Rehabilitating the Sons of Iraq

07/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If the Sunnis are marginalised from the political process, instead of fighting al-Qaida they may revert to supporting them.

Recent events in AfPak, Sri Lanka and North Korea have diverted attention away from the fragile transition occurring in Iraq. The country is still highly unstable; April was the bloodiest month in Iraq for over a year with over 400 Iraqis killed. This upsurge of violence continued into May. Last Wednesday over 40 were killed and 70 injured when a car bomb in Baghdad's Shula neighborhood ripped into late night shoppers.

One of the key triggers for this spike in violence is the haphazard integration of the 90,000 "Sons of Iraq" into government control, set against the ticking clock of US military withdrawal from Iraqi urban areas at the end of June.

The Iraqi government is led by the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, of the Shia Dawa party, whose intelligence service is currently suing the Guardian's Ghaith Abdul-Ahad following an article that characterised his regime as "increasingly autocratic". It appears that Maliki is leading the effort to move Iraq away from the slow politics of consensus to a more Shia-dominated agenda.

Perhaps emboldened by his electoral showing earlier in the year (Maliki finished finished on top in nine of the country's 14 provinces), in a recent interview with al-Hurra, Maliki explained that "in the beginning, consensus was necessary for us. In this last period, we all embraced consensus and everyone took part together. We needed calm between all sides and political actors ... if this continues it will become a problem, a flaw, a catastrophe. The alternative is democracy, and that means majority rule ... From now on I call for an end to that degree of consensus."

An end to political consensus may break the back of the nascent Iraqi political establishment forcing politics out onto the street in the form of civil conflict. David Kilcullen, one of the architects of the surge, noted in his book The Accidental Guerrilla how a low-level Islamic civil war between Sunni and Shia had been accelerated by the US invasion that led to the creation of the first Shia Arab state in history.

During the pre-surge years the US found itself fighting all sides at once - al-Qaida, Sunni militias and Shia militias. One of the surge's major successes was to apply Frederick Hartmann's principle of a "conservation of enemies", whereby successful powers avoid making, or simultaneously engaging with, more enemies than absolutely necessary. Such a policy provided relatively improved security in which political reconciliation could take place - hence the timelines for the incorporation of the Sons of Iraq from US to Iraqi government control parallel to US forces standing down.

It seems that the best-laid national unity plans of the surge are being undermined by the independent actions of the Iraqi prime minister. In addition to condemning consensus politics, Maliki is also looking to roll back on the amnesty given to thousands of mainly Sunni prisoners, saying that it "will be amended and reviewed, on the basis that there is no protection for any corrupt [person] or terrorist in any legislation, or by any political power that is part of the government". Meanwhile, senior Sunni militiamen are being arrested on a regular basis - this month Sheik Riyadh al-Mujami and Abdul Jabbar al-Khazraji were both seized as reports emerged that over 1,000 arrest warrants for Sunni "tribal figures" have been issued.

If the Sunni members of the Sons of Iraq feel that they are being betrayed or defanged by a government with a sectarian rather than national agenda, then the edifice of security that Kilcullen and others designed may come tumbling down to increased violence or even a full-blown civil war. "There will be a war in Baghdad," an unnamed Sunni insurgent commander recently predicted to the Los Angeles Times. Indeed another advocate of the counterinsurgency, John Nagl, explained how the threat of al-Qaida still remained and that "persistent problems suggest that Iraqis are not yet ready to fight [al-Qaida] on their own". If the Sunnis are marginalised from the political process then instead of fighting al-Qaida in places like Anbar and Diyala province they may revert to providing them support and sanctuary as they did pre-surge.

With increasing focus and resources directed to Afghanistan, Obama would be loth to concede to a delay in the withdrawal from Iraq that further outbreak of violence may lead to. Whether Maliki is able to make the painful concessions to transcend sectarian politics and effectively accommodate the Sons of Iraq is therefore an issue of critical importance to the near-term future of the country.