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The Reawakened Specter of Civil War

Saturday 25 April 2009, by Michael Wahid Hanna

April has already been a cruel month in Iraq. A spate of bombings aimed at Shi‘i civilians in Baghdad has raised fears that the grim sectarian logic that led the capital to civil war in 2005-2007 will reassert itself. On April 6, a string of six car bombs killed at least 37 people; the next day, shortly after President Barack Obama landed in Baghdad, another car bomb killed eight; and on the morrow, still another bomb blew up close to the historic Shi‘i shrine in Kadhimiyya just northwest of the capital’s central districts, taking an additional seven civilian lives. Worryingly for Iraqis, the bombings occurred following gun battles between the security forces of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi‘i-led government and Sunni Arab militiamen, fueling rumors that the disgruntled militiamen have spearheaded the violent campaign.

The crackdown by Iraqi security forces on the Sunni Arab militiamen, known as the Awakenings (sahwat) in Arabic and referred to as the Sons of Iraq by the US military, pitted two ostensible US allies against one another. Together with arrests of other prominent militia leaders and the concrete timeline for the drawdown of US troops, the confrontations have raised questions as to whether some among these armed Sunni Arab factions are ready to return to insurgency in response to their treatment by Maliki’s government. The fate of the sahwat is but one aspect of a larger struggle over the nature of the Iraqi state and its component parts — a struggle in which the United States is increasingly relegated to a subsidiary role. This latest phase of the intra-Iraqi wrangling that dates back almost to the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, could tip the country back into sectarian civil war and complicate Obama’s efforts to extricate the US military from Iraq.

The Awakenings

The Awakening movement arose prior to the 2007 “surge” of US troops and the adoption in Washington of an alternative strategy focused on counterinsurgency. The factors leading to the improvement of the security situation have been the subject of considerable political controversy; it is universally acknowledged, however, that the Awakening movement was a crucial factor in the reduction of violence in areas previously inhabited or even controlled by the Sunni Arab insurgency. Previous efforts at outreach to tribal leaders, with whom the various insurgent groups were increasingly intertwined from the summer of 2003 onward, had been ad hoc and failed to produce lasting cooperation or a blueprint for future action. The first organized and sustained tactical alliances between US forces and Sunni Arab tribal leaders arose in 2006 in Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar province, under the leadership of Col. Sean MacFarland.

It is difficult at this juncture to catalog precisely the types of impetus for the sea change in attitudes among Sunni Arab tribal leaders and former insurgents represented by the Awakening movement. Many analysts have understood the shift in their strategic calculus as a response to the brutality and arrogance of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia,[1] and that group’s efforts to assert its control over rival insurgents and tribal leaders in its areas of operation.[2] Additionally, by 2007 the sectarian civil war had eclipsed the anti-US insurgency and become the lens through which many Sunni Arabs perceived their long-term interests. The tactical US alliances with local forces were replicated throughout al-Anbar province and were later formalized and extended to other areas of the country, including Baghdad and “mixed” provinces, such as Diyala, Ninewa and Kirkuk, where no sectarian or ethnic group constitutes a large majority. The Awakenings eventually came to number over 100,000 militiamen. While the sahwat remained overwhelmingly Sunni Arab, US forces had some success in recruiting Shi‘i tribal forces into similar arrangements in the north and south of the country as well.

These alliances arose on a bilateral basis, without input from the Iraqi government, and were established outside the formal structures of the nascent post-Saddam Iraqi state. The arrangements were viewed warily by the Shi‘i Islamist and Kurdish political parties that held sway in the Green Zone after 2005 and even by the more established Sunni-identified parties. As such, US support was not indefinitely sustainable, and the military sought an alternate long-term solution that required the integration of these militiamen into the Iraqi security forces. The mutual suspicion between the Iraqi government and the sahwat complicated this approach. Brig. Gen. Nasir al-Hiti, commander of the Muthanna Brigade in Abu Ghraib, described members of the sahwat as “like cancer” and went on to say that the Iraqi government “must remove them.”[3] Others in the government have publicly acknowledged the important role of the sahwat in tamping down violence but have intimated that the process of integration risks infiltration of the security services by hostile elements. In this vein, national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Ruba‘i warned, “Once we get al-Qaeda in our security services, then we are doomed.”[4] Despite the Maliki government’s assumption of responsibility for the payment of the militiamen and its repeated assurances that some portion of the sahwat will be integrated, most have not been.[5]

