For months now I've been pointing to the growing fragmentation and internal political struggles in the Sunni community, as the Anbar Salvation Council challenges both the elected Sunni political leadership and the insurgency factions for authority at the local and national levels. That has really heated up in recent months, with the closure of the Association of Muslim Scholars office, the various attempts to replace Tawafuq ministers with ASC figures, the turf battles between the ASC and Hashemi's IIP, al-Qaeda's monthlong onslaught against the Awakenings, and the flirtation between the ASC and the Supreme Council and Maliki. The political fragmentation and power struggles in the Sunni community are fortunately getting better coverage in the American media now, which has begun to get past the excitement of the turn against al-Qaeda and begun to take a closer look at what kind of political system this might be encouraging. I've got some longer pieces coming out on this, but just wanted to throw out some preliminary thoughts here since so much of the available information remains murky and ambiguous.
There are at least two ways to see this internal ferment. One is to argue that this fragmentation is deeply problematic because it makes it less likely that anyone will be able to strike and enforce binding agreements on national reconciliation. Communal fragmentation and devolution to the local level, in this approach, doom attempts to strike national reconciliation deals - and thus work against the political goals of American strategy. Others, such as Association of Muslim Scholars head Hareth al-Dhari and one of the leaders of the Fallujah battle Abdullah al-Janabi, go even further, warning that this is leading towards repeating the Afghan disaster where a successful jihad against the Soviets collapsed into tribal dissension and battling warlords. The American success, writes one author in al-Quds al-Arabi, is to turn Shia-Sunni bloodshed into Sunni-Sunni and Shia-Shia bloodshed.
The other position is that the ferment in the Sunni community could eventually produce an alternative elite which will strike a more acceptable deal than the other sectarian groups or the Americans could have gotten from the current Sunni elite - or perhaps force the current elite to strike a deal to fend off the challenge from below. The Awakenings could offer a track into the political process for the insurgency factions, giving them a stake and a voice in Iraqi institutions. This seems to be the position into which the Americans and the Iraqi government have defaulted, for lack of other options, but for all its second-bestness there's some creative work going on to try and push in that direction.
I still think that the former argument is rather stronger, which is why I remain very pessimistic about where things are heading. It is good that everybody from Tareq al-Hashemi to Ahmed Abu Risha to American military commanders are publicly and forcefully saying that integrating the CLCs into national institutions is absolutely necessary - which has been my argument since this summer. But the results of all that pressure are thus far minimal.
Still, things are very much in flux both in intra-Sunni politics and at the national level. The Sunni-Kurdish deal, the mysterious de-de-Baathification law ... things could happen, even if each time their real implications are not immediately clear. The public flirtation between the Anbar Salvation Council and the Supreme Council (and Maliki) is a prime test case for this. The competing spins show the extent to which everything is open to multiple interpretations: it could be a sign of national reconciliation, as Shia and Sunni groups finally seek common ground; or it could be read as Hakim's encouragement of a more pliable and politically inexperienced Sunni leadership which would be more amenable to his federalism schemes, given that its power is at the local level rather than the national level.
One of the key questions to be explored still is the murky
relationship between the Salvation Councils and the CLCs, and between the Salvation Councils and the insurgency factions. The forums are full of intriguing claims and counter-claims on these questions. For instance, I've been following one discussion about an interview the other day with an "Abu Azzam" on al-Jazeera, who responded to a direct question about his Islamic Army membership by saying that he joined the Awakening on a personal basis, not as an Islamic Army representative, but declined to mention whether he was currently a member. Meanwhile insurgency faction spokesmen are full of warnings to those who would try to steal the fruits of the jihad from its rightful owners. This gets to the heart of the Anbar Salvation Council's political claims, and nobody really seems to have a clear handle on it. Neither do I, but there's some interesting new evidence that I'll be mulling over soon. The point here is not to establish whether or not Awakening members are or were "bad guys" - clearly, most of them were until recently fighting against the Americans - but rather to establish their current political loyalties and where they might be pointing those guns in a few months or years.
Just for fun, in advance of those other pieces, I wanted to throw out some of the more interesting lines, rumors, and public statements by and about the Awakenings in various Arab media outlets over the last couple of weeks:
- Sunday (1/13), Kamal Abu Risha, Vice President of the Sahwa Iraq Conference, was quoted widely as saying that the Sahwa opposes the American presence in Iraq and calls for the withdrawal of American forces and returning Iraq to its people because they are best able to provide security. He claimed that during his meeting with President Bush, Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha had called on Bush to withdraw US troops but the President told him this was not possible. On Tuesday (1/15), on the other hand, Ahmed Abu Risha, head of the Anbar Salvation Council, was quoted as warning against an early US withdrawal which would lead to a return to sectarian violence and disaster.
- The Jordanian analyst Hassan al-Barari recently reported on a meeting he had with Abu Azzam, identified as one of the leaders of the Abu Ghrayb Awakening. According to Abu Azzam, the greatest threat to the Arab Sunnis is the Iranian occupation, and then the American occupation. The number one enemy was not al-Qaeda as portrayed in the media, he stressed, but rather Iran and its agents. The American occupation was only for the medium term but the Iranians would stay. If the Resistance could not fight the Americans and Iranians together, the logical solution was to align with the temporary American occupation in order to improve the Sunni position to defeat the Iranians.
- On 1/8 and 1/9, Association of Muslim Scholars head Hareth al-Dhari was interviewed at length by al-Hayat. His most inflammatory charge was that the Awakenings were repeating the mistakes of al-Qaeda, imposing themselves on local societies and losing the goodwill they originally enjoyed among the populace. He would say that, of course, and there's no reason to take his word for it, but it's clearly part of the escalating political struggle.
- In a recent interview for the Council on Foreign Relations, Greg Gause dropped this casual observation: "the most interesting development in 2007 from the Saudi point of view is the rise of the Awakening Councils, the tribal and other Sunni groups uniting against al-Qaeda and cooperating with the United States. We don’t have much evidence on this because the Saudis are secretive about such things, but I’m pretty confident that the Saudis have encouraged this with their influence and with their money. And those Awakening Councils are kind of the natural extension of Saudi influence into Iraq." That's what most people think... but as Gause points out, evidence of such things is hard to come by. Most of the time.
All right, I'm off to class. Enough musing for today.