It’s too early to say that the Iraqi resistance is back, but the recent increase in violence — including a series of horrific bomb attacks and a rise in small-scale attacks — suggests that Iraq is not exactly a stable, post-civil war society. The question is: Is President Obama fiddling while Iraq burns?
Flashpoints include the Arab-Kurdish conflict over Kirkuk and other disputed areas, along with the still-simmering intra-Shiite conflicts. But the main fault line remains the divide between the mainly Shiite national government — including Prime Minister Maliki’s ruling bloc and various other pro-Iranian Shiite parties — and the nationalist Sunni forces, including the now-disintegrating former Awakening (sahwa) movement, also known as the Sons of Iraq.
No one knows, for certain, who’s behind the recent violence. But it seems likely that at least some of the former Awakening militiamen, who won American backing in 2006, have now fallen back into the underground resistance, perhaps linking up with unreconstructed Baathist partisans of Saddam Hussein and other ex-military and ex-intelligence officers.
Hillary Clinton, who made a surprise visit to Baghdad over the weekend, sounded a lot like Don Rumsfeld, who used to ask himself questions and then answer them. “Are there going to be bad days? Yes, there are,” said Clinton, when asked about a wave of bombings that killed 160 people. And, echoing former Bush officials who put on rose-tinted glasses when asked about the insurgency, Clinton blamed unnamed “rejectionists” for the violence. Even the New York Times couldn’t resist pointing out the irony:
At times, her analysis almost echoed that of former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. When the sectarian violence was relentless several years ago, Mr. Cheney spoke of the insurgency being in its “last throes,” while Mr. Rumsfeld talked of “dead-enders” who kept fighting a lost cause.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times described the state of the Awakening movement under the headline “Iraq’s Awakening: Two tales illustrate force’s birth and slow death.” Reporter Ned Parker raised the key question: Is Maliki’s Shiite-Kurdish regime serious about bringing the Sunnis into a power-sharing arrangement, or is he trying to divide and conquer the Sons of Iraq? Telling the stories of Abu Azzam and Abu Maarouf, two former Awakening leaders, he wrote:
The divergent fates of these two former Sunni insurgents highlight the major unknown about the intentions of Iraq’s Shiite-led government: Is it reaching out to former Sunni insurgents such as Abu Azzam in the true spirit of “national reconciliation,” or in hopes of splintering the movement?
And will the government’s campaign against men such as Abu Maarouf succeed in snuffing out potential rivals? Or is it planting seeds for a long-term Sunni revolt?
The crackdown also points to a significant change in the U.S. forces’ onetime policy of nurturing and protecting the Sons of Iraq. As the Iraqi government has arrested some of the movement’s leaders, forced others into exile and failed to deliver jobs for rank-and-file fighters, the Americans have regularly deferred to Baghdad’s wishes as they hand over responsibility for the country’s security.
It might seem that Clinton, and Obama, have abandoned any real effort to press Maliki forward on reconciliation and that, instead, they’re backing Maliki to the hilt. True, Maliki is wheeling and dealing with some elements of the Sunni community, especially to cobble together provincial governments in the wake of February provincial elections whose results empowered Iraqi nationalists and dealt a setback to Iraq’s pro-Iran religious parties. But an ominous crackdown — including arrests, assassinations, and kidnappings — aimed at members of the Awakening spells trouble.
The Awakening movement, once nearly 100,000 strong and backed by the US military, which paid their salaries, is falling apart. Since last fall, they’ve been gradually abandoned by the United States. Ostensibly, Maliki was supposed to continue to pay them $300 per month each and to bring eligible fighters into the Iraqi army and police, but in practice that hasn’t happened. They’re not getting paid, and very few have joined the security forces.
A bitterly pessimistic picture of the state of the Awakening was painted by Nir Rosen, writing in The National, a newspaper published in the United Arab Emirates. The article is entitled “The Big Sleep.” Commenting on the arrest of Adil al Mashhadani, a former Sunni insurgent leader, Rosen noted that Maliki has turned tough guy, blasting the ex-Awakening movement and describing those who oppose his regime as war-hardened Baathists. Rosen wrote:
The arrest of Mashhadani and other Awakening leaders – and Maliki’s remarks – would seem to mark the beginning of the end for what was a controversial and potentially dangerous component of the American strategy in Iraq, the creation and funding of Sunni militias outside the authority of the state.
