In an exclusive interview with The Nation, the commander of the Sunni-led Awakening movement in Baghdad says that attacks by the Iraqi government and government-allied militiamen against Awakening leaders and rank-and-file members are likely to spark a new Sunni resistance movement. That resistance force will conduct attacks against American troops and Iraqi army and police forces, he says. “Look around,” he says. “It has already come back. It is getting stronger. Look at what is happening in Baghdad.”
The commander, Abu Azzam, spoke to The Nation by telephone from Amman, Jordan, last week, before returning to Baghdad.
He laid out a scenario for a new explosion in Iraq, one that would shatter the complacent American notion that the 2007-08 “surge” of American troops in Iraq has stabilized that war-torn country. Although the greater US force succeeded in putting down some of the most violent sectarian clashes, it was the emergence of the Awakening movement in 2006 that crushed Al Qaeda in Iraq and brought order to Anbar and Baghdad.
On October 1 the Iraqi government is slated to take over responsibility for the Awakening movement, which includes about 100,000 mostly Sunni fighters in the provinces of Anbar, Salahuddin and Diyala and in the mostly Sunni western suburbs of Baghdad. Made up of many former Baathists, ex-military officers from the Saddam Hussein era and other assorted secular nationalists, the Awakening–in Arabic, sahwa, also referred to by the US military as the Sons of Iraq–involves thousands of former guerrillas from the 2003-07 Iraqi resistance.
The sectarian Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki views the Awakening movement with extreme suspicion, and the feeling is mutual. According to several Iraqi sources interviewed for this article, there is a grave possibility that the relative calm that has prevailed in Iraq over the past year will be shattered if the Shiite-led government and its allied militia, the Badr Brigade of the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), engage in an armed power struggle with the Awakening forces for control of western Baghdad.
So far, the United States is trying to cajole Maliki into supporting the Awakening, offering $300 to $500 per month for each member of the Sunni militia. At the same time, US military officers in Iraq have promised to guarantee the payments to the Sunni forces and to shield the Awakening from attacks or reprisals by the regime. But among Sunnis, including those interviewed for this story, there is widespread concern that they are on their own and that the United States will not abandon the government in Baghdad despite its sectarian, pro-Iran leanings.
In that case, said a former top Iraqi official, many Sunnis may turn to an unlikely source for support: Russia. “The Russians are very active,” he said. “They are talking with many Iraqis, including resistance leaders and Awakening members, in Damascus, Syria. They are in discussions with big Baathists.” According to this official, former Baathists, army officers and Awakening members in Damascus, Amman and inside Iraq are looking to Russia for support, especially since Russia seems intent on reasserting itself in the Middle East. “The Russians intend to come out strongly to play with the Sunnis,” he said. “I heard this from sahwa members in Damascus and Amman. ‘If the Americans abandon us, we will go to the Russians.'”
Abu Azzam, who helped found the Awakening in the Baghdad area, is based in the Abu Ghraib suburb of the capital, and he is the commander for the region. Over the past several months, he said, “hundreds” of his fighters have been assassinated by the Badr militia or killed in battles with Iraqi police forces controlled by ISCI’s Badr Brigade. Last month, the police issued a warrant for Abu Azzam’s arrest, but Maliki quashed it after a brief period of confusion. “The Ministry of Justice and the police in Iraq are controlled by the religious parties,” Abu Azzam said. “It wasn’t a real arrest warrant.” Still, it was unsettling to the movement, and it was widely taken as a sign of things to come.
According to the New York Times, Maliki’s government has ordered the arrest of 650 Awakening leaders in the Baghdad area and hundreds more north of the capital, in Diyala province. The Times quoted Jalaladeen al-Saghir, a top official of ISCI’s Badr Brigade, saying, “The state cannot accept the Awakening. Their days are numbered.”
The Iraqi government has pledged to enroll 20 percent of the Awakening force in the army and police. But that pledge is seen by most Sunnis as an action by Maliki to keep the Americans happy–even though Maliki has no intention of keeping his promise.
“Maliki tells the Americans what he thinks they want to hear,” an Awakening leader tells The Nation. “I tell the Americans all the time that it is a trick, but they don’t understand. The Americans are so naïve. They assume good will on the part of Maliki. We don’t understand. The Americans know that Maliki is working closely with the Iranians, so why do they believe him? Why do they listen to him?”
