Iraq: Awakening Councils Change Sunni Arab Insurgency
By RFE/RL analyst Kathleen Ridolfo
U.S. military leaders have warned for months that awakening councils, formed by Sunni Arab tribesmen last year in several governorates to fight Al-Qaeda, may be infiltrated by Sunni Arab insurgents.
Recent comments by leading figures in the insurgency reveal that insurgent groups are indeed trying to influence awakening councils, but by their own account, they are meeting stiff resistance. Though some cooperation takes place, major rifts have obstructed the insurgents' ability to make any significant inroads in terms of infiltration. Insurgent leaders contend that the insurgency is not crumbling, but say they have had to reorganize their efforts to carry out more selective operations.
In the five years since the U.S.-led invasion, there have been few occasions at which the Sunni Arab insurgency could be described as having a cohesive, united position. Though nearly all insurgent groups purport to share a common ideology and goals, groups have always been divided by rivalries and ambition. The decision by nationalist insurgent groups to target Al-Qaeda in Iraq as a common enemy last year diminished much of the ill will felt among them, but significant problems remain.
Those problems appear to have been compounded by the appearance of the awakening councils, which drew criticism from insurgent groups for their willingness to work alongside coalition and Iraqi security forces. Though they applaud the awakening councils' decision to fight Al-Qaeda, insurgent leaders say the tribesmen went too far in their alliance with the U.S. and Iraqi government.
Despite existing differences, insurgent leaders still share many common positions, which relate to negotiations with the United States, the legitimacy of the Iraqi government, and the possibility of working with what they view as Shi'ite nationalist groups, such as cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army.
In an interview with the London-based daily "Al-Quds al-Arabi" published on April 2, Harith al-Dari, chairman of the Muslim Scholars Association, which backs the 1920 Revolution Brigades insurgent group, spoke extensively about the need to unify "national powers." "It is in the interest of the national powers opposing the occupation to unite their aims and focus of attention, and to adopt the same stances toward the issue of occupation, and to have a clear, unconfused outlook," he said of the nationalist insurgent groups.
Al-Dari said all those opposed to the occupation should resist it politically, militarily, and by all legitimate means, each according to its abilities -- by hand, by tongue, by sword, or by any means that can express the Iraqis' hatred of the occupation.
Analyzing the fragmentation among nationalist insurgent groups, al-Dari surmised that Iraqis weren't prepared for the events that followed the U.S.-led invasion, and therefore had no plan in place to work together as a cohesive unit. This contradicts al-Dari's previous narrative, in which he has argued that the resistance was ready and waiting for the U.S.-led invasion.
Al-Dari admitted that insurgent groups are extremely suspicious of each other, and said personal ambitions tend to impede the groups' ability to work together. "I do not say that all these reasons put together have caused the noncrystallization of a united anti-occupation stance, but they have certainly prevented such crystallization," he noted. The groups should make efforts to reconcile, work closely together, and show good intentions toward each other, he advised.
Awakening Councils 'Need To Be Reformed'
Al-Dari described the emergence of awakening councils as a "setback" rather than an "awakening." He claimed that the battles between nationalist insurgent groups and Al-Qaeda last year were a window of opportunity for the U.S. military, which exploited the security situation to encourage the emergence of the tribal-led councils. "The greedy, unemployed...and the [former intelligence] agents woke up, and gathered under the headline of the awakening," he contended. "This was established with the practical and intelligence support of the occupation forces; it is not only against Al-Qaeda, but also against the entire real resistance."
The emergence of the awakening councils forced nationalist insurgents to retreat from their usual bases in the Al-Anbar, Baghdad, and Diyala governorates for some time, he said, but they have since regrouped and returned to those areas. Al-Dari claimed the resistance is better positioned now than it was seven months ago, and it now moves from place to place rather than staying in a fixed area, carrying out what he described as high-quality attack-and-retreat operations.
Likewise, Ibrahim al-Shammari, the official spokesman of the Islamic Army in Iraq nationalist insurgent group, told Al-Jazeera in an interview broadcast on April 9 that the resistance is not falling apart, but rather it has changed its tactics. "The resistance has brought the pace of its military operations under control [and is] no longer dealing with matters on the spur of the moment or with logic based on spontaneity," he claimed. "It has started to weigh matters carefully. It started to economize its resources."
Al-Shammari denied that the resistance has been weakened, but said it has had to change its focus to deal with "new facts in Iraq" such as the appearance of awakening councils. "The resistance has started to deal with the Sunni community in a mutually beneficial and positive way. Thus, we started to purge the Sunni community of what has afflicted it, with an operation of purification, to purge this community that has been poisoned by the awakening issue," he said, implying that the awakening councils are an obstacle to the operations and movement of insurgent groups.
He categorized the awakening councils into five groups, saying some were longtime U.S. allies, others wanted jobs after a long period of unemployment, others wanted to resist militias (he did not say which militias), while some wanted prominence and financial gain.
Al-Shammari contended that following the "purification process," many of those who joined awakening councils have realized that their behavior threatened the Sunni resistance movement. He noted that the rise of awakening councils was a natural reaction to Al-Qaeda, and implied that Sunni Arabs who joined the councils would be forgiven for their alleged indiscretion, which put them ultimately on the side of the so-called occupation.
Several observations can be drawn from the two insurgent leaders' interviews. Both acknowledge that their groups are less active today than they were in previous months. The claim that the groups have adapted their tactics and become more selective in their operations may hold some truth, but it appears the change is due more to their inability to move about as freely as before, and perhaps due to constraints in their supply lines. Clearly, the formation of awakening councils has impeded both groups' ability to operate.
Though there is little doubt that resistance groups are sometimes assisted by awakening councils, that assistance does not appear to be the norm. One member of the Islamic Army in Iraq told "The Christian Science Monitor" last week that he would not dream of moving around if it were not for the help of Sunni militias and elements inside the security forces. He acknowledged that discord did erupt between insurgent groups in the resistance and the awakening councils, but insisted both sides worked to avoid discord. "Trust me, the sahwahs [awakening councils] are ultimately with the resistance, heart and mind," he claimed.
The ability of awakening councils to survive the current security and political climate will be challenged in the coming months by their Sunni Arab compatriots. Should they continue to obstruct insurgent operations, they may well find themselves in armed confrontation with Sunni Arab brethren who are more than likely also relatives and friends. However, such a stance would also make the awakening councils more palatable to the Shi'ite led-government, which has largely viewed their emergence as a threat.
The councils are also likely to face increasing opposition from the Sunni Arab political parties that came to power in the 2005 elections, because the councils, which have formed political parties, intend to contest the provincial elections in October. The awakening councils have a built-in base of support among the tribes that nearly ensures they will sweep the elections.
If the councils are to continue to play a positive role in policing Sunni Arab territory and leading the fight against Al-Qaeda, they must be supported and seen by the Iraqi government for the positive role they can play in Iraq's security.
Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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