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Implications of Transferring Control of the Awakening Councils in Iraq

Shelly Johny was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • September 12, 2008

    The recent American plan to transfer control of the Awakening Movement’s tribal militias to the Iraqi Army is fraught with risk for the future of Iraq. The improved security situation in Iraq has been attained by maintaining a precarious balance between several countervailing forces. Care has been taken to isolate radical Shia movements like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi and prevent it from having any share of power in the Shia-majority government led by Nouri al-Maliki. The Kurds have been allowed to continue with their autonomous status, which they had been more or less enjoying since the 1990s, while Sunni Arab tribes in Baghdad and Anbar province were given enough incentives to keep out the al Qaeda. It is this balance which is likely to be harmed if the transfer of control over the pre-dominantly Sunni tribal militias of the Awakening takes place. The Iraqi Army, police and other security organisations are mostly composed of militia members of Shia political parties like the Daawa and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). Iraqi paramilitary units are filled with members of the Badr Brigade, which is the militia of the SCIRI, and is suspected of being behind the abduction, torture and murder of several Sunnis in Iraq. The conflict in Iraq and the worsening Sunni-Shia divide has ensured that the Iraqi government and armed forces would never see the Sunni tribal militias of the Awakening as trustworthy allies.

    Though the Awakening movement was responsible for restoring calm in Anbar province and the different districts of Baghdad, the Iraqi government is suspicious of it as most of its members were former insurgents, Baathists, and al Qaeda members. There is also speculation that the movement has been infiltrated by al Qaeda cadres. In August, Iraqi security forces went about arresting the leaders of the Awakening councils. The Iraqi authorities also showed reluctance in inducting Sunni fighters from the Awakening movement into the Iraqi security forces. But the new decision has thrown up questions about how the plan of transfer of control of the militias is going to be implemented. The new initiative is related to the American handover of control of Anbar province to the Iraqi government. It is part of an initiative to reduce US troop presence in Iraq and handover security duties to Iraqi security forces. But if the issue of control over the Awakening Councils is not handled with tact and caution, it can result in renewed Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq. There is growing resentment among several militia commanders of the Awakening due to the treatment meted out to them by the Iraqi government. If the Iraqi government dithers in taking a decision on the matter, the militias might be tempted to rejoin the insurgency.

    A new Sunni-Shia conflict will not be like the one witnessed during 2006 and 2007. There will be no divisions, like the one that existed between conservative Sunni tribes and radical Islamist groups, for the United States to exploit and weaken the insurgency. It would be bloodier and more devastating than anything that Iraq has seen hitherto. A comparison of the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq with other such purported examples in West Asia would show that sectarian strife in Iraq has reached proportions that have rarely been seen in the region. The Iran-Iraq war was often described as a sectarian conflict without taking into consideration factors like the previous history of relations between the two states, historical rivalry between Arabs and Persians and the important fact that the majority of soldiers in the Iraqi army were Shias. Shia opposition activities in the region have been mostly directed against their respective governments for attaining more political rights and not against fellow Sunnis. This has been the case in countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In the case of Iraq, Sunni-Shia divisions have seeped down to the grass roots level. Calm has been restored in many of the districts in Baghdad because of the complete segregation of Sunnis and Shias.

    There are parties on both sides who would like the outbreak of such sectarian conflict in order to further their own interests. While the al Qaeda’s activities have been restricted to Mosul, which is described by US authorities as its last bastion in Iraq, it is not completely out of the picture. On the other hand, Mosul is astride entry routes from Syria which has ensured that the group continues to get recruits from the wider region. The former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, wanted to instigate a Sunni-Shia conflict as he believed that it would hasten the exit of US troops from the country. Al Qaeda might want to regenerate his programme if tensions increase between the two sides. Besides sectarian divisions, al Qaeda also has the chance to exploit ethnic differences like the one that exists between Arabs and Kurds. There are also various renegade factions of Jaish al-Mahdi, over whom Muqtada has little control. These factions, some of which have apocalyptic beliefs, would also be interested in instigating sectarian strife.

    What would be the regional implications of a new Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq? It would be worthwhile to compare the Iraqi case with the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s and the war in Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s. Because of weak state institutions, many of the factions in the latter two countries had cultivated strong ties with external players. While factions like various pro-Iranian Shia organisations in Iraq share strong relations with Iran, external players have not had the kind of leverage in Iraqi politics as previously expected. This is because Iraq has had a strong central government for a major portion of its existence as an independent nation. To a certain extent, it has created a sense of national identity among the various sections of the Iraqi population, making them less amenable to external machinations. Saddam Hussein was the culmination of a long evolutionary process whereby a system of government was created which would entail authoritarian rule by a strongman to maintain the unity of a country divided on ethnic, religious and sectarian lines. While the various external players could insulate themselves from the effects of civil war in Lebanon, a Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq could affect the regimes in countries like Syria and Jordan if not Iran. Finally, the challenge of establishing a representative government in Iraq lies in creating enough stakeholders in the major communities which would lead them to believe that a united Iraq would serve their interests better.