The Role of the 'Sons of Iraq' in Improving Security

Greg Bruno
Staff Writer, Council on Foreign Relations
Monday, April 28, 2008; 11:37 AM


In August 2006, tribal sheikhs in Iraq's Anbar province turned against a chief U.S. threat: al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The decision to cut ties with AQI was dubbed the "Anbar Awakening" by Iraqi organizers, and has been hailed as a turning point in the U.S.-led war effort. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told lawmakers in Washington the uprising has reduced U.S. casualties, increased security, and even saved U.S. taxpayers money. "The savings and vehicles not lost because of reduced violence," the general said in April 2008, "far outweighed the costs of their monthly contracts." Yet the future of the Awakening -- Sahwa in Arabic -- is a matter of increasing debate in foreign policy circles. Internal disputes within the predominantly Sunni groups have threatened the stability of the revolt, some experts say. Sunni groups have also complained about low pay and a lack of opportunities for employment within Iraq's army and police forces. CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon writes in Foreign Affairs that while the Sahwa strategy may bring short-term stability to Iraq, the long-term effect could be runaway "tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism."

Anbar Awakes

While the U.S. military considered aligning with Iraqi tribes soon after the war began, it was the brutality of al-Qaeda in Iraq that eventually gave birth to Iraq's Awakening movement. By the summer of 2006, the insurgent group, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had deeply entrenched itself in Anbar province west of Baghdad. The relocation of U.S. military forces to the capital that summer contributed to the group's gains, experts say. Col. Sean MacFarland, who commanded a U.S. combat team in the provincial capital of Ramadi that summer and helped initiate the Awakening movement, told reporters in July 2006 that government buildings had "become really little more than shells" used to "hide snipers and IED triggerman." Military commanders say al-Qaeda in Iraq relied on "indiscriminate violence and extremist ideology" to further its goal of establishing a caliphate -- a single, transnational Islamic state. But the heavy-handed approach backfired. Alienated by a foreign-led, religiously zealous insurgency, Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha approached MacFarland (TIME) about shifting his allegiance to the United States. Thousands of Sunni civilians ultimately joined a U.S. alliance.

But experts stress the moves by Sunni sheikhs was less an embrace of U.S. objectives and more a repudiation of al-Qaeda in Iraq's actions. David Kilcullen, a counterterrorism expert who has advised Gen. Petraeus, says the Awakening was motivated in part by concerns about protecting Iraqi women. In a 2007 essay for the blog, Kilcullen writes that al-Qaeda strategy in Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere has been to intermarry senior al-Qaeda forces with local brides. The aim is to sow deep roots in a community. But in Iraqi tribal structure, "marrying women to strangers, let alone foreigners, is just not done," Kilcullen says. This tribal protocol led to the rejection of al-Qaeda in Iraq advances and, eventually, he adds, "this let to violence." Other points of contention for Iraqi tribesmen was the widespread belief that the insurgent group had links to Shiite Iran, viewed with vitriol by Iraq's Sunnis; and reports that it disrupted tribal business ventures, including smuggling and construction enterprises.

The Spread of a Movement

The Awakening movement quickly spread beyond Anbar. By spring 2008, it had reached nearly two-thirds of the country's provinces with Sunni volunteers -- dubbed "Concerned Local Citizens" or "Sons of Iraq" by the U.S. military -- in Nineveh, Diyala, Babil, Salahuddin, and Baghdad. In nearly every case, local security forces were created from the ground up, with sheikhs, tribal leaders, and other power brokers entering into security contracts with coalition forces. Lists of potential recruits were then vetted by U.S. and Iraqi officials. These groups, who are self armed, form a kind of neighborhood-watch program, coordinating operations with U.S. and Iraqi combat commanders in their particular regions.

By April 2008, more than 95,000 citizens had joined the anti-al-Qaeda movement, according to Lt. Col. Rudolph Burwell, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. Roughly 80 percent of the forces are Sunni; 19 percent are Shiite. It is estimated that 91,000 are under contract with coalition forces, each receiving the equivalent of $300 in U.S. currency a month for the security services they provide (in early 2008 the United States was spending $16 million a month on these salaries). Some observers say the payments are tantamount to bribery. "The Americans think they have purchased Sunni loyalty," Nir Rosen, a fellow at New York University Center on Law and Security, told Congress in April 2008. "But in fact it is the Sunnis who have bought the Americans" (PDF) by buying time to challenge the Shiite government.

Yet few dispute that security and stability have increased dramatically since the Awakening began. Col. Martin N. Stanton, chief of reconciliation and engagement for Multinational Corps-Iraq, told journalists in November 2007 the uprising against al-Qaeda in Iraq was a "watershed in this war" (PDF), and violence in some districts declined 90 percent following the formation of tribal security forces. In April 2008, Petraeus echoed those gains in testimony before U.S. lawmakers. Tips from Sunni volunteers have "reduced significantly" al-Qaeda in Iraq's ability to strike, the general said, and have increased the number of weapons caches uncovered and confiscated. Analysts also believe the movement has taken a toll on the insurgent group's capabilities. Farook Ahmed of the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan research institution, estimates that in the six months leading to February 2008, the number of AQI fighters dwindled (PDF) from around 12,000 to about 3,500. The Washington Post reported in February 2008 that AQI leaders are softening their tactics to try to regain the support of an alienated Sunni population.

