May 07, 2008

Awakening to New Dangers

With all the focus on intra-Shia conflict over the past month, Dr. iRack wanted to draw readers' attention for a moment back to a silent storm brewing: the fate of the "Sons of Iraq." For more than a year, Sunni security volunteers fighting AQI and safeguarding their own neighborhoods have demanded integration into the Iraqi army and police. But very few of the 90,000 mostly Sunni SoIs (including many re-hatted "former" insurgents and even some members associated with AQI) have been integrated or otherwise guaranteed gainful employment by the Iraqi government. Instead, sectarian bias prevails, leaving U.S. forces to pick up the tab and keep them in line. This is not sustainable, and frustrations are growing. Consider this story from Adhamiyah, once one of Baghdad's most violent districts but now calmed (at least temporarily) by the cooperation between SoIs and U.S. forces:

A year ago, Adhamiyah was one of the bloodiest districts in Baghdad. In the past few months, scores of shops have reopened in corners where soldiers remember the stench of rotting corpses. Men crowd outside cafes on streets once prowled by young thugs riding motorbikes and wielding assault rifles.

In the center of Adhamiyah, the Abu Hanifa mosque, one of the most prominent Sunni shrines in Baghdad, glowed under exterior lights. A year ago, soldiers said, gunmen opened fire on U.S. Humvees nearly every time they passed it.

Now, the challenge confronting the Americans is how to cement a peace that will not unravel after they leave.

Friction and Frustration

The Awakening fighters are growing increasingly frustrated that Iraq's Shiite-led central government has been slow to integrate them into the Iraqi police and military services. U.S. officers say the fighters appear to be breaking into factions.

Roadside bombs have suddenly become more prevalent in Adhamiyah. The U.S. military said 21 bombs were found in the area in the last 25 days of April, compared with three or four in all of March. Platoon leaders on patrol at Awakening checkpoints at the end of April sought information about the origins of fresh graffiti in support of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"It's escalating," said a checkpoint leader who gave his name as Abu Ahmad. "Some of the Awakening are chanting for al-Qaeda and using slogans for al-Qaeda. I think the district will pay the price because of these problems."

Leaders from the Awakening are blaming U.S. troops for not ridding the force of those who previously ruled the district. "The problem is with the Americans," Abu Ahmad said. "They know who the guys are who previously worked with al-Qaeda, but they are not doing anything about it. When we catch someone, we know they are killers and thugs, yet they release them."

The U.S. military acknowledges that many Awakening fighters were once members of al-Qaeda in Iraq. "Naturally there is some distrust and disbelief among these members," said Maj. Michael S. Humphreys, a spokesman for the Army. "But with time and continued cooperation and teamwork they will quickly learn to trust each other as brothers, as many of them already have."

Application Holdup

U.S. military officers in Adhamiyah said they were not sure who was responsible for the growing number of roadside bombs -- extremists sneaking back into the neighborhood or factional leaders jockeying for power. The U.S. military has more than 2,200 Awakening fighters in Adhamiyah and nearby neighborhoods.

Military officers said they have tried numerous avenues to get Awakening fighters hired into the Iraqi security forces, but they say they have no evidence that the vast majority of applications have been acted upon.

"Everyone in our chain of command acknowledges that the government of Iraq would be wise if they were to acknowledge the Sunnis," said Maj. Ike Sallee, operations officer for the 3rd Squadron. "Just give these guys a paycheck, a weapon and ID cards. Just acknowledge them and get them into shape. Hold them accountable."

One Army civil affairs officer in Adhamiyah said applications had been returned because they were submitted in the wrong color of ink. The Americans say they are not sure if it's just bureaucratic fumbling or if the applications are being blocked as sectarian payback.

Many of the people who live in Adhamiyah were affiliated with Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The last images of Hussein in public, a day before the American military captured Baghdad, show him amid throngs of cheering supporters in front of the Abu Hanifa mosque. Since then, power has shifted to political parties representing the country's Shiite majority.

Even as the security environment in the district improves, Sallee said problems require constant attention. U.S. officers in Adhamiyah said that they expect the military to continue to pay the $300 monthly salaries of the Awakening fighters, and that it's in the military's interest to keep paying.

"All of Iraq is like embers," Sallee said. "Some places just flare up, so you constantly have to keep tending the embers. That's the best we can do, is get them to embers. But Americans can't extinguish the embers."

Over the past year, the "surge" of U.S. combat forces and improved COIN doctrine played an important part in security improvements in Iraq. Even more important, however, were the decisions by a majority of Iraqi combatants to either switch sides (Sunni tribes and insurgents) or stand on the sidelines (JAM). As U.S. forces thin out, Sunni grievances go unaddressed, and the JAM ceasefire buckles under the strain of intra-Shia conflict and a coalition offensive, the pillars of progress are starting to shake. There will be no re-surge. There will be no "do over." We have to get this right . . . and get it right right now. The clock is ticking. The only solution is a political one, and it will involve pushing the Maliki government to move much faster to co-opt Sunni and Shia combatants. Tick, tock.