Baghdad’s misguided crackdown on the Sons of Iraq

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There is a gathering storm on Iraq’s horizon. Over the last several weeks, its central government has embarked on what appears to be an effort to arrest, drive away or otherwise intimidate tens of thousands of Sunni security volunteers -- the so-called Sons of Iraq -- whose contributions have been crucial to recent security gains. After returning from a trip to Iraq last month at the invitation of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, we are convinced that if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his advisors persist in this sectarian agenda, the country may spiral back into chaos.

Much of Iraq’s dramatic security progress can be traced to a series of decisions made by Sunni tribal leaders in late 2006 to turn against Al Qaeda in Iraq and cooperate with American forces in Anbar province. These leaders, outraged by Al Qaeda’s brutality against their people, approached the U.S. military with an offer it couldn’t refuse: Enter into an alliance with the tribes, and they would turn their weapons against Al Qaeda rather than American troops.

Throughout 2007, U.S. commanders capitalized on this Sunni movement, the so-called Awakening, to create an expanding network of alliances with Sunni tribes and former insurgents that helped turn the tide and drive Al Qaeda in Iraq to near extinction. There are now about 100,000 armed Sons of Iraq, each paid $300 a month by U.S. forces to provide security in local neighborhoods throughout the country. In recognition of the key role the Awakening played in security improvements, President Bush met with several Sunni tribal leaders during his trip to Anbar last September, and Petraeus, who cites the program as a critical factor explaining the decline in violence, has promised to “not walk away from them.”


But Iraq’s predominantly Shiite central government seems intent on doing precisely that. Maliki and his advisors never really accepted the Sunni Awakening, and they remain convinced that the movement is simply a way for Sunni insurgents to buy time to restart a campaign of violence or to infiltrate the state’s security apparatus. In 2007, with Iraq’s government weak and its military not yet ready to take the lead in operations, the Maliki government acquiesced to the U.S.-led initiative and grudgingly agreed to integrate 20% of the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi security forces. Now, a newly confident Maliki government is edging away from this commitment.

During our trip, a common theme among U.S. military commanders, intelligence officers, diplomats and Iraqi political leaders we spoke with was the growing hubris of Maliki and his closest advisors. Recent government successes in Basra, Sadr City and Mosul seem to have convinced Maliki’s inner circle that Iraq’s army does not need American help as much as it used to. A newly emboldened prime minister is now moving out aggressively against his adversaries, including the Sons of Iraq.

Plans to integrate these Sunni fighters into Iraq’s security forces or provide them with civilian employment have been consistently “slow rolled.” While Maliki has committed to incorporate 20% of the 100,000 Sons of Iraq members under U.S. contract into Iraq’s army or police forces by the end of this year, only a small fraction have actually been hired. When asked if the Iraqi government had created stumbling blocks to integrating the Sons of Iraq, Petraeus said in a recent interview, “That certainly has been the case.”

It gets worse. Over the last several weeks, Iraqi army units and special operations forces (which report directly to Maliki) have arrested Sons of Iraq leaders, dismantled checkpoints and otherwise harassed local security volunteers in Diyala province and greater Baghdad. There are reportedly plans to detain hundreds of Sons of Iraq members in the coming weeks. “These people are like cancer, and we must remove them,” an Iraqi army general in Abu Ghraib, a Baghdad suburb, told a reporter last week. Another Iraqi commander in Baghdad confided, “We cannot stand them, and we detained many of them recently,” before telling that reporter of plans to instigate a major crackdown as early as November.

We talked to a number of tribal and Sons of Iraq leaders during our trip. When asked what would happen if the Maliki government did not keep its word and integrate or otherwise accommodate their members, one leader was blunt: “There will be trouble.”

It is obvious where this road might end. The last time tens of thousands of armed Sunni men were humiliated in Iraq -- by disbanding the Baath Party and Iraqi army in May 2003 -- an insurgency began, costing thousands of U.S. lives and throwing Iraq into chaos. Yet Maliki and his advisors risk provoking Iraq’s Sunni community into another round of violence.


The rising tensions in Iraq reveal a weakness in U.S. strategy and the Bush administration’s approach to the war: the unconditional nature of our support to Maliki’s government.

The “surge” strategy in Iraq, as described by President Bush in January 2007, rested on the belief that tamping down violence would provide a window of opportunity that Iraq’s leaders would use to pursue political reconciliation. But this has not occurred, despite the dramatic security improvements. Indeed, if the problem in 2006 and 2007 was Maliki’s weakness and inability to pursue reconciliation in the midst of a civil war, the issue in 2008 is his overconfidence and unwillingness to entertain any real accommodation with his political adversaries. America’s blank check to the Iraqi government feeds this hubris.

U.S. strategy must be reengineered to exploit our diminished but still significant leverage. Despite recent military successes, the Iraqi security forces remain critically dependent on U.S. air power, logistical support, intelligence and training. The United States must make continued security assistance conditional on Maliki carrying through on his commitments to integrate and gainfully employ the Sons of Iraq.

The security gains in Iraq have been remarkable, but U.S. leaders in Washington need to do whatever is necessary to prevent this threatening storm from sweeping away all that has been achieved at great cost and sacrifice.

Shawn Brimley is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Colin Kahl is a senior fellow at CNAS and an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.