In Iraq, sectarianism still threatens the best-laid plans

Efforts to involve Iraqi citizens in their own protection are still being hampered by old divisions.


Alex Koppelman
November 13, 2007 6:25AM (UTC)

There are, to be fair, a few signs that some things, at least, are going better in Iraq these days. But -- as has been the case for the duration of the war -- war supporters seem to be painting an overly rosy picture of the situation there. Actually, sometimes it seems that nearly every day brings new evidence of how even the most successful U.S. strategies come fraught with their own built-in drawbacks.

Monday was one of those days, as the Washington Post reported that a U.S. plan to bring tens of thousands of Iraqi volunteers in as neighborhood watchmen and policemen is hitting a major snag. It seems that the vast majority of these volunteers are Sunnis, and now that the Sunni minority that controlled the country under Saddam Hussein is out of power, the Shiites who currently head the government are wary of giving the Sunnis the money, arms and training they'd need to challenge for dominance again. More than that, the Shiites are concerned about the history of these volunteers, at least some of whom may have recently been insurgents, even members of al-Qaida in Iraq. And, the Post reports, those concerns are not allayed by the most recent example of what can happen if sectarian forces rise to power in the Iraqi army and police. After all, such a sectarian power grab has already happened, but with Shiite elements as the ones who insinuated themselves into the country's security forces. The Post quotes Sami al-Askiri, a Shiite legislator and advisor to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose government opposes this effort, as saying, "We ended up with a police force that is not loyal to the government and to the country. If we copy this and do it with Sunnis, we will just create another problem."

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The Post also says that because of Maliki's opposition to the volunteers, there's a perception that continuing U.S. efforts in that direction only further undermine his government. And that only makes Maliki's reported decision to bring almost 20,000 Shiite militiamen into the Iraqi army in sharper focus. As Salon contributor Juan Cole asks on his blog while translating that news from an Arabic-language Iraqi newspaper, "You have to wonder if this step is intended to offset the American military's pressure to recruit Sunni tribesmen and neighborhood volunteers into the security forces."

Also worth reading in this vein is an article in this week's issue of the New Yorker by author Jon Lee Anderson. Anderson's article is fairly optimistic, if dark at times. It does have a couple of disturbing notes relating to this, including further confirmation that the Shiites are uncomfortable with the Sunni volunteers because of their presumed past as insurgents. There's also a quote from Sheikh Zaidan al-Awad, a Sunni tribal leader. Zaidan is currently in Jordan, but remains influential in Anbar province. Anbar is the home of the "Anbar Awakening," the shifting of Sunni insurgent allegiances from al-Qaida to the U.S. that is held up as the greatest success story in the country so far and as the model for the volunteer drive. Speaking with Anderson, Zaidan shines some light on motives for the switch, and what results is not a pretty sight.

"Zaidan said that Anbar's Sunni tribes no longer had any need to exact blood vengeance on U.S. forces," Anderson writes. "'We've already taken our revenge,' [Zaidan] said. 'We're the ones who've made them crawl on their stomachs, and now we're the ones to pick them up.' He added, 'Once Anbar is settled, we must take control of Baghdad, and we will.' There would have to be a lot more fighting before the capital was taken back from the Shiites, he said. 'The Anbaris will take charge of the purge. What the whole world failed to do in Anbar, we have done overnight. Baghdad will be a lot easier.'"


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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