Challenges Ahead

Despite the gains, the alliance is still viewed with suspicion by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which worries local forces -- some of whom targeted U.S. and Iraqi soldiers before switching sides -- seek to threaten government authority. Col. Stanton acknowledged "there's a lot of distrust in the government for the Sunnis. One could almost use the word 'paranoia.'" The Pentagon, in a March 2008 report to Congress (PDF), said ongoing challenges include "the potential for infiltration by insurgents; the possibility of distortions in the local economy if salaries are not carefully managed; and the need for a comprehensive plan to transition Sons of Iraq to sustainable forms of employment in the [Iraqi Security Forces] or in the private sector."

To assuage such fears -- and to ensure the identification of any volunteer that turned against the coalition -- U.S. and Iraq officials in 2007 established a registration and vetting process for members. In exchange for employment and pay as U.S.-allied guards, recruits are required to submit fingerprints, retinal scans, photographs, addresses, and other identification data. While many members are themselves former insurgents, military commanders report few have risked (Weekly Standard) turning against the coalition because the registration process makes identifying turncoats easy. Volunteers receive "limited training," Lt. Col. Burwell says, but are not given ammunition or guns.

Targeting the Sons

Al-Qaeda in Iraq has taken note of the Awakening movement's success; Sons of Iraq commanders and volunteers have routinely been targeted by AQI strikes. Sheikh Abu Risha, the initiator of the U.S.-backed tribal revolt, was killed ten days after meeting with President Bush in September 2007. His death preceded an ultimatum from insurgents, warning Sunnis they would be attacked if they cooperated with the United States. Those threats continue to result in bloodshed. In April 2008, at least sixty people were killed in a village near Kirkuk, when suicide bombers triggered explosive vests at a funeral for two council members (al-Jazeera). CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot argues that militants consider the Awakening the most serious threat they face. "That's why they are putting so much effort into targeting Awakening members." It is unclear how many U.S.-allied fighters have been killed by the insurgent group. In response to an e-mail query about casualty figures, Lt. Col. Burwell said "that data is not releasable," noting only "it is safe to say that [Sons of Iraq members] have been targeted for attacks because of their effectiveness in providing security for their areas of responsibility."

Some Sons of Iraq guards have been inadvertently targeted by U.S. gunfire. In February 2008, two Iraqi volunteers were killed in a U.S.-led raid, the third such attack that month. The incident, which military officials attributed to Iraqi guards not following procedure, underscored the coordination challenges between Sons of Iraq fighters and their U.S. and Iraqi security counterparts.

Where from Here?

How to demobilize the Awakening forces, such as integrating civilian security forces into the Iraqi government and civilian sectors, is another serious question mark. Because the Sons of Iraq program was meant to be temporary, and U.S. funding is not open-ended, Sunni volunteers have sought long-term employment in the Iraqi Security Forces. But officials in Baghdad have resisted; only 8,200 have been integrated into the Iraqi Security Forces, according to Lt. Col. Burwell. An additional thirteen thousand have been accepted into "other government jobs," according to Petraeus. The United States has launched a civilian job corps to help transition some Sons of Iraq members into the work force. Additionally, some Awakening Councils are hoping to transform their growing cachet into viable political movements, an ambition that worries (FT) the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

The potential for violence if Sunni fighters are not transitioned into permanent government jobs is seen by some analysts as a necessary evil. CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle argues that the bottom-up strategy of forging local cease-fires may not be the best military strategy. "But given the alternatives," he told lawmakers in April 2008, "stabilization from the bottom up may be the least bad option." Terrence K. Kelly, an expert with the RAND Corporation, an independent research organization, says the short-term security gains achieved by turning tribes, criminal gangs, and other groups against al-Qaeda in Iraq can't be overstated. Kelly, who worked on militia demobilization efforts for the U.S. government in Iraq in 2004, acknowledges the long-term challenges of incorporating Sons of Iraq fighters into Iraq's governmental structure or otherwise reintegrating them into society. But he adds: "For right now we need them."

But other experts are not so sure the risks are worth taking. Lt. Col. Gian P. Gentile, a history professor at the U.S. Military Academy and former battalion commander in Iraq, tells he does not agree that U.S.-allied Sunni security forces will want to reconcile and share power with Baghdad. " The Sunnis want to resume their place where they hold the preponderance of power and to do that they have to fight to get it. The Shia, conversely, want to crush them." CFR's Simon takes an even darker view. "For many Sunnis, Shiite rule remains unacceptable," Simon writes in Foreign Affairs. "When former Sunni insurgents no longer believe that Washington will restore them to dominance, their current U.S. paymasters will once again be their targets."

© 2008