The New American Strategy in Iraq

Transitional Phase in Civil War

In spite of the unequivocal success of the new American strategy in pacifying post-war Iraq a lasting stabilisation of the country is not in sight, says Guido Steinberg in his analysis

American soldiers, the American and the Iraqi flag in the background (image: AP)
Continuing political inertia is endangering progress and depriving the country of any opportunity of finding a basis for national reconciliation, argues Guido Steinberg

​​The security situation in Iraq has shown a marked improvement since the beginning of the most recent American offensive in January of 2007. The success of US troops in driving both the Shiite militias and Sunni al-Qaida in Iraq out of Baghdad has brought a substantial reduction in the episodes of ethnic/confessional cleansing witnessed in the city.

The Sunni province of Anbar in the west of the country has been largely pacified. Yet a sustainable stabilization of Iraq looks as far away as ever with Iraqi politicians failing to capitalise on the improved security situation and forge workable compromises between the parties.

If efforts to establish a basis for political reconciliation should fail in 2008, 2007's successes with regard to stabilisation may prove to be nothing but straws in a wind that will blow the country back to a new phase of the country's civil war.

The new American strategy

The new American strategy is based on four main elements: 1. Increasing the number of American troops in Iraq and changes in military tactics. 2. Taking effective action against the Shiite militias, particularly against the Mahdi army of populist cleric Muqtada as-Sadr. 3. Negotiating with more moderate elements in the ranks of Sunni insurgents in order to get them to give up the armed struggle. 4. Setting up tribal militias to combat the remaining insurgents.

The US troops have concentrated their activities mainly on Baghdad, because it was the capital that became the centre of the conflict between Sunni and Shiite factions in 2006.

Successful actions against Shia militia in the city, particularly against Sadr’s Mahdi army, provided the cornerstone of the American successes of 2007.

Acts of violence perpetrated by Sadr’s army against the Sunnis had been a significant factor in the escalation of the conflict. Nevertheless, the threat posed by the Mahdi army still exists. Many of its members have retreated south since the end of 2006 but could be mobilised again at any time.

Realignment of Sunni insurgents

Guido Steinberg (photo: DW)
Guido Steinberg

​​Negotiations with Sunni insurgents and tribal representatives in Anbar Province and Baghdad, which began as early as 2005, were a further crucial element in the American strategy.

Many insurgents were persuaded to lay down their arms and be integrated into the new tribal militias. Supplied with money and weapons by US troops, they would become a new force in the fight against al-Qaida. This change of allegiance was due to an escalation of conflicts between the Sunni tribes and al-Qaida, which was attempting to force its claim to leadership over the insurgents through violence.

Under pressure from the Americans and the tribal militias, al-Qaida was forced to withdraw from the Anbar region as well as from Baghdad and the surrounding area and to move its activities farther to the north and northeast. Although al-Qaida has been severely weakened, it is too soon to talk about a final defeat.

The "tribal strategy"

Some of the tribal chiefs pledged to stop attacks on US and Iraqi troops and fight al-Qaida instead, and to do everything possible to integrate the new tribal militias into the Iraqi security forces, in particular the police.

Most important amongst these militias was the "Anbar Salvation Council" (Majlis Inqadh al-Anbar) or the "Awakening of Anbar" (Sahwat al-Anbar), formed in 2006.

Those who fought for the Americans were paid on a monthly basis. With many militia members actually joining the police, by the spring of 2007 the security situation in the provincial capital of Ramadi had improved noticeably. By summer, security had largely been restored in the former conflict region.

New Sunni political power player

The "tribal strategy" was extended to Baghdad and the surrounding region where it also contributed to successes in the struggle against al-Qaida. By the beginning of 2008, members of these militias or Sahawat (Awakening Councils) as they called themselves, already numbered more than 70,000.

The new tribal militias have significantly and lastingly upset the balance of power in Iraqi politics. A new Sunni political power player has emerged and is making increasingly forceful demands to be heard.

In Anbar Province in particular, the tribal militias are proving resistant to the strong influence of the Iraqi Islamic Party in the provincial government. They are calling for the removal of the provincial government and for a share of the power. It is a conflict that weakens what is already a divided Sunni camp and makes it even more difficult for them to exert any effective influence on the policies of the central government.

Future parties to conflict?

As far as the Shia and Kurdish controlled central government of Prime Minister Maliki is concerned, the tribal militias are nothing more than Sunni terrorists who, for purely tactical reasons, are prepared to feign their renunciation of terrorism.

Sunni insurgents and tribal representatives offered themselves as allies of US troops when, in 2006, it became clear to them that they were facing defeat at the hands of their Shiite enemies in Baghdad and that drastic action was required to remedy what had become a desperate situation. This is the reason why, for many politicians, the assimilation of these groups into the police and the armed forces is untenable.

Now there is widespread concern in Baghdad that what the Americans are doing by empowering these groups is simply paving the way towards future civil conflict; a threat which the Shiite militias will certainly be prepared to meet with an appropriate response. Should the said integration of the militias into the security forces not take place, however, they are threatening a return to armed insurgency.

Marked unwillingness to compromise

A solution to the problem of the tribal militias would only be possible were the Maliki government prepared to talk to the Sunni organisations and signal their willingness to share power with at least some of them. So far, however, the central government has shown a marked unwillingness to compromise.

If anything, positions in Baghdad's internal conflicts seem to have hardened. The opposing political camps remain resolutely divided.

On one side stands the Maliki government, which has dwindled since summer 2007 to a de facto coalition of the Shiite Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council, the Shiite Daawa Party and the Kurdish KDP and PUK parties. Their opponents in the parliament include the Sadr movement, Iyad Allawi's Iraqi List and the Sunnite parties.

Only a few members of the Sunni Consensus Front seem willing to cooperate with the government. The Islamic Party in particular has indicated its readiness, but only on condition that the government demonstrates a will towards at least partial rectification of its policies.

Dubious reconciliation

While it is true that several important pieces of legislation, considered as indicators of the government's readiness to achieve reconciliation with the Sunnis, were passed at the beginning of 2008, it is to be gravely doubted whether they will really do justice to that objective.

From the Sunni side at least, mistrust is justified. If, in 2008, no substantial progress is achieved, including progress in finding ways to bring about integration of the tribal forces, then it is not only the Shia militias that will be ready for a new phase of civil war, the Sunni militias will be also.

Guido Steinberg

© 2008

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Guido Steinberg studied history, Islamic studies and politics at the Universities of Cologne, Bonn, Damascus and at the Free University of Berlin. Between 2002 and 2005 he worked in the German Chancellery, and is now with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

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