Monday, September 29, 2008

Finding A Historical Precedent For The Sons Of Iraq, But Not A Solution

On September 8, the Small Wars Journal published a piece on the Sons of Iraq (SOI) by former U.S. Army officer William McCallister. He attempted to place the SOI within the context of Iraq’s history of local security forces, but his analogy didn’t quite work in the end.

McCallister looked at Iraq’s history of local armed groups for a comparison to the SOI. He found several. One was between the 8th and 12th Centuries when Baghdad was divided into four districts. Each had its own security force run by powerful families. They policed their own areas, but could be called upon to defend the city. Another was in rural areas, the central government would look to coop local elites and their fighters, who would then act as agents of the government. McCallister believes that the creation of the SOI followed these traditions of communities protecting themselves, while cooperating with Baghdad.

The Anbar Awakening closely followed these examples. The Sunni tribes in Anbar first began turning against Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2005 on their own initiative. The U.S. didn’t begin cooperating with them until early the following year. They quickly tried to integrate the tribal fighters into the local security force. For example, in Ramadi, the first city where U.S. and tribal sheikhs worked together, the number of police went from 35 in June 2006 to 1,300 in training by November of that year, thanks to the Anbar Salvation Council. Today there are around 25,000 Awakening fighters in the province’s police. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government never seemed to have a major problem with this process, even agreeing to appointing an Awakening leader to be the provincial police chief in Anbar. As in the historic examples, Baghdad was attempting to work through local elites in the periphery to exert the center’s control.

McCallister then made an important, and often overlooked observation, that the Awakening in Anbar, and the SOI are very different. While the Awakening was an organic organization that was created by local Iraqis, the SOI in the rest of the country were largely the result of U.S. policy. These groups represent a rival security force that the government has no connection to or control over. This is why Maliki has ordered crackdowns on SOI’s in areas such as Diyala and Salahaddin, because he is attempting to weaken them. Something similar might be behind the Prime Minister agreeing to take up the salary of the Baghdad SOI by October of this year.

The problem with McCallister’s historical analogy comes at the end. There he argues that the U.S. can’t impose any conditions upon Baghdad to integrate the SOI because that will be seen as a sign of weakness by the government’s opponents and exploited. He uses this against the “strategic conditionality” argument put forward by Iraq observers such as Georgetown professor and Obama advisor Colin Kahl, who say that the U.S.’s influence over Iraq is decreasing as the Iraqi government becomes more autonomous so the Americans have to predicate any future support based upon Maliki moving towards national reconciliation. McCallister on the other hand, says that the United States needs to create a new policy to integrate the SOI, but based upon Iraqi culture and history. This is where his thesis runs into issues because outside of the Anbar Awakening, the SOI were not local forces created by Iraqis to protect their communities, but were rather created because the United States actively sought to spread the Anbar model across central and northern Iraq. Anbar fits the historical examples McCallister found, but the SOI happened to be formed by a foreign occupying power. There is no reason, therefore, for Maliki to accept this separate security force because he doesn’t see it as Iraqi, but rather an American creation. While finding an Iraqi solution would definitely be preferable to anything imposed by the U.S., there is no historical precedent for this to happen, which is the major argument of McCallister’s paper. An Iraq centered policy could possibly mean the arrest and dissolution of much of the SOI, with only a truncated few ever being integrated. This is in fact what seems to be Maliki’s plan right now in Diyala province. Another problem with McCallister’s piece is that the U.S. could do nothing about Maliki’s moves because McCallister believes that could undermine the Prime Minister’s standing. That doesn’t sound like a good deal for the Americans or the SOI.


