As part of Iraq's ongoing quest for national reconciliation, some 90,000 former Sunni insurgents will be installed in security and government jobs by mid-2010. Some experts fear the move may undermine stability.
Thousands of Sunni militants switched sides to fight al Qaeda
The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq may have ultimately deposed the regime of Saddam Hussein and ended decades of brutal suppression but in the immediate aftermath of Saddam's overthrow, the invading forces and the people of Iraq faced a new terror.
Despite the installation of a new Iraqi government, albeit propped up by Washington and governing from behind heavily-fortified walls, sectarian violence began raging on the streets of Iraq's cities soon after the former Ba'athist regime was deposed. Inter-religious bloodshed between Shias and Sunnis, and violent rivalries within these communities, threatened to plunge Iraq into civil war.
In addition to this, the US and its allies faced a growing insurgency fuelled by al Qaeda's exploitation of the Shia-Sunni spilt. Members of the Sunni Muslim movement, also known as Sahwa, or Awakening, joined foreign fighters in their jihad against the occupying forces and the battle for supremacy in Iraq's communities.
Tens of thousands were killed in the violence which followed the invasion, with as many as 100 people reportedly being killed every day in sectarian violence during 2006. In the strategy rooms of Baghdad's Green Zone, the question of how to stop the violence left many US officials searching for ideas.
Buying loyalty turns the tide
The US-led invasion paved the way for the insurgency
"If we look back at Iraq during the period of 2006-7, it is clear that the political process in Baghdad had stalled, and that the conflict between Sunnis and Shias had begun to take hold of both society and state in an alarming fashion," Prof. Gareth Stansfield, a Middle East expert at Chatham House, told Deutsche Welle.
"Large swaths of territory had fallen out of the control of the government and the coalition forces, with al Qaeda-associated groups being very prominent in areas between Baghdad and Mosul," he said. "In short, these insurgents were well supported, organized, mobilized by opposition to what was seen as a Shia-dominated goverment, and increasingly durable.
The US desperately needed a way to realign them, as they could not be defeated, and this was done by embracing a process of 'rehabilitation'. This process involved buying insurgents away from al Qaeda and into the service ostensibly of the state, but in reality paid directly by the US."
"Insurgents were 'rehabilitated' by convincing them to turn against al Qaeda and form their own militias, which the US then supported with salaries and weapons," Marina Ottaway, an Iraq expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington, added. "There was not an effort to reeducate them. The Iraqi government is now paying salaries, but only some of the Awakening Council's members - those militant groups who swapped sides to fight al Qaeda - have been integrated in the armed forces."
The promise of a regular monthly wage helped lure many Sahwa fighters away from al Qaeda and was the basis for integrating former insurgents into neighborhood patrols. These so-called "Sons of Iraq" collected around $300 (211 euros) a month to switch sides in a move which many consider the turning point in the sectarian war and the insurgency.
Integration program brings more militants in from the cold
Former militants have been integrated into Iraq's police
Now, in 2010, about 15,000 Sons of Iraq occupy positions in Iraq's security forces while another 33,000 have been integrated into other government ministries. Now paid by the Iraqi government, which took over responsibility for their salaries in October 2008, more Sons of Iraq are expected to be integrated by the middle of this year.
"I think by the middle of 2010 all of the Awakening groups will have their jobs and start their professional lives," Mohammed Salman, chairman of Iraq's Implementation and Follow-up Committee for National Reconciliation, told a press conference this week. Another 40,000 former insurgents are expected to join the nearly 50,000 already rehabilitated into government and security positions through the Sahwa integration program.
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Baghdad has seen the ominous signs of a return to violence
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his Shi'ite-led government have placed great importance on incorporating Sunni fighters into Iraq's army, police and ministries as part of the Baghdad government's national reconciliation mission. Maliki has also made Iraq's security gains a key platform in his campaign for the looming parliamentary elections in March.
While overall violence in Iraq has dropped significantly, a resurgence in major militant attacks in Baghdad in recent months, coupled with the daily bombings and assassinations that still occur, have raised questions over whether the fragile gains in stability and security are about to be wiped out by a return to large-scale conflict.
Some are even suggesting that salaries alone have not wiped out the allegiances the Sahwa fighters had during the sectarian violence and that having former insurgents embedded in security and government positions is a ticking time bomb.
Short-term solution hiding long-term problems
"In the short term, the policy has contributed to the stabilizing of Iraq by decreasing the ability of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to operate, and in putting on hold the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shias," Gareth Stansfield said.
"However, it is possible that this success is only temporary," he added. "A significant problem with the rehabilitation strategy is that it is clearly storing up problems in the longer term. The strategy in effect codified the partitioning of Baghdad and major mixed towns; it gave coherence, weapons and, most importantly, legitimacy to the rehabilitated groups and gave them a platform to build a political base to further challenge the government.
These issues still have to be resolved and present a very real and looming set of problems for those tasked with governing Iraq in the future."
"In judging the possible future threat, there are two problems," Ottaway said. "Firstly, the groups are loosely organized, and of course not all insurgents swapped sides. The most radical opponents, thus the most dangerous, probably never joined the Awakening Councils or did so only to get a salary.
Secondly, in the future, how many will remain on the side of the government probably depends on whether they continue getting paid, and also whether the leaders of the Awakening councils who have turned to politics do well in the coming elections. If their organizations do poorly, and if Sunni parties in general do poorly - which is all too likely in the present climate - members of the Awakening Councils may go back to full opposition."
Stansfield believes that the lack of safeguards protecting the structures into which the former insurgents were integrated could lead to attacks from within, perhaps like the suicide bombing of the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, in December.
"There is a threat of a Khost-like attack against the Green Zone in Baghdad," he said. "Remember, the Green Zone and Parliament have been penetrated in the past by insurgents and, with the guarding of the Green Zone now the responsibility of the Iraqi Army, the opportunities for infiltration to take place by AQI or anti-government groups are higher than ever."
"It is a mistake to believe that the process of normalization in Iraq is now on a clear trajectory to success, however success is defined," Stansfield added. "The tensions that existed in Iraqi society in the mid-2000s were merely put on hold and they constitute a significant threat to Iraq's stability in future months and years."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge