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
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 insurgency.
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 concerns.
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 fuzzy.
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 nonexistent.
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
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
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
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 the same.
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 College.
(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 unlimited.)
(Reprinted with permission of the Strategic Studies Newsletter, US Army War