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Being Careful of Your Friends in Iraq

5 minute read
Bobby Ghosh/Baghdad

Once again, the U.S. military says it is looking for an accommodation with elements of the Iraqi insurgency — a halt in combat, followed by a treaty. Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 military commander in Iraq, believes that up to 80% of insurgents would be open to such a deal, thereby isolating extremists such as al-Qaeda. “We are talking about cease-fires, and maybe signing some things that say they won’t conduct operations against the government of Iraq or against coalition forces,” Odierno said. “We believe a large majority of groups within Iraq are reconcilable and are now interested in engaging with us. But more importantly, they want to engage and become a part of the government of Iraq.”

The general will have been heartened by Thursday’s pitched battles between Sunni insurgent groups and al-Qaeda in Baghdad’s volatile Amiriyah neighborhood. Eyewitnesses say fighters from the two largest insurgent organizations, the Islamic Army and the Brigade of the 1920 Revolution, joined forces at the behest of Amiriyah residents to fight al-Qaeda extremists who have been imposing their twisted version of Islamic law on the neighborhood. Some residents also called in the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces. Even if it wasn’t planned that way, at the height of the battle these disparate forces briefly united against a common enemy. And the Iraqi government is portraying the incident as a Sunni revolt against al-Qaeda.

That’s only partly true. There’s no doubt many Sunnis are tiring of al-Qaeda’s brutal tactics that target Iraqi civilians and all who oppose them. But it’s a huge leap to suggest that the insurgents who oppose al-Qaeda are willing to make peace with U.S. and Iraqi forces. A number of attempts to negotiate such a pact in the past have failed, for several reasons.

The foremost is that the insurgents hate the Americans as much as, if not more than, they hate al-Qaeda. Groups such as the Islamic Army and the Brigades of the 1920 Revolution — alongside which the U.S. fought on Thursday in Baghdad — continue to kill Americans at every opportunity: it is their badge of honor and recruitment tool. They also loathe the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government, branding it a puppet of an older, more reviled enemy: Iran.

It’s also not clear who really leads the Sunni insurgency and who is authorized to parley on their behalf. Previous insurgent “leaders” with whom the U.S. has held talks turned out to have have little or no contact with the top leadership. And the moment an insurgent commander is known to be talking to the Americans, he immediately becomes an assassination target for other groups, sometimes even his own.

If Sunni insurgent groups do respond positively to Odierno’s offer, it will be because they could use U.S. help in fighting al-Qaeda — but it won’t necessarily they’ll stop attacking Americans. There’s already clear evidence that some groups are playing both sides of the fence, collaborating with the U.S. by day and attacking it by night. Some of the Shi’ite militias who have infiltrated the Iraqi security forces are happy to receive American training and equipment, only to turn these against U.S. forces whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Moreover, no matter how hostile they are to al-Qaeda, Sunni insurgent groups are unlikely to recognize the current Iraqi government, much less swear loyalty to it. Insurgent commanders TIME has interviewed in recent months have been adamant in demanding that the U.S. suspend the current parliament, topple Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and hand power to “real Iraqis” — in their lexicon meaning Sunnis.

So what sort of a deal could the U.S. strike? General Odierno, an Iraq veteran with a reputation for cold-eyed realism, has cited the military’s partnership with formerly anti-American tribes in the restive Anbar promise. There, U.S. Marines have supported a coalition of tribes, known as the “Anbar Salvation Front,” fighting al-Qaeda. The group’s leader, Sheikh Sattar al-Rishawi, is ostensibly cooperating with the U.S. and Iraqi forces to drive out the foreign fighters who make up much al-Qaeda’s ranks in Iraq. And since the alliance has been in effect, the number of attacks against U.S. forces in Anbar has halved.

But that’s only part of the picture. Sheikh Sattar, whose tribe is notorious for highway banditry, is also building a personal militia, loyal not to the Iraqi government but only to him. Other tribes — even those who want no truck with terrorists — complain they are being forced to kowtow to him. Those who refuse risk being branded as friends of al-Qaeda and tossed in jail, or worse. In Baghdad, government delight at the Anbar Front’s impact on al-Qaeda is tempered by concern that the Marines have unwittingly turned Sheikh Sattar into a warlord who will turn the province into his personal fiefdom.

As useful as they can be in the short term, alliances with tribal or insurgent groups tend to be highly fluid and unstable. Some of the tribes fighting alongside the Marines today were once swearing loyalty to al-Qaeda and gleefully killing Americans. They can turn again. A senior Iraqi commander told TIME of his great fear that, after the Americans leave, the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad would try to impose some degree of control over the Anbar tribes, sparking an armed revolt. “When that happens, the tribes will turn to anybody who’s willing to help them fight against the Shi’ites,” the commander said. “And guess who will be at the front of the queue?” Some American commanders have expressed similar concerns.

After all, it’s not just the U.S. that can regard yesterday’s enemy as today’s friend.

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