The Expansion of Awakening Councils
Ninevah and Kirkuk provinces may be next likely areas for Sunni Sahwa. Are Sunni-led Awakening Councils a growing success story in Iraq or ticking time bombs?
A year after US President George W. Bush announced his controversial surge strategy to rapidly bring security and stability to Baghdad and the suburbs, a marked decline in violence has been reported and security has increasingly improved, a fact that even Bush’s Democratic challengers have found hard to deny. However, perhaps Bush’s greatest success story was not the effectiveness of the deployment of 30,000 additional US troops, but the onset and expansion of contentious Sunni local Sahwa, or Awakening Councils, armed and brokered by American forces.
The first tribal council in Anbar province was designed to take advantage of growing public unrest at the brutal al-Qaida tactics on the streets, with daily murders making life for communities untenable. Before then, the volatile Anbar region had been a notorious icon of the rampant Sunni-led insurgency.
The evident success of the Awakening Councils, also referred to at times as Concerned Citizens and other aliases, prompted the US government to expand the movement: it is now estimated to number at least 70,000 forces in mainly Sunni-dominated areas with about another 20,000 embedded in the Anbar police force.
On one hand, the disenfranchised Sunni population turning against al-Qaida forces as opposed to the traditional American “invaders” was naturally a welcome relief for US forces, seemingly stuck in a quagmire and still chasing an elusive exit strategy. On another hand, it marked a turn of fortunes in Iraq and made a terror-free and united Iraq at least a theoretical possibility.
Although at times embraced as a great tactical success for the US, the establishment of the councils has turned many a head within the Iraqi ethnic-mosaic and raised fear, predominantly among the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, of bolstering Sunni militias only to increase the magnitude of their war with Shiite-controlled Iraqi Security Forces and Shiite militias, where Sunni’s hold a deep mistrust.
Due to tribal affiliations in Anbar province, the Iraqi government reluctantly accepted that the risk of rogue splinter groups was less, due to the influence of tribal leaders in the region.
However, further expansion into Diyala province – where al-Qaida relocated and formed a new, self-proclaimed Islamic State – and talk of mobilising Sunni forces further north into ethnically disputed areas in Ninevah and Kirkuk, have caused a great deal of unrest for the Kurdish administration and become another deeply contested political issue on the Iraqi national level.
Kurdish fear of unrest
The Kurdish objective has always been to keep Iraqi civil strife at bay from the prosperous and stable autonomous Kurdistan Region, which they have achieved with much sacrifice, at all costs. The hotly disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk has been an intense focus of terrorists and rogue elements intent on creating sufficient unrest in the city to derail a planned referendum on its future status and spark bitter infighting between Arabs and Kurds.
Extending the Awakening Councils to arm and support Sunni Arabs in the Kirkuk province may make some sense to the US administration, which is hell bent on evicting terror groups in the area, but the Kurds, with a deep mistrust of their Iraqi brethren, fear the worst from such a proposition.
With the likely annexation of Kirkuk to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) once a referendum is finally held, the risk of a Sunni backlash is high. However, the potential bloodshed and unrest that could emanate from a newly armed Sunni Arab population would be catastrophic.
This led to a statement this week from Kurdish official Mohamded Mullah Qader, strongly emphasising that the Kurdish leadership would not allow the formation of any such councils in Kurdistan or surrounding ethnically disputed cities.
Kurdish officials and their Shiite counterparts in the Iraqi government have conceded that Awakening Councils have played a pivotal role in improving security in some restless and violent provinces. However, clearly the US may have unwittingly released a deadly virus into the Iraqi socio-political landscape by overlooking long-term implications of such a broad move by introducing another potential time bomb that Iraq could well do without.
Many fear that as thousands of Sunni insurgents dramatically turn against al-Qaida forces, sometime in the future if their demands are not met they may just as rapidly turn against the Iraqi government once more, only this time with a much more explosive velocity.
Awakening Council incentive
Evidently, newfound support from the once-avid American adversaries comes at a price. After years of bloodshed in Sunni-dominated provinces, the tribal sheiks and local population quickly realised that ongoing violence and support of terrorist cells was becoming increasingly fruitless when it came to supporting their basic necessities. The fierce sectarian passion that came from playing second fiddle to the Shiites in the new Iraq and being dominated by foreign occupiers was obviously high, but this could not be sustained under a backdrop of years of bloodshed, a crippling local economy, lack of food and medicine, and above all chronic unemployment.
Sunni militiamen demand, in return for ousting foreign terrorist organisations, permanent jobs and a greater influence in national Security Forces.
The new financial incentive is an evident advantage and highly popular among Awakening Council recruits.
As of December, total recruits are thought to be about 73,000, of which about 65,000 or so are paid a regular salary of an estimated $300-$400 a month, with tribal leaders and generals paid more.
Some reports have indicated that a big recruitment base has been Sunni teenagers between 14 and 16 years of age, who not long ago where brainwashed by hard-line cells and are now enjoying a substantial and previously unprecedented regular salary.
Currently, the group is active in eight provinces with about half of the Awakening Council forces in Baghdad alone. In addition to dealing a great blow to al-Qaida and terrorist organisations, their effective knowledge of key points in the districts of Baghdad and surrounding towns and their knowledge of the local insurgent network makes them a formidable ally.