In fact, the Iraqi government has undertaken periodic raids upon the offices and homes of militia leaders, arresting several. The government’s targeting of the councils is part of a gradual process that began in 2008. The most conspicuous crackdown prior to April’s occurred in the restive “mixed” province of Diyala, where numerous sahwa leaders were detained in the course of an August 2008 military operation. The March 28, 2009 arrest of ‘Adil al-Mashhadani, chief of a militia in the heavily Sunni Arab district of Fadhl in Baghdad, was notable for the scope of the operation employed to detain him and for the violent resistance it provoked. The Iraqi government justified the arrest on the basis of a December 2008 arrest warrant that implicated al-Mashhadani in terrorist activity related to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

The political context of this latest crackdown offers important clues to the motivations and mindset of Maliki and his government. To defang his Shi‘i rivals in the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr, Maliki employed carrot-and-stick tactics. In the spring and summer of 2008, Maliki ordered a series of military actions that targeted Jaysh al-Mahdi, the Sadrist militia, including the March offensive in Basra, the April-May assault on Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of the Sadrists, and a June operation in Maysan province. These operations resulted in the detention of scores of Sadrist fighters and leaders, and weakened the military capacity of Jaysh al-Mahdi. Yet following the January 2009 provincial elections, which saw the Sadrists achieve respectable results throughout the south, the prime minister’s electoral list is now in negotiations with them over the makeup of provincial coalitions. Maliki’s approach to the Sadrists could provide a rough sketch of the government’s plan for extending its writ and corralling the Awakenings. With Sadrists engaged in alliance politics and simultaneously pleading for the release of their party colleagues who remain in jail, Maliki appears confident that his security apparatus is able to bend the will of his political adversaries to reshape the country’s political dynamics.

This episode follows the near completion of the transfer of the sahwat to Iraqi government oversight and control (save for 10,000 militiamen in Salah al-Din province) and the government is now responsible for the monthly payments of the militiamen. It indicates that Maliki is bent on asserting authority over these groups, with no tolerance for open dissent over government treatment. Maliki’s actions in Baghdad appear to be part of a strategy to cement the fragmentation and political weakness of the councils in “mixed” areas of the country; they also appear to be premised on the government’s belief that the lack of centralized coordination among the sahwat and the fragmented state of Sunni Arab politics will allow an assertion of political control through force without triggering widespread reversion to insurgency.

The lack of a broad top-down structure spanning the various provinces and the multiplicity of local actors have likely created a sense of confidence that the patchwork set of agreements struck with the US military has hampered the groups’ ability to respond in a collective fashion and deterred widespread reprisals by disenfranchised militiamen. The acquiescence of these groups and the lack of sharp reaction to similar repression in Diyala have likely been interpreted by the government as a sign that the sahwat are exhausted by the years of insurgency, as well as the violent conflict with al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which has increasingly set its sights on the Sunni Arab militias. The biometric and census data gathered by the US military as a precondition for getting on the US payroll could also provide the Iraqi government with a tool to use against the erstwhile rebels should US forces share the information. The data “provides a useful enemies list to the government of Iraq, if they chose to use it,” commented Colin Kahl, now a deputy assistant secretary at Obama’s Pentagon, in the summer of 2008.[6]

At the same time, the government has tempered the clear sectarian overtones of the crackdown and advanced the nationalist gambit it used to such effect in the January provincial elections. It has done this through wide-ranging political discussions with Sunni Arab political parties it considers more palatable, such as the Iraqi National Project List led by Salih al-Mutlaq, and by courting leaders from the Anbar Awakening, the original sahwa that soon spawned imitators across the country. (Of course, the Anbaris, hailing from the large province west of Baghdad that is home to Falluja and Ramadi, were also some of the original insurgents.) Broadly speaking, the Anbar groups are perceived in a different light than those in “mixed” areas of the country due to their reliance on tribal structures, the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab population of the province and the political power they have accrued through provincial elections. Additionally, being enmeshed in the machinery of provincial governance will endow the winners among the Anbaris with the ability to placate their tribal and other allies through the provision of public-sector employment and the awarding of government contracts. The willingness of Maliki to consider political alliances with these groups has established the limited terms of reference for future engagement and has sent a message to all other branches of the Awakenings that, without a strong political grounding on the government’s terms, they have no future in Iraq.

