The Cost of Betraying Our Sunni ‘Sons’

Administration officials and mainstream pundits — especially keepers of the Surge flame eager for the war in Iraq to be over — have been dismissing the last few months of bloodshed as the work of al-Qaeda "remnants." The indigenous Sunni insurgency, on the other hand, might be able to rally a car bomb or an assassination or two, but it’s pretty much cooked — finished, finito, all washed up. 

They just may be right. But what if instead of a defeated minority quietly assimilating into the political and social fabric of a new Iraqi nation, the United States is leaving some 90,000 former Sunni allies, their families and neighbors with a big giant target on their backs? What if it turns out the U.S. military helped to paint the bulls-eye?  

Behind the PG version of the insurgency’s demise is tacit acknowledgement that Nouri al-Maliki, the Shi’ite prime minister heading one of the most ineffectual and corrupt governments in the world, has at his disposal a huge American-compiled database that includes the individual names, addresses and biometric information — including iris scans and fingerprints — of some 90,000 Sunni fighters, also known as the "Sons of Iraq," who helped the U.S. decimate al-Qaeda in Iraq during the 2007-2008 Surge.  

When pressed in a recent conversation, one military official confidently predicted the Sunni opposition would no longer be a problem, even after the supposed drawdown of U.S forces from Iraqi cities June 30. Why? "Because we know where they live," he said easily. Their families and neighbors too. And they know it. 

An interesting way to talk about the guys often referred to (for the benefit of hopeful U.S domestic audiences) as brave volunteers of the "Sunni Awakening," or Sahwa, who, without their help, might have left Gen. David Petraeus looking for another job. Today, according to such widely accepted sources as Nir Rosen, our former partners are feeling fairly betrayed. The Americans have washed their hands of their "sons," and Maliki seems bent on proving who is boss. 

No doubt engaging his own American-trained Special Forces and at times, direct U.S back-up, Maliki’s government has been "systematically eliminating the perceived threat" of the Sahwa, as described in detail by independent journalist Dahr Jamail back in May

Rosen, too, has interviewed a number of former "sons" who say they have been dragged out of their homes, arrested, tortured, extorted for large sums and set free. The unlucky ones languish in Saddam-era dungeons — the unluckiest are shot on the spot. 

"We are watching this happen daily," Jamail says in a recent email exchange. "Hardly a day goes by that we don’t see an attack on some Sahwa somewhere in Iraq." He called the attacks "physical evidence" that the American-compiled databases (supplemented, ironically, with Saddam Hussein’s own criminal dossiers, obtained after the invasion) were being used. 

Maliki contends that the crackdown is not politically motivated, but an attempt to get bad guys off the street. No doubt that among the thousands of Sahwa there are some real thugs — ex-Baathists and al-Qaeda sympathizers, revivified guerrillas. But recent pressure by parliament and human rights groups to investigate false arrests, torture and abuse in the prisons there suggest innocent men now rot in the same hellholes political prisoners withered in for years under Saddam Hussein. 

Plus, weren’t they all good enough to put on the American payroll? We’ve been told over and again that these Sunnis served a critical purpose, stanching the bloodshed long enough to declare victory over al-Qaeda and to prepare a real withdrawal.  Ultimately, breaking faith by delivering them up to Maliki’s agenda seems like a peculiar way to repay them.

Of course, this was all predicted. Back in August 2008 it was suggested pretty straightforwardly that a reignited post-Surge Sunni insurgency could be quickly thwarted if the biometric databases fell into "the right hands" (meaning Maliki). "(The databases) provide a useful enemies list to the Government of Iraq, if they choose to use it," said Colin Kahl, a former fellow at the Center for a New American Century, now deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.

There was certainly an overriding sense at the recent CNAS annual meeting that any "resurgence" of the Sunni opposition had already petered out. More than one speaker and conversant in the swelling hallways outside the main hall pointed to Rosen’s April article for The National, "The Big Sleep", as providing credible, establishment-worthy evidence that the "the war between Sunnis and Shi’ites is now over." 

Consequently, Rosen’s piece has also been picked up by writers crafting tepid analyses about "Victory in Iraq," namely Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria,  who wrote this month, "An adviser to surge commander Gen. David Petraeus told the reporter Nir Rosen that the civil war in Iraq would end when the Sunnis knew that they’d lost and the Shi’ites knew that they’d won. Both now seem to be true." 

What they don’t talk about is the relentlessly bleak tone of Rosen’s 4,200-word piece, which left no question that the Sunnis feel ruthlessly betrayed by their American patrons. And yes, the biometric information they had yielded to U.S forces upon the initial bargain was indeed playing a role in their demise: 

In September 2008 Maliki — in a concession to the Americans — issued an order calling for the integration of 20 per cent of the eligible Awakening men into the ministries of defence and interior… But as of today less than five per cent have joined the Iraqi Security Forces. At the same time, senior Awakening leaders and many of their men have been arrested, while others have been relieved of their duties (and their pay) and told to go home. It is a quiet and slow process, but one that continues to emasculate one of the last groups that rivalled the authority of the Iraqi state. 

… Now the former resistance fighters-turned-paid guards are publicly known, and their names, addresses and biometric data are in the hands of American and Iraqi forces. They cannot return to an underground that has been cleared, and they still face the wrath of radical Sunnis who view them as traitors. They have failed to unite and as their stories demonstrate, they are on the run. 

Rosen suggests Maliki is becoming an "authoritarian prime minister," accepted by the general Sunni population in exchange for the decline in overall violence.  The government painted by Rosen’s Sunni sources hardly reflects a regime that has learned from its history; in fact, it sounds perfectly third world.  

Maliki has not taken such characterizations lightly. In May, he launched a defamation suit against The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom for an April report that said he was becoming "increasingly autocratic."  

It really doesn’t matter. That Maliki has effectively filled our  "strong man" ideal seems more important to Washington now than any potential backslide into the despotism we supposedly invaded Iraq for in the first place. Sadly, President Barack Obama seems content to pursue this perversity, set into motion by his predecessor, in order to focus more deliberately on his other headaches in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  

Again, as so many times throughout history, our leaders’ reach for the moral high ground — to make things better — has fallen short, caught mid-air by the persistent lure of political and tactical expediency.  Mired in moral ambiguities, things are done that would never be tolerated by "free" people back home — like handing over what could be used to as a political hit list against our supposed allies to authorities obviously bent on crushing them. 

It may all be as they say — "finished" — as Maliki has the last vestiges of the Sunni opposition by the throat. But as we race to put Iraq, like so many other disappointing foreign adventures, behind us, don’t miss al-Qaeda in the rearview, the wild card feeding on festering resentments, picking up where our expediency left off.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.