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.'”