In a recent appearance on al-Jazeera explaining the government’s position on the arrest of al-Mashhadani, Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Muhammad al-‘Askari differentiated among the sahwat and posited that the Anbar branch is a reaction to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and a model of those groups intent on national reconciliation. By contrast, al-‘Askari described the “other branch…in Baghdad, Diyala, Ninewa” as harboring an ulterior motive — the desire to take advantage of incorporation into the security apparatus in order to assist those still intent upon carrying out guerrilla operations. Similarly, Iraqi Vice President ‘Adil ‘Abd al-Mahdi, a member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), noted that the groups in Anbar “allowed us to expel al-Qaeda out of al-Anbar, and for that reason they received the support of the government and the Iraqi people.” He went on to distinguish between the “original sahwat” and those groups that “claim to be part of the forces of the sahwat but wait for the appropriate time to launch their attacks.”[7]

Maliki’s Aspirations

Ned Parker, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in Baghdad, has described the prime minister’s calculated repression of Sunni Arabs among the Awakenings who are former insurgent leaders and noted that Maliki has also sought to curb the influence of his most powerful Shi‘i rivals, ISCI, through the establishment of independent bases of support throughout the south. The picture that emerges is that of a highly sectarian leader with aspirations for centralized leadership that have required small steps toward cross-sectarianism and corresponding moves against his co-religionists.[8] By moving against some Sunni groups while negotiating with others, Maliki has further consolidated his grip on power, but left himself open to criticism from Shi‘i Islamists who are more doctrinaire. Concerned with their own diminished status and the possibility of government action targeting their members, these Shi‘i players have actively sought to hinder cross-sectarian politics and have distorted Maliki’s limited efforts at coopting Sunni Arab political actors. This is a crucial point, as Maliki’s nationalist posturing has yet to provide him with a truly cross-sectarian voting constituency and his electoral base remains overwhelmingly centered within the Shi‘i communities of Iraq.

Since the provincial elections, al-Maliki has openly discussed the possibility of allowing the re-entry of select Baathists into the political process.[9] He has also made public overtures to al-Mutlaq to explore the formation of provincial coalitions.[10] Both of these steps were greeted with suspicion by the Sadrists and ISCI, which remains Maliki’s primary Shi‘i rival for dominance in Baghdad and the southern provinces even after its electoral setbacks in January. Writing at his website, the analyst Reidar Visser notes that following the elections, ISCI “is employing its favorite weapon, anti-Baathism, to try to recover some of the ground it lost.” In a defensive reaction, Maliki was forced to express his vociferous opposition to any and all discussions regarding the rehabilitation of the Baath, and his office released an official statement that emphasized that the “disbanded Baath party” could not legally participate in the political process.[11] He has more recently described those who support the party’s participation in the political life of Iraq as “delusional and ignorant.”[12] Thus the sequence of events suggests that the crackdown and the accusation that al-Mashhadani was engaged in Baathist political activity served the additional purpose of shielding the government from more strident criticism among other Shi‘i politicians and quelling any doubts that might have arisen among the Shi‘i populace.

None of the foregoing is meant to downplay Maliki’s continuing sectarian concerns regarding the Awakening Councils and the potential dangers of this overall course. The unwillingness of Maliki’s government to integrate sizable numbers from these groups into the security forces or provide them with reasonable civilian employment continues to cast a shadow over the general downturn in violence since mid-2007.

With the dramatic decline in the price of oil and the slashing of the budget for 2009, the prospects for integrating significant numbers of the sahwat into the security forces or otherwise accommodating them look bleak. To date, while the actual numbers are contested and public pronouncements by the government have varied, recent estimates suggest that only 5,000 of these individuals have been formally inducted into the security forces.[13] Furthermore, the outbreak of hostilities following al-Mashhadani’s arrest is still seen by many Sunnis in sectarian terms. A stepped-up and more comprehensive campaign against the sahwat could still trigger a broader sense of Sunni Arab grievance and a series of uncoordinated reactions that would catalyze a larger outbreak of destabilizing sectarian violence.