Rosen, who interviewed Awakening leaders and former insurgents across the Baghdad region, says that the movement isn’t capable of fighting back. He says that Maliki is now too strong, the Iraqi army too powerful, and the Sunni opposition too divided. He concludes:
The remaining Awakening men have burnt their bridges with their more radical former allies and are now hunted by them; the Iraqi Security Forces have improved their intelligence and strike capability and have little problem tracking those men they want to arrest. Sunni civilians have no interest in backing a new insurgency after their own bitter experience – and they no longer feel targeted by Shiite militias.
The occasional al Qa’eda suicide attack can still kill masses of innocent civilians, but it has no strategic impact; in fact it is difficult to understand what motivates such attacks today, since their effect is almost nil. It would be naive to say that Iraq’s future is certain, or even likely, to be a peaceful one, but the war between Sunnis and Shiites is now over.
But Rosen, a terrific reporter, may yet be premature in his judgment.
A recent report from the Middle East Report/MERIP warns that the civil war could restart:
The crackdown by Iraqi security forces on the Sunni Arab militiamen, known as the Awakenings (sahwat) in Arabic and referred to as the Sons of Iraq by the US military, pitted two ostensible US allies against one another. Together with arrests of other prominent militia leaders and the concrete timeline for the drawdown of US troops, the confrontations have raised questions as to whether some among these armed Sunni Arab factions are ready to return to insurgency in response to their treatment by Maliki’s government. The fate of the sahwat is but one aspect of a larger struggle over the nature of the Iraqi state and its component parts — a struggle in which the United States is increasingly relegated to a subsidiary role. This latest phase of the intra-Iraqi wrangling that dates back almost to the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, could tip the country back into sectarian civil war and complicate Obama’s efforts to extricate the US military from Iraq.
Both Rosen’s article and the MERIP report deserve to be read in full.
But is United States siding with Maliki? A very important April 25 storyin the New York Times — which also deserves to be read in full — suggests that the US has tried to work behind the scenes to rebuild ties between Maliki and the Baathists, but without success. The piece, by Sam Dagher, was called: “Iraq Resists Pleas by U.S. to Placate Baath Party.” It says:
On April 18, American and British officials from a secretive unit called the Force Strategic Engagement Cell flew to Jordan to try to persuade one of Saddam Hussein’s top generals — the commander of the final defense of Baghdad in 2003 — to return home to resume efforts to make peace with the new Iraq.
But the Iraqi commander, Lt. Gen. Raad Majid al-Hamdani, rebuffed them.
After a year of halting talks mediated by the Americans, he said, he concluded that Iraq’s leader, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, simply was not interested in reconciliation.
It adds, pointedly, that Maliki isn’t in a mood to deal:
Mr. Maliki’s pledges to reconcile with some of the most ardent opponents of his government have given way to what some say is a hardening sectarianism that threatens to stoke already simmering political tensions and rising anger over a recent spate of bombings aimed at Shiites.
Mr. Maliki’s retreat risks polarizing Iraqis again and eroding hard-fought security gains. One hundred sixty people died in bombings on Thursday and Friday alone. There is no evidence that Baathists were involved, but fears are rising that they and jihadi insurgents are increasingly cooperating in areas, Baghdad especially, that have been largely quiet over the last year.
Mr. Maliki has changed his tone despite American pressure to reconcile with some officials under Mr. Hussein, most of them Sunni Arabs.
So the question is: if the United States is working behind the scenes to pressure Maliki, and he’s resisting, why is Secretary Clinton blaming “rejectionists” for the violence? Why isn’t she blaming Maliki, equally? And the bigger question: Has President Obama forgotten about Iraq? Does he realize that the very criticisms that he made of the so-called surge — that it didn’t do anything to foster political reconciliation in Iraq — are still true? One-sided support for Maliki jsut isn’t an option for Obama. During the campaign, he promised to convene an international conference, sponsored by the UN, to rewrite Iraq’s divisive, pro-Shiite/Kurdish constitution and to rebalance Iraq’s political forces. We’re waiting.