Are the Sunni leaders in Iraq’s Anbar province finally coming around to joining the U.S. counterinsurgency war?
That’s how the New York Times portrayed the situation last week. In an article published Sept. 18, Times reporters quoted a Sunni tribal leader in Anbar as saying that 25 of 31 tribes in the province had banded together to fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Iraqi insurgents allied with them.
The newspaper said U.S. officials, who had "tried to persuade the Sunni Arab majority in Anbar to reject the insurgency and embrace Iraqi nationalism," saw the announcement as an "encouraging sign."
But careful readers of the Times report would have noticed that something was missing from the picture of the political-military situation in Anbar that is crucial to making sense of the tribal leader’s announcement, as well as the spin put on it by the unnamed U.S. officials.
The missing piece is the homegrown Sunni armed resistance to the U.S. occupation, which enjoys the strong support of the Sunni population and tribal leaders in the province and has been at war with the foreign terrorists of al-Qaeda for many months. According to a report by prominent security analysts Anthony Cordesman and Nawaf Obaid, foreign fighters represent only 4 to 10 percent of some 30,000 armed insurgents in Iraq.
The omission of any mention of the indigenous Sunni resistance forces from the Times story followed a Sept. 11 Washington Post report on a secret Marine Corps intelligence analysis of the situation in Anbar, in which Pentagon officials were quoted as saying the document portrays a "vacuum that has been filled by the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq."
The disappearance of Sunni resistance forces from these papers’ coverage of the situation in Anbar mirrors the view presented by the U.S. military briefers for the past six months, which has systematically ignored what has become, in effect, a third force in the war in Iraq a Sunni resistance to both the occupation and al-Qaeda.
That third force emerged last year out of the struggle in the Sunni heartland of Iraq over the constitutional referendum and December parliamentary election. Al-Qaeda in Iraq threatened anyone in Anbar province who participated in the referendum with death, but the major Sunni armed groups broke openly with al-Qaeda and supported full participation by Sunnis to defeat the referendum.
Sunni resistance groups then began attacking al-Qaeda forces in Ramadi, Husayba, and other towns in Anbar. By early 2006, these armed groups had captured 270 foreign infiltrators, according to the London-based al-Hayat newspaper. U.S. military command spokesman Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch publicly confirmed in January that the insurgents had killed six "major leaders" of al-Qaeda in Ramadi.
From late November 2005 to February 2006, U.S. command spokesman Lynch made the fundamental conflict between the Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda a major theme of his briefings. Lynch told reporters, "The local insurgents have become part of the solution."
But the Sunni solution included the demand that the United States set a date for withdrawal in return for their ending the insurgency and cooperating with an Iraqi government against al-Qaeda. And in the interim period before a final withdrawal, the Sunnis wanted the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Anbar, along with the largely Shi’ite army units they had sent in to control the city.
At a meeting at a U.S. base in Ramadi in December 2005, reported by the London Sunday Times last February, a former Iraqi general, Saab al-Rawi, representing the Iraqi Sunni insurgents in the province, asked Gen. George Casey, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Ramadi and their replacement by a brigade of former soldiers from the area.
But Casey angrily refused, accusing al-Rawi of wanting a U.S. pullout so the insurgents could take over the city. The Iraqi general recalled that his forces had protected the city for six months after the fall of Saddam’s regime. "You have not protected this city and can never do so," said al-Rawi, "for you are foreigners here unwanted and unwelcome."
The Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government was more responsive to the Sunni plea. The Los Angeles Times reported Jan. 29 that national security adviser Mowaffak Rubaie acknowledged that the major Sunni resistance organizations were in an irreconcilable conflict with al-Qaeda. "We are talking about two ideologies," he declared.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari promised the Sunni tribal leaders in January he would support the request for the replacement of U.S. troops in Ramadi with local Sunni forces, according to al-Hayat.
But that never happened, and the U.S. military command soon reversed its line on the Sunni armed organizations. Instead of touting them as important to the solution to the al-Qaeda problem, the U.S. military command began to act as though the United States didn’t need Sunni armed organizations at all.
In his March 9 briefing, Lynch dropped the distinction between the Sunni armed organizations and al-Qaeda. "The people of Iraq are uniting against the insurgency," he declared. And he added, "Remember, democracy equals failure for the insurgency."
A review of the transcripts of U.S. command briefings since then reveals that the command spokesman has systematically avoided any comment suggesting that there is a third alternative to al-Qaeda control over Anbar and occupation by U.S. and Shi’ite troops.
In contrast to the official military line, however, last April the London Telegraph quoted the senior U.S. officer in Ramadi, Col. John Gronski, as saying that almost all the fighting against coalition forces in his sector had been by Iraqis, and that, in the previous five months, not a single foreigner had been detained in and around Ramadi. Gronski also admitted that the Sunni insurgents had the support of the local population and that local tribal leaders regarded the resistance as "legitimate."
After the new government was formed under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in May, representatives of the Sunni resistance pressed their case in talks with the Iraqi government. USA Today reported July 4 that the government was "studying a request from some local insurgent leaders to supply them with weapons so they can turn on the heavily armed foreign fighters who were once their allies."
But Washington has continued to oppose such schemes, according to Ayad al-Samarrai, the second highest official of the Sunni-based Islamic Party. In a report published Sept. 13, the Times of London quoted al-Samarrai saying leaders in Anbar province had made several proposals to the U.S. on building "an indigenous army and police force" in the province, but to no avail.
The U.S. resistance to arming the Sunnis in Anbar, he said, had led many Sunni leaders to believe the U.S. was deliberately helping al-Qaeda because it preferred chaos there.
The Sunni resistance to both al-Qaeda and the occupation represents an acute embarrassment to the U.S. military and the George W. Bush administration. Washington needs the help of the Sunni resistance against al-Qaeda, but to get it, it must admit that it can’t do the job itself. Since that option is still unacceptable, the administration has had to pretend that there are only two sides in the struggle in Anbar not three.
(Inter Press Service)