The Stakes

Understanding this backdrop is particularly important because the ability of the United States and its military forces to affect the trajectory of political accommodation and reconciliation has diminished. Some commentators have rightly pointed out that these actions have placed US troops at odds with their former Sunni allies.[14] Recalling the discussion surrounding the negotiations of the US-Iraqi status of forces agreement, Col. Peter Mansoor, Gen. David Petraeus’ executive officer, worried that the agreement “would put US forces into a position where they could not intervene to stop the government of Iraq from attacking the Sons of Iraq. If the Iraqi Security Forces needed help once engaged against the Sons of Iraq, US forces could be drawn into the fight against the very people who helped us turn the war around.”[15] At the same time, the direct involvement of US forces in support of the arrest of al-Mashhadani highlights the Maliki government’s continued reliance on the US military for logistics and air support and still represents the most potent form of leverage that US policymakers could exploit, should they wish to halt the spiral before it acquires momentum.

While the Obama administration remains solicitous of the stability of the Maliki government, US support for Iraqi military operations cannot be unconditional if the stated strategic goal of withdrawal is not to be compromised. Many of the Maliki government’s operations would not be feasible without US support or, if they were undertaken without such support, could only be successful at a much higher cost in casualties and reputation. If the US military simply enforces the decisions made by Maliki to consolidate his power against perceived enemies, the premier will merely be emboldened to take bigger and bigger risks. In instances such as the al-Mashhadani arrest, when US forces are deployed to rein in specific militia leaders, their cooperation risks making a mockery of Maliki’s repeated assurances of integration into the security forces or other public-sector employment.

It is entirely possible that al-Mashhadani is fully guilty of the charges against him — this would hardly be surprising given the background and history of the sahwat and many of their individual members. Targeting the worst of this lot is understandable, and perhaps desirable, from the perspective of the US and its Iraqi allies in the Green Zone, and when limited in scope is unlikely to spark Sunni Arab outrage that would provoke a reversion to full-scale insurgency. But the United States remains at risk of being enlisted as a proxy as the Shi‘i-dominated government dictates terms of surrender in an unfinished sectarian civil war. Litigating the rights and wrongs of the civil war through wholesale repression of the sahwat would constitute a form of victor’s justice — with no regard for the excesses and abuses carried out under government aegis or with government connivance. And it would increase the chances, already too high, that Iraqi civilians will be exposed to another and perhaps even bloodier round of internecine fighting.

(Michael Wahid Hanna is program officer for international affairs at the Century Foundation in New York. He conducted research in Iraq in 2006 and 2008.)


[1] See, for instance, David Kilcullen, “Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt,” Small Wars Journal, August 29, 2007.

[2] See, for instance, John A. McCary, “The Anbar Awakening: An Alliance of Incentives,” Washington Quarterly (January 2009).

[3] New York Times, August 21, 2008.

[4] BBC News, February 4, 2008.

[5] The government has vowed on numerous occasions to integrate 20 percent of the militiamen into the Iraqi security forces. ‘Ali al-Dabbagh, the prime minister’s official spokesman, explicitly stated that the remaining 80 percent of the fighters will be given public-sector employment. Aswat al-‘Iraq, April 14, 2009. [Arabic]

[6] Noah Shachtman, “Could Iris Scans Stop a New Iraq Insurgency?” Wired, August 26, 2008.

[7] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), April 14, 2009. [Arabic]

[8] Ned Parker, “Machiavelli in Mesopotamia: Nouri al-Maliki Builds the Body Politic,” World Policy Journal (Spring 2009).

[9] Guardian, March 7, 2009.

[10]Anthony Shadid, “New Alliances In Iraq Cross Sectarian Lines,” Washington Post, March 20, 2009.

[11] See the official statement from Office of the Prime Minister, March 19, 2009, available online at [Arabic]

[12] Aswat al-‘Iraq, April 12, 2009. [Arabic]

[13] Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2009.

[14] Gareth Porter, “Al-Maliki Draws US Troops Into Crackdown on Sunnis,” Inter Press Service, April 1, 2009.

[15] Quoted by journalist Thomas E. Ricks at his blog on the Foreign Policy website:

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