Monday, October 13, 2008

The End of Iraq's "Awakening"?

There are 99 days until Jan. 20, 2009.


The End of Iraq's "Awakening"?


By Robert Dreyfuss

The Nation

September 30, 2008


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

U.S. 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 was 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 U.S. 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, U.S. 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

    U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-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 might reassert themselves, with Iranian

backing, if Maliki were to cave in to U.S. demands for

a status-of-forces agreement and a U.S.-Iraq treaty

that cedes too much of Iraq's sovereignty to the

American occupation forces.



Robert Dreyfuss is the author of "Devil's Game: How the

United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam"

(Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books).


(c) 2008 The Nation All rights reserved.


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