On Aug. 18, President Bush hailed what he called “political gains” made in various Iraqi villages. He was particularly encouraged by progress achieved in the western Sunni-dominated province of al-Anbar.
Since last September, the U.S. military has teamed up with Anbar’s Sunni tribal leaders to deprive al Qaeda of a foothold in the region. As part of that arrangement, Sunni tribes have recruited thousands of men for the Iraqi police and army, provided intelligence to U.S. officials about al Qaeda, and in exchange, the U.S. military has helped local tribes obtain water treatment centers and medical clinics, while Iraq’s Interior Ministry has provided supplies and other funding.
The alliance’s latest success occurred in late July, when U.S. forces under Operation Iraqi Lion successfully interdicted multiple weapons caches, secured hundreds of mortar rounds, and other forms of ammunition. But according to U.S. Army Reserve Officer Lt. Col. Richard D. Welch, an official who works closely with Anbar’s tribal leaders, this successful alliance is slowly beginning to dissolve.
The National Intelligence Estimate found that unless Baghdad reaches a political accommodation with Sunnis in Anbar, Sunni resistance to the central government in Baghdad will increase.
U.S. forces aligned with more than 30 Sunni tribes, including Anbar’s largest tribal organization, the Dulaim confederation, led by Sheikh Ali Hatem al Suleiman, and the Anbar Salvation Council, led by Sheikh Abdul-Sattar abu Risha. But in early June, a power struggle within the alliance resulted in 12 tribal members signing an agreement to form a new coalition, one that would result in the termination of the Anbar Salvation Council and the purging of Abu Risha. Suleiman and others accuse Risha of oil smuggling, kidnapping and general thievery - allegations supported by Lt. Col. Welch.
Aside from allies with questionable histories, the Shiite-led central government in Baghdad remains suspicious of the U.S.-Sunni arrangement. Though Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has expressed grudging acceptance of the union, it has been reported that Maliki wants to assume full control over the operations and take the leadership away from the U.S. military - this despite Sunni complaints that the central government has done little to protect them from attacks by Shiite militant groups.
Another factor undermining the U.S.-Sunni partnership is that it has yet to achieve any substantive gain for Sunnis in the political arena. Efforts this past month to reshape Iraq’s fractured unity government, affectionately dubbed a “crisis summit,” ended with the inclusion of no Sunni Arabs. Shiites, representing the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Maliki’s Dawa Party, and Kurds, representing Massoud Barzani’s Democratic Party of Kurdistan and President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, will retain their majority hold in parliament, occupying 181 out of 275 seats. But without Sunni representation, there is little guarantee that the alliance will achieve success where it matters most: in parliament.
Aside from distressing political factors, critics of the Anbar strategy think that the United States is simply arming future fighters of a civil war, or even worse, arming those who may in the future come after U.S. armed forces - a situation similar to America’s arming of the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s.
It’s clear that the alliance made between U.S. troops and Sunni tribesmen is achieving relative stability in Anbar. Whether or not it will result in substantive political progress for Sunni Arabs or the cause of Iraqi national reconciliation, however, is yet to be seen.