Uncertainty Facing Iraq’s Awakening Movement Puts U.S. Strategy at Risk

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 4

As Iraq’s security situation deteriorates in the midst of resurgent violence, an increase in internal and external pressures facing the Awakening (Sahwa) Movement may jeopardize the prospects and goals set forth in the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy created by U.S. General David Petraeus.

The formation of the Awakening Councils seemed a promising linchpin to the “surge” strategy, which has shown concrete signs of improving Iraq’s security sector. Though the rise of the Awakening movement contributed substantially in limiting al-Qaeda in Iraq in the short term, its forces face uncertain and problematic long-term challenges. If the dilemmas confronting the Awakening members continue to be marginalized by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, Iraq’s improved security situation is likely to revert back to sectarianism and civil war-like conditions.

Formation of the Awakening Councils

The Awakening movement began in al-Anbar province in 2006. The governorate was then described as “an impregnable garrison” of al-Qaeda in Iraq (Azzaman, January 3). The terrorist organization, then led by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, suppressed the local population and killed thousands of tribal members in an effort to impose an Islamic authority over the province. Though many of the members representing the Awakening today were at one time or another part of the insurgency killing U.S. soldiers, al-Qaeda’s use of vicious intimidation tactics eventually led tribal leaders to shift their allegiances by cooperating with the U.S. military.

Since 2005, the Sahwa has spread outside al-Anbar province, with fighters joining or forming Awakening councils across the country. With the support and nurturing of the U.S. military, the Awakening has grown to at least 80,000 members, with Sunnis representing four-fifths of the force (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 23). The movement represents one of the main components of U.S. counter-insurgency strategy and one of the very few Iraqi success stories. But in September 2007, al-Qaeda assassinated Shaykh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the charismatic leader of the Awakening movement (Awsat al-Iraq, January 14). Killed just days after meeting with President Bush, Abu Risha’s death promoted uncertainty as to what would come of the Awakening movement without the shaykh’s leadership and credibility.

Security/Political Dilemmas

Though the Sahwa councils are credited to a large extent for the decline in the total number of Iraqi casualties, all three of Iraq’s major political groupings—Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds—are wary of the Awakening’s role in state affairs.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is opposed to the formation of Awakening Councils in its region and areas subject to Article 140 of the Iraq Constitution, which calls for a reversal of the Baathist “Arabization” process in Kirkuk and other disputed areas (Kurdish Globe, January 23). The Sunni Arab makeup of the Awakening forces conflicts with Kurdish interest in sustaining security autonomy, especially in Kirkuk and parts of Ninawa province. The major concern for Sunni Arab leaders such as Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and Iraq Accordance Front (IAF) leader Adnan al-Duleimi is that the Awakening Councils will gain political power at the expense of Sunni politicians. The increasing influence of the Awakening tribesmen has begun to challenge the Sunni bloc for a share in political power—a prospect many Sunni leaders want to avoid. The boycott by IAF ministers of al-Maliki’s government last August prompted rumors that the Awakening Council would nominate candidates to replace them (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 29, 2007).

A dilemma has emerged in the current relationship between the United States and the Awakening Council concerning the prospect of integrating Sahwa tribesmen into Iraqi security and police forces. The Shiite political community is uneasy with what they perceive as U.S. control over the Sunni-dominated militia. The Awakening forces are autonomous and unaccountable to the Iraqi government. Depending on their rank, members are paid from $300 to $1200 every month by the U.S. military (Independent, January 28). The Sahwa leaders are demanding that they be integrated into Iraq’s national defense forces, assuming permanent positions with permanent payrolls.

In addition to the suspicion of the Sahwa held by Iraq’s Shiites, the Awakening leaders have a reciprocal mistrust of the Shiite-dominated government, often defining it as a puppet of Iran. But concern over the Awakening Council’s political agenda is perhaps not necessarily the major reason why some Sunni and Shiite lawmakers have been reluctant to embrace the movement. Rather it may be suspicions over the past history of Sahwa members. According to Shaykh Harith al-Dari, head of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars: “Many of those who have joined the Sahwa Councils have been members in al-Qaeda. They joined al-Qaeda in the first place for the sake of money, and when more money became available in a different direction, they rushed to it” (Awsat al-Iraq, January 9).

Many of the Sahwa fighters are former insurgents, Baathists and al-Qaeda terrorists. The rapid growth of the tribal coalition has led many in the Shiite government to assume that the Awakening Councils could not possibly have inspected every member thoroughly—suggesting the organization suffers from mass infiltration. Rumors of infiltration have lately been advanced through a series of Shiite newspaper articles. Even the idea of infiltration helps discredit the Awakening Councils in the eyes of Iraqi officials. Prime Minister al-Maliki said in an interview: “We, as a government, have intelligence information: the Baath party has ordered its members to join the Awakening Councils, and al-Qaeda has ordered its members to infiltrate the Awakening Councils” (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 5).

Threat from the Shiite Militias

The secular and Sunni-oriented makeup of the expanding Awakening Movement has led to deep anxiety in Shiite circles in southern Iraq. Referring to Iraq’s powerful Shiite religious leaders, the current Sahwa commander, Kamal Hammad al-Muajal Abu Risha, said in an interview that Islam has “an active role in our society but we reject clerics’ interference in politics. The power of the clerics should not exceed the mosques nor affect the political decision-making process” (Awsat al-Iraq, January 14).

