Asia Times Online
May 8, 2009
Iraq on brink of third great mistake
By W Andrew Terrill
It is at least possible, if not likely, that different choices on two
key 2003 United States decisions would have allowed the US to withdraw
most of its troops from Iraq well before the present date. The two
decisions that are now widely understood to have been disastrous
mistakes are the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the decision to
pursue harsh punitive actions against vast numbers of former Ba'ath
party members beyond the leadership of Saddam's regime. Both decisions
alienated Iraq's Sunni Arabs and opened the door for a strong al-Qaeda
presence in Iraq.
Despite the remonstrations of the former chief administrator of the
Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), it is well understood that
abolishing the Iraqi military rather than issuing a selective,
voluntary recall was one of the worst mistakes of the war. Even former
president George W Bush, in a 2006 interview with journalist Robert
Draper, refused to defend this decision, asserting instead that
dissolving the army was contrary to the policy that he authorized.
De-Ba'athification, for its part, disproportionately punished the
leadership of Iraq's Sunni community as well as its professional class
by removing them from their jobs or nullifying their pensions. CPA
authorities and later the Iraqi De-Ba'athification Commission (which
was and is dominated by former exiles) treated a large number of
ordinary people as Iraq's victimizers while these people saw
themselves as victims.
The humiliated ex-Ba'athists usually responded to high-minded rhetoric
about the price for collaboration with assertions that if you had not
lived under Saddam Hussein's regime, you could not understand what it
was like for those who did. Pressures to submit and conform permeated
the Republic of Fear.
Now a third disastrous decision, this time made by Iraqi government
leaders and again directed primarily at Iraq's Sunni Arabs, seems
increasingly possible. This danger involves the strong possibility
that the Iraqi government will begin treating the mostly Sunni
paramilitary auxiliaries known as the Sons of Iraq (SOI) as potential
enemies and end government funding for these groups.
Various aspects of this approach (including a few, but not all of some
recent high-profile arrests) may be understandable since there appears
to be an effort by al-Qaeda and other anti-government forces to
penetrate and undermine these organizations (also known as Sahwa or
"Awakening" groups) by infiltrating their ranks.
There is, however, a more serious danger that Iraqi Prime Minister
Nuri al-Maliki's government will take a broad-brush approach to this
problem and react with punitive measures directed at the organizations
or their leaderships as a whole. This sort of tactic will cause the
Sunni community to feel increasingly under siege, and it is even
possible that they will again choose the path of resistance and
Iraqi efforts to control al-Qaeda infiltration of the SOI are
important; but the danger of a government over-reaction is even more
serious. Moreover, whatever al-Qaeda penetration has already taken
place has probably done so primarily because of increasing Sunni fears
about the perceived indifference of the Maliki government to Sunni
The emergence of the Sons of Iraq as a viable force of around
95,000-100,000 fighters resulted from an American initiative that was
part of the 2006-07 effort to turn the war around when the surge of US
troops took place. The Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government never liked
the initiative but tolerated it because of US insistence.
Many US critics of the program stated that the United States was
simply paying the insurgents to change sides. This statement was
narrowly true, but it is also an oversimplification since the
individuals who joined the SOI had often developed a strong hatred of
many al-Qaeda policies including seizing economic resources, imposing
a draconian version of "Islamic law" (including the breaking of hands
or fingers for smoking), and forced marriages of local women to
foreign al-Qaeda fighters.
Unsurprisingly, US skepticism about the SOI program declined rapidly
as a result of their members' ability to work well with US forces and
achieve significant military victories over al-Qaeda insurgents.
The force was never perceived as permanent, however, and the
government of Iraq was expected eventually to incorporate about 20% of
the militiamen into the Iraqi police and military. The other 80% were
to receive assistance in obtaining other jobs when the paramilitary
groups were no longer needed. The timeframe for this change was left
The SOI functioned as a reliable US partner force, and its members
were paid by the United States until October 2008 when the Iraqis
assumed financial responsibility for about half of the SOI as part of
an ongoing process of expanding Iraqi government authority. On April
2, 2009, Iraq assumed full responsibility for the entire movement.
The 2008 decision to begin transferring responsibility for the SOI to
the Iraqi government was met with widespread unhappiness throughout
the movement. This concern was well-founded. One of the first acts of
the Iraqi government was to reduce the salaries of large numbers of
militiamen as they fell under its jurisdiction. To make matters worse,
pay is frequently in arrears, and efforts to correct this problem seem
Some SOI members are believed to have been arrested for crimes
committed during the insurgency despite promises of amnesty if they
switched sides. More recently, confrontations between the SOI and the
government are on the upswing as various senior SOI leaders have been
arrested on a variety of charges, including terrorism. Some of these
arrests may be well-founded while others are extremely questionable.
