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Awakening to New Dangers in Iraq

Sunni “Allies” Pose an Emerging Threat

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The fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war rapidly approaches, which means the very tenuous and dangerous military and political situation in Iraq will come back into the spotlight. The conventional wisdom among most conservatives and Washington policy elites is that the surge has “worked.” This conventional wisdom ignores the fact that the fundamental objectives of the surge—to create a more sustainable security framework for Iraq and advance Iraq’s political transition—have not been met.

Much of the recent decline in violence in Iraq from record levels of 2006 and early 2007 can be credited in large part to the emergence of sahwa, or “awakening,” groups. These groups, essentially Sunni Arab militias, are comprised of tribes and former insurgents who turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist militants long before the surge was even proposed in late 2006. These sahwa groups then received material support from the United States, which has politically empowered tribal sheikhs and former insurgent leaders who now enjoy de facto control over wide swathes of Anbar province and Baghdad neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, what has been extolled as a central “success” of the surge has also exacerbated existing political divisions and fomented new political cleavages in an already fractured and fragile Iraqi body politic. Newly empowered sahwa leaders are challenging each other, traditional Sunni Arab political parties, and the Iraqi government.

Al Qaeda in Iraq and its remaining allies in the Sunni insurgency have also begun a bloody campaign against the sahwa movement—more sahwa members have been killed since December 2007 (100-plus) than American troops (79 as of February 12).

U.S. policymakers have not explained these new and dangerous political and military dynamics to the American people, choosing instead to focus on the important accomplishment of putting Al Qaeda in Iraq on the run. What’s worse, current U.S. policy in Iraq does not take into account how the sahwa movements have further fractured and fragmented Iraqi politics, making it more difficult to achieve progress in striking the power-sharing deals necessary to stabilize their country.

With intra-Sunni tensions and violence rising, continued sectarian divisions between Shi’a and Sunnis, and ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs plaguing Iraq, the country is no closer to a sustainable security framework than it was at the start of 2007. In many ways, the situation in Iraq is beginning to look increasingly like what has recently transpired in Lebanon, with the emergence and strengthening of smaller political factions, each with its own armed militia asserting its influence in different parts of the country.

This is hardly the outcome that President Bush and top officials in his administration had hoped for when they began the war nearly five years ago. Yet these confusing and chaotic political cross currents are an outcome that leaves Iraq and its neighbors in an even more tenuous situation—one that requires a wholesale shift and strategic reset of U.S. policy in the region.

Until the United States begins to redeploy its forces from Iraq there will be no progress toward the creation of effective local governing institutions around the country and political reconciliation at the national level. Only then can the United States broker a new constitutional convention—with the help of Iraq’s neighbors—to create a new government capable of holding Iraq together and defeating global terrorist networks.

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