According to Abu Azzam, the fact that 80 percent of the Awakening forces will be kept out of the security services means that they won’t have work, and they will be angry. “The government’s plan is to take the 20 percent, bring them into the security forces, but move them out of the neighborhoods where they are based,” he says. That’s foolish, he adds, because those militia forces know the neighborhoods, and they know a lot about pro-Al Qaeda and pro-Sunni Islamist radicals, house by house. “If you move them, you lose all that knowledge,” he says. “And then they replace them with Iraqi army units that are mostly made up of sectarian Shiite forces.” It is a formula for disaster, and a new civil war.
Last week, the Iraqi Parliament passed a flawed but workable law to govern provincial elections, which are expected to be held early in 2009. Abu Azzam is forming his own political party, the Iraqi Dignity Front, to compete mostly in the Baghdad suburbs. In other provinces, there are other parties emerging out of the Awakening, including the Anbar-based National Front for the Salvation of Iraq. Most of the Awakening-linked parties are expected to sweep the Sunni vote in Anbar, Salahuddin, Diyala and the western suburbs of Baghdad, delivering a knockout blow to the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Sunni religious bloc that at times has been part of Maliki’s coalition. The Iraqi Islamic Party was elected with only 2 percent of the Sunni vote, when nearly all Sunnis boycotted the rigged 2005 elections. Sheikh Ali Hatim, leader of the National Front for the Salvation of Iraq, told an Arabic-language newspaper:
We are waging a battle of destiny against the Islamic Party. Al Qaeda does not pose any danger to Iraq anymore, and it is finished. The real danger are those that fight us in the name of legitimacy and religion–I mean the Islamic Party. Had it not been for the intervention of the government and the US forces, this party would not have lasted for two days in Al-Anbar.
But the pro-Awakening parties are far more concerned about the threat from Maliki and the ISCI-Badr forces than they are with the Iraqi Islamic Party, which does not have a militia of any consequence. And there is no guarantee that they will be satisfied with participation in a political process that restricts them to elections in Anbar and a few other Sunni strongholds yet keeps them out of power in Baghdad and in the central government–especially if the campaign of violence and assassination continues against their fighters.
According to Iraqi sources, the assassinations of key Sunni leaders are being carried out by death squads associated with the Badr Brigade, often supported directly by units from Iran’s intelligence service, which works closely with Badr forces. Since 2003 the Badr Brigade and Iran’s intelligence service have assassinated thousands of former Baathists, army and air force officers; Sunni intellectuals and professionals; and others opposed to Iran’s influence in Iraq.
Many Iraq experts in Washington discount the possibility that the Russians would lend their support to a new resistance force in Iraq, but they do not entirely rule it out.
Earlier this month, a former top Baathist official openly called on Moscow for help. Salah Mukhtar, who was an aide to Tariq Aziz, the former Iraqi foreign minister under Saddam, and who was Iraq’s ambassador to India and Vietnam, said that Russia’s “pre-emptive step in Georgia is a formidable act from the strategic point of view in its timing, aims and tactics,” and he called on Russia to direct its attention to Iraq:
The United States’ Achilles’ heel is Iraq…. The US colonialist project to have absolute control over our planet can be buried in Iraq.
Only through backing the patriotic Iraqi resistance and strengthening its military capabilities can we accelerate the end of US colonialism all over the world…. The key to defeat the United States in the world and to corner it into isolation is Russia providing support to the Iraqi resistance directly or indirectly.
The key to freeing the world by muzzling the United States requires Russian involvement in the Iraq battle.
Despite the bravado in that statement, it’s not impossible that Russia might be toying with the idea of engaging the United States in the Middle East more directly. In all likelihood, it would depend on a significant further deterioration of US-Russian relations over Georgia, Iran and other points of contention. In the meantime, though, it is likely that Russian intelligence agents are quietly connecting with Iraqis.
The bottom line is that despite the deceptive calm in Iraq, the country remains poised to explode. Not only it is possible that the Sunni-Shiite war could reignite but another flashpoint is developing in the north and northeast of Iraq, involving Kurds’ aspirations to aggrandize their territory. Both Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Iraq would oppose any further Kurdish expansionism, especially the Kurds’ desire to take control of oil-rich Kirkuk and Tamim province. Plus, there is still the possibility that the forces of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr night reassert themselves, with Iranian backing, if Maliki were to cave in to US demands for a status-of-forces agreement and a US-Iraq treaty that cedes too much of Iraq’s sovereignty to the American occupation forces.