Allam, Hannah and al Dulaimy, Mohammed, “Marine-led Campaign Killed Friends and Foes, Iraqi Leaders Say,” Knight Ridder, 5/17/05

Fletcher, Martin, “Fighting back: the city determined not to become al-Qaeda’s capital,” Times of London, 11/20/06

Kahl, Colin, “Bridge On The River Euphrates,” National Interest, 9/2/08

Khalil, Lydia, “Anbar Revenge Brigade Makes Progress in the Fight Against al-Qaeda,” Terrorism Focus, Jamestown Foundation, 3/28/06

McCallister, William, “Sons of Iraq: A Study in Irregular Warfare,” Small Wars Journal, 9/8/08

O’Hanlon, Michael, Campbell, Jason, “Iraqi Index,” Brookings Institution, 8/28/08


Anonymous said...

Motown, you will be interested in this link where Sterling Jensen discusses this very issue.

And also this link, where Jensen provides translations of the Iraqi Awakening's political philosophy.

These two pieces seem to demonstrate clearly the difference between the Awakenings and the SOI, in that the former is a tribal led political movement while the latter more your disparate baathists, salafis, sunni thugs etc jumping on board US protection soley because the insurgency has fallen apart?


Joel Wing said...


Yeah, I've read those. He's got an occasional column on that website about the Awakening. He's up to Part 5. His posts are informative, but I can't remember if he's reported anything about the conflict between the Islamic Party that currently runs Anbar and the Awakening. Sheikh Hayes for example has often threatened violence against the IP (he's a blowhard though), and the head of the Awakening Political Party just gave a speech where he said they were the true nationalists of Iraq and criticized the IP for cooperating with Al Qaeda and not doing anything for the province.

Also, all the tribes in the Anbar Awakening also worked with Al Qaeda and the insurgency up to 2005-2006. They were just the first ones to get tired of them and turned on them on their own initiative.

Anonymous said...

Only came across a link to Jensen early today when idly googling "News Baghdad"! So thanks. Have read it all now.

Am surprised you haven't referenced Jensen before? He is informative because he apparently was a Marine civilian liason with the Awakenings and an Arabic linguist? Not bad credentials I would have thought.

My interest in Iraq since invasion has been very much on the development of their democratic political system - a subject which never got much play on the blogs, but there you go.

It was easy to be cynical about the Awakenings when they first came on the scene but as time went on I grew more and more interested in Sheikh Sattar's utterances. Seemed to me this might be the first glimpse of a Gen X-led Sunni Arab political movement emerging.

Significantly one that was was accepting the new political reality: ie that under a democratic, representative, one-person,one-vote, universal franchise system the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds would have to share forever power with a plurality shia party/ies. But also "getting" that the Iraqi constitution provided for such onerous checks and balances that minorities like the Sunnis and Kurds could not be cut out of the power sharing. And that the checks and balances on executive power written into the constitution would give opposition parties in the parliament considerable scope to align with disaffected government backbenchers to introduce, pass, reject or amend legislation.

There have been so many, many examples of the aforementioned in the last year ... in fact it is the decisions and machinations of the Iraqi parliament which has kept the anti-Maliki blogosphere alive in recent months.

To return to the Awakenings and the SOI. As far as I am aware no political leadership of the SOI in Baghdad, Diyala or Ninewa has emerged to stand up and recognise the legitimacy of GOI elected under the Iraq constitution? Unlike the Anbar/Iraqi Awakening?

Until and unless that happens the GOI will continue to treat the SOIs as potential Baathists, salafists and hangers-on who have switched sides for short term expediency only. Why wouldn't they be realistic about this, given the history of the last three decades and particularly the (sunni/baathist/AlqI) targeting of the shia from May 2003 onwards?

Joel Wing said...

At least in American press reports, most SOI that are interviewed still talk about the government as "Persians" meaning Shiites, and say they're under Iranian control. At the same time, it seems all of them want to sit at the table because most of them registered as political parties and talked about working with other Sunnis, including the Iraqi Islamic party, to form coalitions and run candidates in the provincial elections. That is just another reason why Maliki has been cracking down on them.

There was a report in USA Today on 9/22 for example, that said the government issued arrest warrants for Diyala SOI just days after they'd registered as a party, and those meant they couldn't run as canidates in the election.

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