Plan To Arm Additional Sunni Groups Poses Risks
This tactic has been employed before in Iraq with a great degree of success, but the unpredictability of arming Sunni groups that have in the past opposed the Iraqi government and even attacked U.S. forces is filled with risks.
Success In Al-Anbar
U.S. military commanders have argued that they tested the tactic of arming Sunni Arab groups in the once-restive Al-Anbar Governorate where Al-Qaeda in Iraq had a firm foothold in the region. The governorate was considered the most dangerous place in Iraq. However, Sunni tribal groups that once considered Al-Qaeda in Iraq an ally have turned on the group because of its indiscriminate killings and its imposition of an austere repressive version of Islam.
Sunni tribal leaders, given weapons and money by the Iraqi Army, recruited thousands of men to fight alongside Iraqi government forces against Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The result says General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is violence in the Al-Anbar governorate has declined precipitously.
"What's taken place in Al-Anbar is almost breathtaking," Petraeus told CNN on June 8. "In the last several months, tribes that turned a blind eye to what Al-Qaeda was doing in that province are now opposing Al-Qaeda very vigorously. And the level of violence in Al-Anbar has plummeted, although there clearly is still work to be done."
The U.S. military now plans to arm other Sunni groups, primarily in the Diyala and Salah Al-Din governorates where Washington believes Al-Qaeda has taken root, in the hopes that the same results will follow.
Undermining The Iraqi Government
While this tactic might be successful in thwarting Al-Qaeda in Iraq, it has the potential to undercut the Iraqi government and its armed forces. The tacit message that this approach sends is that after four years U.S.-trained Iraqi forces are incapable of controlling the country.
The tactic could also undermine Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who has opposed arming Sunni groups. In a June 16 "Newsweek" interview he said it might be destabilizing and the responsibility of arming any group should lay with the Iraqi government, not the United States.
"They [the U.S. military] make mistakes by arming tribes sometimes, and this is dangerous because this will create new militias," al-Maliki said. "We want to arm some tribes that want to side with us, but on the condition that we should be well aware of the tribe's background and sure that it is not connected with terror. It should be under the control of the [Iraqi] state and we should have guarantees that it will not turn into a militia."
Moreover, for years the United States has stressed that one of the main impediments to establishing security in Iraq has been the presence of illegally armed militias. Arming Sunni groups, essentially creating militias, completely undercuts the aforementioned objective and undermines the legitimacy of the Iraqi government forces.
Washington has repeatedly stated that only Iraqi government forces should be allowed to carry weapons. Therefore, this approach endorses illegally armed groups and gives justification for the likes of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to maintain their militias.
Short-Term Gains, Long-Term Risks
There are certainly obvious benefits of arming Sunni Arab groups to combat Al-Qaeda in Iraq, as the Al-Anbar model has shown. In fact, this tactic is currently being employed in Operation Arrowhead Ripper, the offensive against Al-Qaeda in Iraq launched on June 19 in the Diyala Governorate. "The Washington Post" reported on June 21 that several Sunni groups that in the past have fought against U.S. forces -- including the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Mujahedin Army and the Islamic Army -- were now working alongside Iraqi and U.S. forces against Al-Qaeda in Iraq in Diyala.
The groups are now under an umbrella organization called the United Jihad Factions Council and have been issued special insignias to distinguish them from Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters. Preliminary signs indicate the operation as being a success as more than 40 suspected Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters have been killed in the first two days of the offensive.
However, the tactic is fraught with risks and the short-term gains that may come with vanquishing Al-Qaeda in Iraq may in time be overshadowed by rising ethnic and sectarian tensions among the Shi'a, Sunnis, and Kurds. In Al-Anbar Governorate, the population is exclusively Sunni, so the issues of sectarianism inherent in arming Sunni groups were largely absent. The intense dissatisfaction and animosity the Sunni tribes felt toward Al-Qaeda in the region was easily co-opted by the United States and a partnership of convenience resulted without significant risk of blowback.
However, Diyala Governorate -- with its sizable Shi'ite and Kurdish populations -- presents an altogether different set of issues. Armed Sunni groups may be perceived as a threat by the Shi'a and Kurds, who may in turn acquire arms of their own, increasing the likelihood of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence.
Moreover, if Al-Qaeda in Iraq is removed from the theater, how will the Sunnis then be disarmed? It is highly unlikely these groups will voluntarily lay down their weapons. Indeed, with Al-Qaeda in Iraq out of the way, the Sunni groups may realize that their relationship of convenience with the coalition has run its course and resume their battle of liberation against the U.S.-led "occupation," only perhaps this time with better arms and tactics.
Finally, given the spiraling sectarian violence, providing arms to Sunni Arab groups that have in the past viewed the Iraqi government as illegitimate could be seen as a step toward an all-out civil war that could ultimately lead to the partitioning of the nation. While the Sunni groups may have changed their position and turned on Al-Qaeda in Iraq, they have steadfastly maintained their opposition to the Iraqi government and the presence of foreign troops in the country.
Mahmud Uthman, a Kurdish legislator, warned of this in an interview with "The Washington Post" on June 18. "They [Sunnis] take arms, they take money, and in the future they will be a problem," he said. "Politically, they are still against the Americans and the Iraqi government."
Kurdish Official Says Kirkuk Normalization To ProceedJune 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Fu'ad Husayn, director of the presidential office for the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) told RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo that the Kurds are confident Kirkuk will be integrated into the Kurdistan regional government. Husayn said on June 21 that he expects implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution on the normalization of Kirkuk to proceed on schedule.
RFE/RL: Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani was cited in the media this week as saying there is a possibility that the Kurds would accept a delay in the implementation of Article 140.