One key arrested SOI leader has already been released by an Iraqi
judge who found no valid reason to hold him. Also, at the time of this
writing, the Iraqi budget process for the remainder of 2009 was still
incomplete, but the working draft did not yet include funding for the
SOI. This omission may be a deliberate move against the Sunnis or it
may be a function of Iraq's drastically decreased revenues. In either
case, starving the SOI is a serious mistake.
The cost of a full-scale rupture between the Iraqi government and the
SOI could be dramatic. In the worst case, many SOI members may see
their only viable option as returning to some version of an
anti-government insurgency. To do so, they would probably seek funding
and weapons from Sunni Arab governments and wealthy individuals,
including anti-Shi'ite radicals. The possible next insurgency may look
different from the last insurgency, but it will still be a disaster
for Iraq even without al-Qaeda leadership.
If al-Qaeda does receive a second chance to work with the Sunnis, its
leaders may also have learned from their previous mistakes and behave
towards the Iraqis in a much less arrogant and heavy-handed way.
Additionally, once the United States has removed the balance of its
troops from Iraq, some Sunni Arab governments might be increasingly
willing to allow their nationals to travel to Iraq to help defend
Iraq's Sunni community.
Currently, some of these governments are heavily (although not
completely) constrained by the fear that their nationals who travel to
Iraq will kill US soldiers and that they will be held responsible.
So what is to be done to prevent a steady cycle of decline in the
relations between the Iraqi government and the SOI? Unfortunately but
inevitably, the United States may have to reach into its own pockets
for a while to help fund programs to pay the SOI, as well as much
later efforts to transition them into alternative work.
We have simply come too far to let short-term Iraqi governmental
missteps and paralysis re-energize the insurgency, and such a
temporary effort will at least buy time for a political compromise to
be generated by the Iraqi political system. Support for the SOI costs
about US$25 million per month. This is not a small amount, but it is
certainly dwarfed by the $2 billion per week spent to manage Iraq in
the 2005-06 timeframe, before the United States and its Iraqi allies
were able to restore some measure of stability to Iraq.
Additionally, the United States must oppose efforts to disarm the SOI
until Iraq is more completely stabilized. These people declared war on
al-Qaeda and its allies in 2006. To disarm them under current
circumstances would be to impose a death sentence unless they managed
to beg al-Qaeda's forgiveness with future promises of services.
Neither of these outcomes is acceptable.
Furthermore, any legal actions against SOI leaders will have to meet
the highest standards of justice, and trials will have to be conducted
with the most intense levels of transparency for crimes committed that
are not covered under the previous amnesty. The United States must
strongly interest itself in individual cases involving arrested SOI
leaders and encourage international humanitarian organizations to do
Finally, it must be noted that problems between the government and the
SOI are only one set of difficulties that Iraqis must overcome. There
are still huge differences between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs, especially
over the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk. Iran's role in Iraq
remains a problem, and the current low profile of Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi
Army may not last forever.
Over two million Iraqi refugees in foreign countries and an equal
number of internally displaced persons will need help in being
resettled and playing a productive role in Iraq's future. Fearsome
organized crime organizations will also have to be destroyed. Yet, in
this entire mosaic of challenges, few problems are as frightening as a
Sunni-Shi'ite civil war, and the SOI controversy remains one of the
most sensitive Sunni-Shi'ite issues.
Unfortunately, the problems of Iraq can be more severe than the sum of
their parts. If problems between the government and the SOI are not
effectively managed, the chances of increasingly violent intercommunal
tensions will be increased. Even if full-scale civil war does not
result, such tensions will distract Iraqis from other major
difficulties while providing opportunities for terrorists and regional
troublemakers. Without careful attention to the problems of the SOI,
Iraq could slip back into chaos.
This is a problem that can be addressed by Iraqi inclusiveness toward
the Sunni Arabs (including the SOI in the Sunni areas) and US backing
for inclusive Iraqi policies. Failure to do so would betray not only
Iraqi Sunnis, but also all Iraqis seeking national stability as well
as the American and coalition soldiers who have sacrificed their lives
for the future of Iraq.
W Andrew Terrill, PhD, General Douglas MacArthur Research Professor of
National Security Affairs, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War
(The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not
necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department
of the Army, the Department of Defense or the US government. This
opinion piece is cleared for public release; distribution is
(Reprinted with permission of the Strategic Studies Newsletter, US
Army War College.)