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Will Iraq's Great Awakening Lead to a Nightmare?

U.S. casualties are down in Iraq. But a retired Army Colonel argues that the surge and American payoffs to Sunni tribal leaders may eventually backfire—producing more instability and possibly a regional war.

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 3:00 AM EST

American casualties in Iraq have declined dramatically over the last 90 days to levels not seen since 2006, and the White House has attributed the decline to the surge of 35-40,000 U.S. combat troops. But a closer look suggests a different explanation. More than two years of sectarian violence have replaced one country called Iraq with three emerging states: one Kurdish, one Sunni, and one Shiite. This created what a million additional U.S. troops could not: a strategic opportunity to capitalize on the Sunni-Shiite split. So after Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr decided to restrain his Mahdi army from attacking U.S. forces, General David Petraeus and his commanders began cutting deals with Sunni Arab insurgents, agreeing to allow these Sunnis to run their own affairs and arm their own security forces in return for cooperation with U.S. forces against Al Qaeda fighters. As part of the bargain, the Sunni leaders obtained both independence from the hated Shiite-dominated government, which pays far more attention to Tehran's interests than to Washington's, and money—lots of money.

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Striking such a "sheikhs for sale" deal (whether they be Sunni or Shiite) is nothing new in the Arab world. The men who ran the British Empire routinely paid subsidies in gold to unruly tribal leaders from the Khyber Pass to the headwaters of the Nile. (Of course, British subsidies were a pittance compared with the billions Britain extracted from its colonies in Africa and Asia.) While the arrangement reached by U.S. military commanders and dubbed the "Great Awakening" has allowed the administration and its allies to declare the surge a success, it carries long-term consequences that are worrisome, if not perilous. The reduction in U.S. casualties is good news. But transforming thousands of anti-American Sunni insurgents into U.S.-funded Sunni militias is not without cost. In fact, the much-touted progress in Iraq could lead to a situation in which American foreign-policy interests are profoundly harmed and the Middle East is plunged into even a larger crisis than currently exists.

First, a warning. We don't know much about developments within Iraq. Military officers who have recently served in Iraq tell me they don't truly understand Iraq's complexity or the duplicitous nature of the Iraqis they work with. In my conservations with them, they raise troubling questions that don't lend themselves to sound-bite answers on talk radio or the evening news. Is the Great Awakening inside the Sunni Arab community the road to Iraq's stability, or is it just a pause for Sunni rearmament and reorganization? Is it a means to secure American military bases inside an emerging Sunni client state generously supplied with cash from Saudi Arabia, a kind of cordon sanitaire along the fault line that separates the Sunni Arab world from Shiite Iran and its beachhead in southern Iraq? Does this development mean America wins when our former Sunni Arab enemies regain power in central Iraq? Or—here's the most disturbing question—will the presumed successes of today be catalysts for yet bloodier civil war inside Iraq or, worse, larger regional war?

With eyes firmly fixed on Jan. 20, 2009—the departure date for this administration—the White House and its generals aren't publicly addressing such policy implications. They're not interested in explaining why the world's most powerful military establishment has resorted to buying off its enemies, effectively supplanting counterinsurgency with cash-based cooptation.

Officers who've served in Iraq warn that the Great Awakening could be transitory. "The Sunni insurgents are following a 'fight, bargain, subvert, fight' approach to get what they want," said one colonel. So Americans need to explore whether U.S. forces are courting long-term strategic success, or if the expedient cash surge is leading U.S. forces into a new phase of conflict that could engulf the region and create a perfect storm.

In four years of occupation and civil war, hundreds of thousands of Arabs, including many Sunnis, have been killed, wounded, or incarcerated. About two million more Arabs, most of them Sunni, have fled the country. How many more Sunni and Shiite Arabs have died over the last two years as a result of the civil war is unknown, but the numbers are likely greater than anyone in the Pentagon or State Department is prepared to admit.

That the Sunni Arab population is tired of fighting is beyond dispute, but winning Sunni Arab hearts and minds in the aftermath of the last four years' violence seems a remote possibility. So, in the absence of the common interest in disposing of Al Qaeda's unwanted foreign fighters and war fatigue, what besides cash motivates the Great Awakening?

Officers familiar with Iraq's Sunni Arab leaders insist these leaders genuinely believe that if left alone by U.S. occupation forces and receiving modest financial support from Saudi Arabia they can eventually crush the Shiite militias and regain their dominant position inside Iraq. If true, the "awakening" may simply be an opportunity for Iraq's Sunni Arabs to consolidate and prepare without American interference for an inevitable, future showdown with the Shiites whether U.S. forces withdraw or not.

A former U.S. Army battalion commander with extensive service in Iraq reports, "It is my sense the Sunni Arab leaders are using the pause in the fight with U.S. forces to take a breather, harden and regroup themselves much like a conventional army would rest and refit after a major battle. Besides, who do the generals in Baghdad think are targeting and killing Iraqi Security Forces? It's the Sunni insurgents. They're just not shooting at us right now."

One of the unspoken assumptions that underpins the "awakening" is that U.S. occupation forces can place untold thousands of Sunni insurgents on the U.S. government's payroll, allowing them to rearm and recuperate inside Sunni-pure enclaves while U.S. forces open a new front in the war against the Shiite militias. Thus far, Tehran has advised its Shiite friends in Iraq to restrain their fighters in the hope the U.S. occupation will end and allow the Shiites to consolidate their victory. The question now is whether the Shiite militias will continue to lie low or risk the kind of campaign against U.S. forces that the Sunnis waged for nearly four years.

No one knows the answer. But it is doubtful Muqtada al-Sadr will do nothing as U.S. forces halt operations against the Shiites' old enemies and allow these enemies to rebuild. He may well step up attacks on Americans, assisted by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Security Forces. And if that happens, retaliatory attacks by U.S. forces on the Mahdi Army could mobilize the Shiite population behind Muqtada al-Sadr in the fight against their old Sunni Baathist oppressors who are now openly allied with the Americans. In such a battle—a revived civil war—what the majority Shiite Iraqi army will do is another unknown.

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