On August 3, Michael Gordon of the New York Times had a story entitled “The Last Battle” that covered a small Marine unit that incurred the wrath of Baghdad when it attempted to form a Sons of Iraq program in southern Iraq.
In Qadisiyah province, U.S. Marines attempted to use the new Surge techniques of local security and Sons of Iraq units to subdue Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which was in a violent struggle for power with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). In August 2007 Qadisiyah’s SIIC governor and police chief were assassinated in a bombing that was blamed on Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Shortly afterwards, General David Petraeus sent three Marines called Team Phoenix to the province’s capitol, Diwaniyah, to take it back from the militia. The Marines wanted to use an “oil spot” counterinsurgency strategy there where small outposts are established in an area to clear and hold it, and then the security forces move onto the next area like an expanding drop of oil in water. There weren’t enough Iraqi or coalition forces in the city to hold more than one neighborhood, so Team Phoenix wanted to work with the local tribes to form Sons of Iraq units as happened in Anbar province. The Marines were able to convince the mixed Sunni-Shiite Jabouri tribe to man checkpoints inside and outside Diwaniya. As word spread of the program, hundreds of other tribes tried to sign up because of the high unemployment in the province.
Everything seemed to be going ahead as planned until December 2007 when Iraq politics shut down the program. On December 2, U.S. and Iraqi officials talked at a meeting of the Iraqi National Security Committee. The U.S. wanted the government to integrate thousands of SOI into the security forces, and give the others jobs. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he agreed to the U.S. organizing Sunni tribes, but said Americans could not work in the south. Iraqi officials said southern tribes could pose a threat to the ruling Shiite parties, and that was not what the U.S. should be doing. The Americans gave into Maliki’s demands hoping that he would at least take in the Sunni SOI. On December 7, the SIIC governor of Qadisiyah, Hamid Musa al-Khardari, told Team Phoenix they had to shut down the SOI in Diwaniya. The Marines protested, but their superiors told them of the deal they had cut with Maliki earlier that month. They were able to salvage the SOI outside of the city, but those operating inside got their last paychecks and were then disbanded. The three-person team felt betrayed. Not only was their counterinsurgency plan stopped, but so were their ideas about empowering the local tribes. The Marines considered the SIIC governor an Islamist that wanted religious rule in the province, while they thought of the tribes as much more secular. While improving security was the Marines’ number one priority, they also had plans to break the hold of the SIIC over Qadisiayh. That was the exact reason why Maliki demanded the U.S. stop organizing tribes in the South at the December 2 meeting. Team Pheonix in turn, thought that the U.S. had chosen stability over promoting democracy in Iraq.
The problem with Baghdad, was not organizing tribes, but who was controlling them. During the security crackdowns in 2008, the government attempted to organize tribes into local security forces in Basra, Dhi Qar, and Maysan provinces to use against the Sadrists. The difference between the SOI and those recent examples is that the SOI are organized and funded by the American military. Many of the tribes that work with the U.S. want jobs for their followers which they can dish out as patronage, but also a say in politics which are dominated by the major parties. Working with the U.S. allows them a means to gain influence outside of established channels, and are thus seen as a threat by Maliki and the other politicians. The government therefore, has not only opposed the Sunni tribal SOI in western, central and northern Iraq because they fear the return of Sunnis to power, but also the southern tribes because they pose a direct threat to the reign of the major Shiite parties. The fact that the tribes in Basra, Dhi Qar, and Maysan were allowed to directly join the security forces in a matter of days, as opposed to only 17% of the SOI after more than a year, highlights the politics behind the decisions. The U.S. hopes to get more than half of the SOI into some kind of government work by the end of 2008, and get Baghdad to take over the remainder by June 2009, but as long as Maliki and others see these American run units as possible rivals this is unlikely to happen.
Ahmed, Farook and Cochrane, Marisa, “Recent Operations against Special Groups and JAM in Central and Southern Iraq,” Institute for the Study of War, 4/7/08
Cochrane, Marisa, “The Battle for Basra,” Institute for the Study of War and Weekly Standard, 5/31/08
Cordesman, Anthony, “The Shi’ite Gamble: Rolling the Dice for Iraq’s Future,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 4/21/08
Dagher, Sam, “Basra strike against Shiite militias also about oil,” Christian Science Monitor, 4/9/08
- “Iraqis more secure, but few are finding jobs,” Christian Science Monitor, 7/29/08
- “U.S., Iraqi forces meet no Sadr resistance in Amara,” Christian Science Monitor, 6/23/08
Farrell, Stephen and Glanz, James, “More Than 1,000 in Iraq’s Forces Quit Basra Fight,” New York Times, 4/4/08
Gordon, Michael, “The Last Battle,” New York Times, 8/3/08
Greenwall, Megan, “Blast Injures U.S.-Allied Sunni Cleric,” Washington Post, 8/12/07
Missing Links Blog, “What’s up with Maliki’s latest tribal-council proposal,” 7/1/08
Scarborough, Rowan, “Tribe helps al-Maliki win control of south,” Washington Times, 5/23/08
Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Quarterly and Semiannual Report to the United States Congress,” 7/30/08
Voices of Iraq, “Government is the only authority and no negotiations with ‘the gangs’ – PM,” 3/28/08
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