Friday, January 25, 2008

We Don't Have Any Real Friends

As reported by the New York Times earlier this week, Sunni Awakening members and Concerned Local Citizen militias are under siege in Iraq. The pressure from incessant attacks and assassinations - and the lack of cooperation from the Iraqi government in terms of incorporating these Sunni militias - could lead to the unraveling of the movement, and a flare up of insurgent activity.

American-backed Sunni militias who have fought Sunni extremists to a standstill in some of Iraq’s bloodiest battlegrounds are being hit with a wave of assassinations and bomb attacks, threatening a fragile linchpin of the military’s strategy to pacify the nation.

At least 100 predominantly Sunni militiamen, known as Awakening Council members or Concerned Local Citizens, have been killed in the past month, mostly around Baghdad and the provincial capital of Baquba, urban areas with mixed Sunni and Shiite populations...At least six of the victims were senior Awakening leaders, Iraqi officials said.

...the recent onslaught is jeopardizing that relative security and raising the prospect that the groups’ members might disperse, with many rejoining the insurgency, American officials said.

It is not so much a question of identifying which group is targeting the Awakening/CLC movement and countering that element, as much as identifying which groups aren't involved - and determining whether we could even attempt to neutralize all of the players given some of their identities. The list of saboteurs is comprehensive:

American and Iraqi officials blame Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia for most of the killings...

Officials say that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has a two-pronged strategy: directing strikes against Awakening members to intimidate and punish them for cooperating with the Americans, and infiltrating the groups to glean intelligence and discredit the movement in the eyes of an already wary Shiite-led government.

Not surprising, really, considering that the Awakenings/CLC groups are trying to eliminate al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM). Nevertheless, AQM's success in infiltrating and disrupting the Awakennigs/CLC movement could prove exceedingly difficult to overcome considering the fact that part of the overall strategy involves absorbing "reformed" members of AQM - and we are forced with few options other than to "trust" the authenticity of the conversion.

Both Sunni and Shiite officials in Baghdad blame two government-linked Shiite paramilitary forces for some of the attacks: the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization. Sunni officials charge that militia leaders are involved, while Shiite officials believe that the attackers are renegade members of the groups. Both militias have close ties to Iran and have been implicated in death-squad operations against Sunni Arabs, although the Mahdi militia’s leaders have publicly told their members to abide by a cease-fire.

This implication of government forces is perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this story in terms of obstacles to the success of the Awakenings/CLC movement (more on this below). The list goes on, however:

Citizen guardsmen and Iraqi intelligence officials say they have also captured Iranians with hit lists and orders to attack Awakening members. American military officials say they suspect that Iran’s paramilitary force, Al Quds, is directing the Shiite militias’ attacks against the Awakening movement. But other than finding Iranian-made weapons, which are sometimes used by Shiite militia fighters, American military officials offered no evidence that Iranians were participating in direct attacks. “Right now, the Concerned Local Citizens groups are being heavily targeted by Al Qaeda,” said Brig. Gen. Mark McDonald, who is working with the volunteers. “They’re also being targeted by some Shiite extremist groups.”

It is well within the realm of possibility that the Iranians would seek to target these Sunni forces for at least two reasons: First, Iran would be right to fear the rise of strong Sunni militant groups that could rival Shiite hegemony. Second, disrupting potential progress toward stabilization would also serve to tighten the grip of the "headlock" in which the US is currently caught. However, if, instead, AQM is the main perpetrator of such attacks, one would expect the targets to corroborate. Yet...

American and Iraqi officials agree that Al Qaeda is the major threat, followed by the Shiite militias.

But many Awakening members like Mr. Abbas turn that hierarchy of risk upside down, singling out the Shiite militias. [...]

“Badr is the worst threat,” he said, referring to the military arm of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a leading Shiite political party. The next greatest threat, he said, is the Mahdi Army, the armed wing of the political movement of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Both militias have deep influence in Iraq’s security forces.

Despite their opposition to Al Qaeda, Mr. Abbas says, most Awakening members feel even more alienated from the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. “Fifty percent of Al Qaeda in Adhamiya has joined the Awakening,” he pointed out.

It should be noted that the Iraqi government has a vested interest in attributing all blame to AQM, since in doing so, the government could shield some of its more prominent members (ISCI, Sadrists) from suspicion. So the "official" position should be taken with a grain of salt. The US also has an interest in allocating blame in such a fashion for a few reasons: First of all, raising the specter of AQM (or exaggerating its involvement) can be a useful means of maintaining political support for the occupation. In addition, acknowledging the role played by groups like ISCI would make for some awkward PR moments for the Bush administration. Consider: ISCI is our closest Shiite ally (with its leader feted at the White House in recent years), and the largest Shiite bloc in the Iraqi government. We happen to be spending trillions and losing thousands of lives to protect ISCI and the rest of the government.

Further, regardless of image concerns, the US relies on ISCI and the Shiite leadership in very real, logistical ways. In terms of military capacity and indigenous support, the US is not really in a position to target ISCI's militia and Sadr's while fending off AQM and other recalcitrant Sunni insurgent groups that have not bought-in to the Awakenings/CLC paradigm. Given this intractable conflict of interest and incoherence underlying the US relationship with the Iraqi government, and the dizzying array of forces aligned against the Awakening/CLC movement, the relative calm brought on my the Awakenings may be approaching its, er, last throes.

But, you know, withdrawal is not an option.

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