Without winning the “hearts” of the Sunni population, America alone would find it impossible to permanently uproot terrorists and introduce long-term stability. For the US, the risk of future repercussions of encouraging a newly armed Sunni population was worth taking after nearly five years of battles with insurgents had proved inconclusive.
Pro-Sunni councils have been particularly effective in the so-called Sunni Triangle in Babil province, once a virtual terrorist production site and a conveyer belt for the distribution of explosives.
Awaking Council expansion
In Nineveh, Salahuddin, and Kirkuk provinces, only about 10,000 council forces are active with violence steadily rising. The US aim to bolster councils in these areas has caused a great deal of discomfort for the Kurds, who in the case of Mosul and Kirkuk share common neighbourhoods.
Recently, although currently on a smaller scale, Shiite Awakening Council recruiting, particularly around Baghdad, has increased.
As Awakening Councils have steadily increased in numbers and grown in effectiveness against al-Qaida forces the al-Qaida leaders have sent a strong warning to Sunni Muslims about taking up arms against them.
In a taped broadcast in late December, al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden warned that anyone who took up arms against his group would be considered traitors.
Earlier in January 2008, eight Shiite Awakening Council members and their leader were killed in the Shaab neighbourhood of Baghdad. In addition, in the past few months a number of prominent council leaders have been killed.
For the time being, at least, Sunni and Shiites may just have a common enemy to fight in Iraq.
The Awakening Councils that have been formed with a communal underpinning and guided by local sheiks and tribal leaders are more likely to be effectively controlled and organised. However, the rapid expansion of the councils throughout the rest of the volatile, and now ethnically mixed, provinces may well mean that the number of armed Sunnis, alarmingly, could reach more than 100,000.
Even before the onset of a popular anti-insurgent movement, some sections of the Sunni population were divided. The risk of splinter groups joining al-Qaida-led forces cannot be discounted.
Furthermore, the independent-minded view of most of the tribal leaders formulates a key problem for the Iraqi government. If the Awakening Councils cannot be embedded into the Iraqi security force apparatus as they hope, thus diluting current Shiite domination of such forces, then potentially Iraq may well have three armed, autonomous, and formidable forces in the country: the established and widely respected Kurdish Peshmerga force, the Shiite-led Iraqi Security Forces and other regional Shiite militias, and an emboldened and dangerous Sunni force.
For the time being, the Iraqi government has been generally supportive of the councils while watching developments very closely in the background. Prominent Shiite leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim recently credited the councils with practicing an honourable national role and hailed the councils as an expression of unity against the enemies of Iraq.
Clearly, the key question is the long-term status of such councils. The primary question is whether the councils will the support the government for the long-term or whether they are just a more powerful substitute for the same insurgent forces that they helped eradicate.
For some Sunnis, the question is far greater now than driving the Christian “invaders” out. Increasing Iranian influence has taken equal footing to the “ill-fated” presence of their foreign occupiers.
Animosity toward their Shiite brethren is, however, untouched, and in reality this will remain in the long term. Centuries-old sectarian tension can never be swept aside with such a degree of ease. Perhaps the knowledge that they are now armed and protected inside strongholds may alleviate Sunni fears of being sidelined in the future Iraq, but deep mistrust of Shiite-dominated Iraqi Security Forces will remain until a satisfactory sectarian balance has been achieved.
Another key factor in the declining violence is the decision in the summer of 2007 by influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to temporarily cease fighting. This has contributed greatly to the drop in violence that the American administration has hailed. Once the powerful Mehdi Army is back in full swing, their influence on the sectarian stage will provide an interesting observation.
Iraq may in theory be heading toward stability and an era of improved security with a dramatic drop in violence and seemingly on a return to national harmony and co-existence: unfortunately, the lasting nature of short-term gains remains uncertain and to an extent artificial.
The Awakening Councils, although credited with playing a key role in bringing stability to Iraq, are supporting the security push under a number of caveats. For all the credibility they have mustered, the councils have equally stirred up fear, hostility, and deep mistrust.
Equally, what must not be overlooked is the significant fraction of Sunnis still fueling the insurgency and providing crucial support to terror networks.
Shiites fear that eventually, with more power, the councils may turn on them and suspected local forces may contain al-Qaida sympathisers wishing to infiltrate the Interior Ministry. Kurds equally fear Sunni Arab groups wreaking havoc on their region and their aim of bolstering and expanding their region.
As a reward for their efforts, the Sunnis want a bigger role in the Iraqi Security Forces and ultimately a bigger slice of the political cake. If they can be effectively enticed into supporting a democratic and economically sound Iraq that will provide future jobs, social services, and better opportunities, as we have witnessed in Sunni provinces, this may form a viable and attractive alternative to passionately pursuing sectarian loyalties and bloodshed.
However, reaching the stage where the shattered Iraqi economy can recover, with basic social services reinstated, medical facilities provided to all, and each household enjoying a comfortable wage and a good standard of living, may still be years away. The question of whether Iraqis are willing to succumb to more promises and wait patiently for another several years while experiencing daily discontent and resentment is very hard to determine.
Until a national unity government is truly established, harmony is short term and certainly reversible. Equally, a national unity government can never be established until all parties agree on the real hot topics, such as federalism, the future role of religion, the status of Kirkuk, oil sharing, and the future role of militias-topics that have been brushed aside for far too long.
As we have seen for almost five years in the Iraqi transitional road to democracy, promises are easy but real compromise is next to impossible. In spite of Bush’s claim, Iraq may not be a different place from a year ago.