,” Shibib said, referring to the former U.S.-run enclave in central Baghdad that is now the seat of the Iraqi government. “If they have any quarrel, they can take it up with them.”

As Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s Shiite Muslim-dominated administration loses more and more territory to ISIS-led Sunni insurgents, many former Awakening leaders are staying on the sidelines, saying they won’t fight for a government he leads. Some are quietly striking deals with more moderate factions fighting alongside ISIS, including ones led by former army officers and ex-functionaries of the outlawed Baath Party who once served Saddam Hussein.

Without the support of Awakening fighters — and with U.S.-trained security forces collapsing in the face of the insurgents — Obama administration officials believe that Maliki’s government may not be able to regain lost territory in northern and western Iraq for the foreseeable future.

The insurgents gained another victory Tuesday when government forces reportedly ceded control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, in the northern city of Baiji, to Sunni tribes after several days of intense fighting. Meeting Secretary of State John F. Kerry in Irbil, the president of northern Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, said, “We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq.” The comments suggested that the Kurds might use the crisis to push for an independent state.

Scrambling to keep Iraq from falling apart less than three years after U.S. troops withdrew, American officials have asked Sunni tribal leaders to take on the militants, although they have not backed up the requests with cash and weapons as American military commanders did nearly a decade ago. Although some sheiks say they would be ready to battle ISIS if Maliki is replaced, others see the insurgency, however extreme, as a way to acquire greater rights for Sunnis.

“There’s no question that there’s a tendency in some groups to kind of jump on the bandwagon and even use [ISIS] for other ends,” said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. “That’s just a very dangerous game because once [the militant group] gets rooted in territory, in towns, it’s even harder to root them out.”


The fact that some of Iraq’s most devoted anti-Al Qaeda fighters are now tolerating or even siding with the extremist ISIS illustrates how badly relations have deteriorated between Sunni tribes and Maliki’s government, greatly complicating U.S. efforts to find a way out of the crisis.

The Awakening was a game-changer in the Iraq war, a grass-roots uprising against the brutal tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq that turned the tide against the insurgency and delivered a critical boost to Maliki’s then-fledgling government. U.S. commanders provided weapons and paid monthly salaries of a few hundred dollars each to nearly 100,000 Awakening fighters before handing the program over to Iraqi government control in 2008.

The government pledged to integrate 20% of the fighters into the army and police and provide civil service jobs for the rest, but experts who tracked the program said many former Awakening members were left out. Some quit the jobs because of low or inconsistent pay. Maliki’s government allied with others in a bid to divide the movement, analysts say.

As the government arrested hundreds and perhaps of thousands of Sunni politicians and civil servants in 2010 and 2011, allegedly for Baath Party or terrorism connections, many former Awakening fighters also were rounded up by an increasingly Shiite-dominated security force that regarded them as thugs or worse.

“Hundreds of them are rotting in detention centers without trials for five and six years,” Shibib said.

A former general in the Hussein-era army, Shibib wears a loaded handgun over his long white dishdasha but rarely ventures outside his home for fear he might be killed by Al Qaeda militants. He has escaped, by his count, six bombs planted in his cars and more than 300 mortar rounds fired in the direction of his compound, nestled among fruit orchards in Baghdad’s southern suburbs.

“There can be no dialogue between the Awakening and Al Qaeda, because we fought them very severely,” he said. “But the situation in the country is grave and whole areas are coming under control of this [insurgent] movement. So if there are factions that are reasonable, then Awakening leaders might reach an agreement with them to keep their people safe.”

Shibib and others say that ISIS and allied factions often negotiate with local officials before attempting to take control of villages and towns. The talks offer a chance for tribal leaders, including Awakening members, to defuse problems before the militants arrive.

This month, Shibib said, before insurgents entered the town of Duluiya, about 55 miles north of Baghdad, ISIS negotiators sent word to local officials that they wanted to question 50 people whom they considered enemies, many of them ex-Awakening fighters. Town officials rejected the demand, prompting a feverish negotiation with other insurgent factions before the tribal leaders agreed to let the insurgents in without a fight.

In Hawija, in the northern province of Kirkuk, an Awakening leader who goes by the name Abu Saddam said ISIS controlled the area but so far had left his men alone.

“There is some communication between us and the revolutionaries, and for now we feel they don’t hold any grudges against us,” he said by phone.

In the Sunni-dominated western province of Anbar, the heart of the Awakening movement, analysts say that many tribal leaders are on the fence, waiting to see whether ISIS and its allies have staying power. If they turn on the insurgents, many observers say, it would be out of self-interest and not to defend Baghdad.

“The sahwa have lost all confidence in the government,” said a former high-ranking Iraqi official, using the Arabic word for awakening. The official, a Shiite, did not want to be identified criticizing Maliki’s policies.

“Some of them cannot live with terrorists. Some are staying neutral. Some are giving accommodation to the terrorists,” the former official said. “But you cannot expect them to fight for the government, because that would be fighting for their sworn enemy.”

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