Statements like this have produced anxiety in powerful Shiite clerics such as the anti-American firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). Though the men are intense rivals for the Shiite sphere of influence, the two share a mutual concern for the Awakening’s increasing threat to Shiite Iraq. Al-Hakim and al-Sadr lead the two most powerful militias in Iraq: the Badr Brigade and the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JaM), respectively. Both organizations are Iranian-backed and trained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The formation of a secular and Sunni-dominated force of 80,000, spread out across Iraq, supersedes both JaM and the Badr Brigade—effectively defining them now as second-class militias. While both Shiite militias are forced to work covertly in their funding and armament activities, the Sahwa profits from being openly supplied and backed by the U.S. military.

Terrorist Pressures

The Awakening Councils have received threats from outsiders for their collaboration with U.S. forces. Last November, Syrian Shaykh Abd al-Munim Mustafa Halima—also known as Abu Baseer al-Tartousi—condemned the Iraqi tribesmen for cooperating with the U.S. occupiers. Residing in London, al-Tartousi is considered one of the leading theoreticians of the Salafi-jihadist trend in Islam. He writes that “the so-called Awakening Councils [Majalis al-Sahwa], which preferred to join ranks with the invaders and aggressors against the jihad fighters, should be called the Councils of Stupor and Oblivion.” When addressing the suggestion that the Councils’ collaboration is a reaction to al-Qaeda’s brutal tactics against their members, al-Tartousi suggests that “one injustice does not justify a greater injustice” (MEMRI, January 15).

In late December, Osama bin Laden also condemned those joining the Awakening movement, claiming that “they sold out their religion in return for a mortal [monetary] world” (RFE/RL, January 4). Since this statement was made, there has been an exceptional spike in al-Qaeda’s attacks against members of the Awakening Council. In the month of January, the tribal coalition experienced the loss of well over a hundred members, including the assassinations of at least six senior Awakening leaders.

Awakening Returning to Insurgency?

The U.S. military and intelligence community is alarmed by the possibility of the Awakening Council strategy backfiring, essentially leading to an unfortunate path similar to that experienced in Afghanistan. This is the likely scenario if the United States is unable to keep paying the Awakening members and/or the central government fails to meet their demands. U.S. officials are concerned over the recent increase in killings of Sahwa members and the possibility that some Sahwa fighters might rejoin the insurgency.

“If the Americans think they can use us to crush al-Qaeda and then push us to one side, they are mistaken,” says Abu Marouf, the commander of 13,000 fighters who formerly fought U.S. soldiers. As a member of the powerful Zubai tribe, he was part of al-Qaeda’s defeat in the stronghold of Fallujah. While discussing his demand for the integration of his fighters into official Iraqi forces, Abu Marouf stated: “If there is no change in three months there will be war again.” According to local sources, Abu Marouf is a former commander in the insurgent 1920 Revolution Brigades (Independent, January 28).

Many politicians recognize a return to insurgency as a possible consequence if terrorist pressures continue. Senior Sunni politician Omar Abdul Sattar warned that if the Awakening Councils were disbanded, the security situation in Iraq will “deteriorate precipitously” (Azzaman, January 3). Unfortunately, despite the risk of reversing Iraq’s security progress, there is no apparent urgency in al-Maliki’s government to integrate Awakening members. U.S. officials point to Shiite politicians as the main source of obstruction to the integration program. According to Brig. Gen. Jim Huggins, of the 3,000 recruits of the Awakening Council he sent to a Shiite leader’s office to apply for integration, only 400 names received approval—all Shiites (USA Today, February 1).

Prospects: al-Sadr and Iran

To add to the dilemma plaguing the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy, the rise of the Awakening councils may risk reigniting the Jaysh al-Mahdi. Since August 2007, Moqtada al-Sadr’s self-imposed ceasefire has contributed tremendously to the decline of violence throughout Iraq. On February 22, the ceasefire was extended for another six months. But if the Awakening movement becomes too powerful or rejoins the insurgency due to unsatisfied demands, al-Sadr may be inclined to end the ceasefire or concede further fragmentation of the Jaysh al-Mahdi. Rogue factions within the Shiite militia have already targeted Sahwa fighters, especially in Baghdad.

The Islamic Republic seems to be reasserting itself in Iraq. Reports published by the Iraqi Islamic Party and the pro-Baathist website “Quds Press” cited unidentified intelligence sources stating that brigades comprised of rogue JaM elements were being formed by the Iranian Quds Force to assassinate Awakening Council members (RFE/RL, January 4). This was later corroborated by sources belonging to the Awakening Councils: “Special groups supported by the Iranian Quds have started armed activities against elements of the Awakening forces in various parts of Baghdad” (Al-Sharqiyah TV, January 28).

The success of the counter-insurgency strategy is contingent on elements of the security situation that the U.S. has little control over. One of the major factors contributing to recent security improvements is the Awakening’s formation. Another major part of the success story is Moqtada al-Sadr’s ceasefire. However, the security and political dilemmas facing the Awakening Councils may lead these organizations to fragment, split and rejoin the insurgency. This would effectively force al-Sadr to reinstate an active Jaysh al-Mahdi—a prospect likely to diminish security progress, even to the point of reverting back to pre-surge status.