June 29, 2008

Abu Abed Falls -- Will the SoIs Follow? (Updated)

Very interesting piece by Ned Parker in the LAT on the rise and fall of Sons of Iraq (SoI) superstar Abu Abed (the guy on the far right in the picture above). Abu Abed came to prominence by creating a group of Sunni security volunteers (the "Knights in the Land of the Two Rivers") to join with U.S. forces to fight AQI in the turbulent Baghdad neighborhood of Amiriya. His group, and groups like it, came to be known as Concerned Local Citizen (CLCs) but are now called SoIs. There are now approximately 100,000 SoIs; 80 percent are Sunnis. Some saw Abu Abed as a hero who fought AQI terrorists; other saw him as a would-be warlord with a very dark side and a proclivity toward brutal methods. Regardless, Abu Abed became the poster child for the expansion of the Sunni Awakening (and "bottom-up" reconciliation) from its origins among the tribes in Anbar to include many "reconcilable" Sunni militants in greater Baghdad and nearby provinces (Babil, Diyala, Salah ad Din).

But now Abu Abed is on the run and hiding in Jordan. The Iraqi government is investigating him for a series of crimes and his SoI group in Amiriya has been taken over by his once-friend, now-rival Abu Ibrahim. Why does any of this matter? As the LAT explains:

Abu Abed's flight into exile shines a light on a violent power struggle pitting upstart leaders like him against Iraq's entrenched Sunni political elite and its Shiite-dominated government. The frictions could easily shatter the Sons of Iraq -- and open the door to Al Qaeda in Iraq's resurgence.

Perhaps even more significantly, the charges against him belie the notion of an Iraqi government moving toward reconciliation among its Sunni and Shiite populations.

The Shia-dominated Iraqi government considers many of the SoIs to merely be fronts for "former" insurgents. They are right, but they draw the wrong conclusion. Ending insurgencies and civil wars usually requires the government and counterinsurgent forces to hold their noses and make some accommodation with groups that used to be killing them. This is the lesson of the Sunni Awakening, but it's not clear the Iraqi government has internalized this lesson.

The government considers Abu Abed a former militant with blood on his hands.

"If he has done something, let the legal system take its course. It is not just with Abu Abed, but all the people," said Tahseen Sheikhly, an Iraqi government spokesman for Baghdad military operations. "They were part of the major problem of violence in Iraq."

Maliki and his inner circle of advisers--perhaps, most notably, those involved in the Implementation and Follow up Committee for National Reconciliation (IFCNR)--are paranoid that too much SoI integration will allow infiltration of the ISF by Sunni insurgents. And Maliki et al's growing (over)confidence in the prowess of the ISF has not put them in a compromising mood with these "thugs" and "hooligans." As a result, Maliki has been slow to integrate SoIs or provide them other forms of gainful employment despite repeated promises to do so. Again, the LAT notes:

Amid the political skirmishing, the committee set up to integrate U.S.-backed Sunni fighters into the security forces and public works jobs has stalled.

Iraqi officials have been cryptic about the reason. Sheikhly acknowledged that the committee's efforts had slowed to a crawl, but said it was because the committee had shuffled members.

Others are more explicit. Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitaa, a prominent Shiite who runs a think tank with close ties to the government, said Prime Minister Nouri Maliki had frozen the committee because of Shiite anger over America's failure to act against fighters such as Abu Abed.

One Western official agreed that the government's decision was deliberate.

"The coalition twisted Maliki's arm on the committee," the official said on condition of anonymity, referring to the prime minister's decision to create the body last year. "And now he has decided, we don't need it. As far as he is concerned, this is an American problem."

This is a huge mistake. Separate from the merits or demerits of the Abu Abed case specifically, Abu Abed is not just a guy--he is a symbol. His treatment, in conjunction with other evidence of disdain for the SoIs emanating from Maliki and his coterie, could signal that former Sunni fighters will be locked out (and chased out) from integration and accommodation efforts. If so, there is a real risk of the SoI program imploding, taking much of the recent security progress with it. As Abu Abed himself warned: "Al Qaeda will come back and the government and Iraqi army will be helpless to defeat them. People will have lost their faith in the government because of the way they treated me and others."

The Abu Abed story has a different angle too. It seems that the final straw for the Iraqi government came when Abu Abed pivoted from just mobilizing local SoI groups to wanting to participate in politics.

In recent months, Abu Abed had been organizing like-minded fighters around Baghdad and northern Iraq for provincial elections in the fall. U.S. officers believe his transition to politics could have proved the last straw for the government.

"Certainly you can draw the conclusion because he was getting involved in the political process to engage Sons of Iraq leaders to form a political party, the Iraqi government actively targeted him," said a U.S. military officer, who declined to give his name because of the subject's sensitivity. "I don't know that I can say it outright, but it certainly does seem that way."

The "Green Zone parties" are clearly worried that an emerging cadre of leaders at the local level will start to undermine their grip on power in the provincial elections, setting up a potential clash between the "powers that be" and the "powers that aren't" (local and tribal entities) in the months ahead. This is true of the continuing intra-Shia clashes between Dawa/ISCI and the Sadrists, and it will likely become increasingly apparent between the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) and Sunni tribal and SoI groups.


Update: As the U.S. transitions control of SoIs to the Iraqi government, Maliki isn't stepping up. Good summary of recent problems and risks from the AP.

Update II: motown67 noted a report by Reuters about the arrest of another group of SoIs in Ahdamiya. An accompanying picture from a related protest (below) ran with this caption: "Members of the U.S.-backed Neighbourhood Patrol take to the streets during a protest demanding for the release of their leader and five other members who were arrested by the Iraqi army in northern Baghdad's Adhamiya district June 28, 2008. An Iraqi army officer said the army arrested five members of the Neighbourhood Patrol and their leader on Thursday in connection to the kidnapping of five civilians in Adhamiya. The script on the placard reads: 'Arresting Members of Awakening Council encourages violence in Iraq'."