Sunni Violence

According to the Washington Post, next year the Pentagon is planning a drawdown from 150,000 troops in Iraq, to somewhere around 40,000. A small part of the 40,000 will be assigned to a Special Operations unit aimed at taking out Al Qaeda; but it’s doubtful a small unit like this can substantially disrupt the terrorist group. The next plan it seems, is to equip Sunnis with material and monetary compensation, and give them greater participation in the fight against Al Qaeda. However, as with everything the American government does, there are several risks at giving the Sunnis greater power. There is the risk of the Sunnis reversing position and using the new weapons against American troops, or if their needs are not properly met or someone else gives them a better deal, they could reconcile with Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations. Regardless of the actions taken in Iraq a year from now, there’s still not much good news occurring today.

A United States military official familiar with tribal politics and an Anbar tribal leader, claim a tribal coalition that was formed to oppose Al Qaeda in Iraq (a development that US officials say has reduced violence in Iraq’s troubled Anbar province) is beginning to splinter. Lt. Col. Richard D. Welch, a US military official who works closely with the tribal leaders in Iraq, said that relations inside the said group were strained, and that he expected a complete overhaul of the coalition in coming days.

Tribal leader Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman said twelve Anbar tribal leaders have signed an agreement to form a new coalition that would result in the dissolution of the Anbar Salvation Council and the purging of Abu Risha and his forces. “Those people have thrown themselves in the arms of the US forces for their own benefit,” he said. Suleiman and Welch alleged that Risha runs an oil smuggling ring and that his followers have worked as highway bandits on Anbar’s roads, activities in which many tribal groups engage.

Risha “made his living running a band of thieves who kidnapped and robbed people on the road between Baghdad and Jordan. That’s how he made his fortune,” Welch said. Welch also stated that tribesmen accuse Risha of passing false information to US forces about other tribal leaders in order to eliminate business rivals. Risha denied these allegations and said Suleiman’s work in Baghdad left him out of touch with day-to-day affairs in the province.

US officials also calculate that underneath the anti-American rhetoric, even Shiite radicals such as cleric Moqtada al-Sadr don’t really want to see a total US pullout, especially while they feel threatened by Sunni insurgents. Officials think any Iraqi government will prefer to keep a small US combat force to deter foreign intervention.

It’s surprising that Sadr feels threatened by insurgents, even though the Shia outnumbers the Sunni by 6 to 1 and control the government. The insurgents boost the popularity of the militias every time they attack, while posing no serious threat to Shiite dominance. They are Sadr’s best friend in Iraq. If anything, he feels threatened by neighboring Sunni armies and the prospect of them coming in if the Shia makes a move on Anbar. Hence the presence of US troops act as a sort of tripwire which keeps neighboring states out of the country lest an invasion be perceived as an attack on the US itself.

This is getting rather dicey. I’d like to view it as okay news, but getting involved in a many-sided civil war (or “extreme ethnic / sectarian violence,” if you prefer) where you are arming some guys today, taking sides with some other guys next week, telling everyone to be nice, and (importantly) not really being able to tell the sides apart, strikes me as seriously risky. If there is a central government – whether it is strong or weak is irrelevant – and it is fighting against some kind of opponent (terrorists, guerrillas, insurgents, whatever), then that would be a conflict that we could understand and support. This business of arming various groups, with the plan or hope that they then go along with our view for the country is quite arrogant and should make us somewhat uncomfortable, to say the least.

When in the past the American government has tried to abolish criminal behavior worldwide, their actions have come back to hurt us more often than not. The Iran Contra scandal and arming Bin Laden to fight the Soviets are two good examples of the US completely botching overseas anti-crime agendas. Yet this Administration thinks their plan will work, despite its eerie similarities to the above failed plans. However, when the Shia out number the Sunni by 6 to 1 and control the Iraqi government, we must be very careful about choosing sides. It would be wise for this administration to learn from our past debacles for we are prone to repeat the same mistakes at greater costs and casualties.