Fu'ad Husayn: No, he didn't say that. Actually, the media misinterpreted what he said. President Barzani said "We will never delay; we will never accept any delay in the implementation of Article 140." He said we will not accept any change in that article and we will not accept any delay.
[Barzani] said it is up to the [Kurdish regional parliamentary] committee on Article 140 [to decide] when they are going to implement the whole article. And if the committee says from a technical point of view we need a few months, then [the KRG] will discuss that. But, it will never be a political decision and it will never be a legal change [to the constitution]. So, [Barzani] made it clear. He will not accept a delay. He will not accept any change in the schedule of implementation of Article 140.
RFE/RL: Where does the schedule stand now?
Husayn: Of course, that's up to the committee on Article 140, but they have a time limit. And that time limit is the end of this year. But Article 140 has to do with various stages. One stage -- normalization -- which means resettling the Arabs brought to Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein to their original areas and returning the Kurds displaced from Kirkuk back to Kirkuk -- the committee on Article 140 has taken various decisions as far as this stage, and they are implementing it.
The second stage has to do with census -- and actually census doesn't mean to have information about everything -- but it means to know who is originally from the area, and who can vote. And that's easy to know because [since] 2003, we had various elections, so it is easy to go back to the [voter] registries and know who is [originally] from the area and who can vote. And from there, [we move] to the last stage which is a referendum [on whether to join the Kurdistan region or remain outside it].
RFE/RL: It was reported in the media that 100 billion dinars (nearly $80 million) was allocated to implement the first phase of Article 140. Where is this money going, and is it being spent?
Husayn: As far as the budget for the committee, it has been allocated to the committee. Part of that budget will be given to the Arabs [settled in Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein] so that they can go back and start their life in their original city. And part of [the budget] has to do with the work of the committee itself. So, the Iraqi government has already allocated an amount for the work of the committee and to help the Arabs go back.
RFE/RL: It is possible to move forward with implementation of Article 140 given the security situation in Kirkuk?
Husayn: Yes, yes. I think those people who are active now -- the terrorists and the supporters of the Ba'ath regime -- they are trying with their actions to delay Article 140. Their target is either to delete Article 140 or to delay it, delay the implementation. When the implementation will start -- and it started already -- it will help the population of the area to feel sure about their future. And we think that will reduce terrorist attacks.
Actually, there are people who think that implementation of Article 140 will lead to a civil war. We think the other way around, because at the end, those small groups that are now attacking the Kurds and attacking other government officials in Kirkuk, they are people who are against Article 140. They are people who were against the constitution. They are people who are against the new situation in Iraq.
So when the stage of implementation will begin, I think they will feel they are the losers. And the original people of Kirkuk, they will feel they are more secure, and [that] they will have a future.
RFE/RL: What will happen if some Arab families refuse to be repatriated to their original towns? Will they be allowed to stay in Kirkuk?
Husayn: According to my information, thousands of Arabs have already registered to go back to their original [towns]. So the Arabs who were brought by Saddam Hussein, they are ready to go back.
The original Arabs [from Kirkuk] -- of course we have Arabs who have been there for a long time -- of course they can stay and they will be part of the society, part of the community. But those who have been brought [by Saddam Hussein], their registration will be [transferred] to their original [town] and then they will leave Kirkuk.
RFE/RL: There was a proposal by some Arabs and Turkomans to have Kirkuk designated as a "special status" region where Kurds, Turkomans, and Arabs share power. What has been the KRG's response to this proposal?
Husayn: We are committed to Article 140 and the constitution. Article 140 says that at the end, the referendum will decide [Kirkuk's status]. By the way, it's not just about Kirkuk, it's the whole area -- Sinjar, Khanaqin, and many other Kurdish [populated] towns. So, it is up to the population of these areas to decide, and not [up] to a small group or a political party to decide. When a referendum is held, and when people vote, then we will know in which direction Kirkuk will go. It's not up to some people especially small political parties from the Arab side or the Turkoman side to decide.
By the way, there are many Turkomans who are ready to be part of this process, and they are supporting the implementation of Article 140. And there are other Arabs, even the original Arabs who say it will be better to be part of a secure area than to be part of a non-secure area -- meaning to be part of Kurdistan [region].
RFE/RL: What will the Kurdish reaction be if Baghdad fails to implement Article 140?
Husayn: We have the feeling that the Iraqi government is cooperating at this stage, and they are supporting the committee that has been formed in Baghdad -- committee on [Article] 140.
By the way, the majority of the members of the committee are ministers in the Iraqi government. The prime minister [Nuri al-Maliki] declared many times, "It is my duty to implement the constitution and 140 is part of the constitution."
RFE/RL: There is a committee in the Baghdad parliament that is working on amending some articles in the constitution, including Article 140.
Husayn: Yes, there is a committee that deals with a proposal of changing the article – changing the constitution. But changing the constitution must be within the mechanism of the constitution itself. As far as the Kurdish [bloc's position], we will not accept changing Article 140, because changing it means deleting it. Article 140 has to do with a time limit, and those who are talking about delaying it, in fact they are talking about deleting it. So, we will never accept that.
RFE/RL: Some people are blaming external forces for influencing the situation in Kirkuk...
Husayn: Kirkuk is part of Iraq -- as Irbil and other cities. It is part of Iraq. So, even if Kirkuk will be part of Kurdistan [region], we will stay part of Iraq. It is not up to foreign powers to decide the future of Kirkuk. It is up to the population of Kirkuk to decide the future of their city, and it is up to the Iraqi Constitution, which was voted on by 80 percent of the population of Iraq, including Article 140. So this is in an internal affair and has nothing to do with other [neighboring] countries.