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When U.S. troops and Apache helicopters joined Iraqi forces in putting down an uprising by Sunni "Sons of Iraq" militiamen in central Baghdad last weekend, it was a preview of the kind of combat the U.S. military is likely to see increasingly over the next three years unless a policy decision is made in Washington to avoid it.
Although the arrest of a Sunni Awakening Council leader and seven of his deputies that triggered the uprising was spun both by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and by the U.S. command as an anti-terrorism issue rather than sectarian repression, it was in fact part of the long-term struggle for power between the Shi’a-dominated government of Iraq and Sunnis who have been disenfranchised.
Sunday’s battle in Fadhil was a warning signal that the U.S. command has allowed itself to be drawn into a campaign by al-Maliki to pick off individual commanders of the Sunni neighbourhood security groups made up of former insurgents. The detention of a popular Sunni commander there may have touched off a process of sending a large proportion of the Sunni Awakening Councils movement, which is supposed to be on the government payroll, back into underground insurgency.
The uprising in Fadhil marked the first time that Awakening Council units had responded with force to a government campaign of repression of selected Sunni militia leaders that began as early as spring 2008.
Despite reported U.S. efforts to reassure Sunnis that they are not being abandoned to repression by the Shi’a government, the U.S.-assisted operation against Sunni militiamen protesting the arrest of Adel al-Mashadani in the Fadhil neighbourhood has already prompted threats by Sunni militia commanders in other neighbourhoods to go back to armed resistance.
Given the present U.S. definition of its mission in Iraq, U.S. forces are likely to be directly involved in more such operations against Sunni militiamen in the future, analysts of Iraqi military affairs say.
The Awakening Councils or Sahwa, which U.S. military officials have generally called "Sons of Iraq", were created in 2007 through arrangements reached by Multinational Forces-Iraq with Sunni tribal chiefs and some commanders of armed resistance groups, under which former Sunni insurgents became paid local security forces in Baghdad neighbourhoods as well as in nearby Diyala Province and in Sunni-dominated Anbar province.
But al-Maliki has never hidden his hostility to the U.S. scheme to set up neighbourhood Sunni security units. "These people are like a cancer, and we must remove them," one Iraqi general was quoted by Shawn Brimley and Colin Kahl of the Centre for New American Security as saying last summer.
Iraqi army units and special operations forces which were controlled directly by al-Maliki began arresting SOI leaders in Diyala and Baghdad, and the arrests continued through the fall.
Despite the evidence that al-Maliki intended to destroy them, the United States agreed last October to turn over control of all 90,000 Awakening Council members to the Iraqis. The government agreed, in turn, to continue paying the neighbourhood Sunni security forces 300 dollars a month.
However, the government stopped the payments more than a month ago – a development that U.S. officials have explained as a bureaucratic glitch rather than a deliberate policy.
John McCreary, a retired senior defence intelligence analyst on the Middle East, said in an interview that the detention and subsequent battle in Fadhil "is only the opening round" in a new phase of al-Maliki’s campaign to eliminate the Awakening Councils as a potential threat to his regime before U.S. troops complete their withdrawal in 2011.
"He has to neutralise his enemies while he still has the Americans there to help keep him in power," McCreary said.
Al-Maliki has cleverly exploited the partnership between the U.S. military and the Iraqi army to draw the United States into such a campaign. One of the characteristics of that relationship is that the U.S. military command in Iraq is very reluctant to be separated operationally or politically from its Iraqi counterparts.
Despite its unhappiness with al-Maliki’s policy toward the Awakening Councils, the U.S. command in Iraq did not oppose the arrest and detention of al-Mashadani, ostensibly because the government had insisted it was not aimed at Awakening Councils per se but only at an individual who had committed crimes.
That was a tactic both the U.S. command and al-Maliki had used in targeting Mahdi Army commanders in Sadr City and elsewhere in 2007-2008.
U.S. military spokesman Bill Buckner justified the detention of al-Mashadani by citing a December 2008 arrest warrant listing seven alleged offenses, including extortion, roadside bombings targeting Iraqi forces and ties to al Qaeda.
But the real reason for the detention of al-Mashadani was apparently that he had openly espoused Baathist ideology. A spokesman for al-Maliki accused the Awakening Councils leader in Fadhil of forming a secret cell to support the Baathist Party. That is not actually illegal under present Iraqi law, but according to the Arabic-language daily Al-Zaman, al-Maliki’s Da’wa Party has called for the criminalisation of the Baath Party, which had once made member in the Da’wa a capital offense.
Further underlining the sectarian nature of the broader repression of Sunni commanders underway, Iraqi troops quietly seized Raad Ali, a Sunni commander in the western Baghdad neighbourhood of Gazaliyah Mar. 24, as reported by Ned Parker and Qasar Ahmed of the Los Angeles Times Monday. In contrast to the openly Baathist al-Mashadani, Ali had never voiced Baathist loyalties and had emphasised his renunciation of insurgency.
McCreary said he sees no evidence that the United States is "backing a purge" of Sunni militias, but added, "It is compelled to work with the man we helped put in power." The willingness to support al-Maliki, even if his policies are regarded as wrong-headed, is a function of the desire to "leave a stable government behind as much as we can," said McCreary.
The former senior DIA analyst believes the need to support the Shi’a-dominated government during the final phase of the U.S. military presence means U.S. neutrality in the sectarian struggle for power is no longer possible. "We are no longer in a position to have a foot in both camps," he said, "We can’t support both Sunnis and Shiites."
That reality will affect the kind of combat the U.S. military will be involved in, according to McCreary. "It will be involved in helping plan and support operations which it may find distasteful," he said. "That’s the way it works."
Stephen Negus, who was Financial Times correspondent in Iraq from 2004 to 2007, and is now a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, said U.S. military units in Iraq will have to support the Iraqi units to which they are attached in any battle, regardless of how it might have started. "If you have an ally taking fire, you have to respond," said Negus.
Unless the Barack Obama administration adopts an explicit policy of keeping U.S. troops out of the sectarian power struggle, therefore, U.S. troops will be participating in a lot more combat against Sunnis whom al-Maliki had left little option but to resist.
GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.