The Sons of Iraq (SOI) is the latest name for the predominately Sunni local security units that have been organized across central and western Iraq during the Surge. By 2008 there were approximately 103,000 fighters under American contract, 70% of which were Sunni. The idea originally began in Anbar province when Sunnis began turning against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Eventually many tribes, insurgents, and local neighborhood watch groups agreed to work with the U.S. in what became known as the Sons of Iraq. They drastically changed the security environment in much of the country. The question now is what to do with them. Some might be integrated into the government, others might find work, some will try to participate in the upcoming elections, others might turn on their own people for support, and finally, there’s the chance that a couple SOIs will rejoin the insurgency.
Origins of the Sons of Iraq
The Sons of Iraq movement is modeled after the Anbar Awakening. In 2005 several tribes in that province grew tired of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s harsh treatment and infringements upon their businesses, and turned against them. That was followed by a break between the nationalist and foreign led insurgents over the December 2005 election on the constitution, and Al Qaeda’s tendency to kill anyone that didn’t follow their leadership. After the Samarra bombing in February 2006, the Shiites also unleashed a wave of retribution attacks against the Sunnis that forced them out of many areas in central Iraq.
In 2006, the U.S. tried to exploit these divisions by reaching out to the nationalist groups within the insurgency and tribes. That turned into a full-blown policy under the Surge in 2007. The tactic spread like wildfire across Baghdad, Diyala, Ninewa, Babil, and Salahaddin provinces as extra American troops were deployed throughout the country. In the process, much of the insurgency switched sides, and even some Shiites joined the movement. After a number of names, Americans began calling all the groups outside of Anbar the Sons of Iraq (SOI). This policy was instrumental in changing the security environment. The tribes and former insurgents knew the neighborhoods, the people, the supply lines, and many of the Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters and leaders. They were able to secure their own areas, provided tactical intelligence, allowed a conduit for U.S. soldiers to mix with the population, while freeing up troops for other operations. The fact that many of these groups had Shiite and American blood on their hands was overlooked for the short-term policy of my enemy of my enemy is my friend.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
The ruling parties in Iraq have been mostly critical of the policy. As soon as the SOI program began expanding outside of Anbar where Sunnis are a majority, leading members of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, high officials, the Kurds, and Maliki all questioned it as a possible threat to the government. Maliki eventually set up a reconciliation committee to deal with the Sunnis. After claiming that the government was ready to take in most of the SOIs, the U.S. changed its story in January 2008 saying that only 20% of the SOIs would be integrated into the security forces. The rest were to get jobs building public works for the government. The major cause of tension is the fear by Shiites and Kurds that the SOIs are a means for the Sunnis to return to power. Many are also former insurgents that have fought the government. The level of distrust runs deep between the two sides, and is not likely to be overcome anytime soon.
That hasn’t stopped the government from taking a few steps towards reconciliation. 1700 SOIs in Abu Ghraib outside of Baghdad, 4,600 in Diyala province, and 9,000 in Baghdad have all been accepted into the security forces. Maliki’s deputy national security advisor, who heads the reconciliation council, promised that 12,000 more would be taken into the security forces, while the general in charge of military operations in Ninewa province said that 20% of the SOIs there would be given local security jobs as part of the plan to pacify Mosul. If all of those fighters were actually taken in, that would roughly equal the 20% that the U.S. said the government would accept. What to do with the other 80% is now the pressing matter.
The U.S. for one has taken steps to train SOIs for public works jobs. Outside of Baghdad in the town of Hawr Rajab, the American military has created a vocational school. The first class of 42 graduated in May 2008. Three more classes of 50 each are planned. The U.S. has also offered to contract out the work to U.S. companies. When they are done, the first thing the former SOIs will do is rebuild the houses in Hawr Rajab. After that it’s hoped that they will work for businesses and factories in other parts of the country. While they attend the classes they get a stipend roughly equal to what they received as fighters. The Iraqi government is not involved however, and the school can obviously only handle a small fraction of the SOIs. This type of training is becoming the major emphasis of the U.S. as they are planning on cutting off funding for the SOIs by the end of 2008.
The majority of the SOIs will have to find another means of support. One option might be for local commanders to become warlords. Many already collect money from local businesses. They might expand their collection racket to support their fighters after they’ve been cut off from their American paychecks. There are already sporadic reports of rival SOIs fighting each other for control of their neighborhoods. It’s unlikely that the government would allow them to exist for long however. That could lead some to rejoin the insurgency, and there are some news stories of that as well. In a more positive sign, some SOIs plan on forming political parties and running in the provincial elections scheduled for the end of the year. Participating in the voting could give them a stake in the local government and help integrate them back into Iraqi society. That could also open up patronage opportunities to provide jobs for fighters.
More troubling is the increasing pressure the SOIs are coming under from within and without Iraq. In December 2007 bin Laden released a tape warning Sunnis in Iraq not to work with the U.S. Afterwards insurgents increased their operations against SOIs. Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia also considers them a threat because they helped stop Shiite expansion in Baghdad. Iran too has supported Shiite militias’ attacks on SOIs. They are both opposed to any kind of Sunni revival. The SOIs have also had sporadic flare ups with the Iraqi security forces. Recently, the government arrested the SOI commander in Adhamiya, and charged the Amirya leader with crimes. Now that security is improving, Maliki could be looking to settle scores with the Sunnis. All of these events show the precarious situation the SOIs find themselves in.
Politics might be the only future for the SOIs. If they stick to the gun, the attacks from all sides will continue, and the government will eventually move to eliminate them. Looking for work with the security forces or public works jobs can only provide for a small group of fighters. The upcoming elections are an opportunity for all kinds of groups that find themselves on the outside of power to get some. The problem is that the Sunni community is divided as ever, and will probably submit dozens of parties. Still, joining the government would give them opportunities, while the others appear to be mostly dead ends.
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