Wednesday, March 29, 2023

A “Son of Iraq” Speaks Out

From 2006-8, I led the Sunni Awakening in Baghdad, efficiently eliminating many security threats to the citizens of Iraq’s capital city.

It is work of which I am proud. This on-the-ground push by local Iraqis proved to be critical to the success of the U.S. surge–complementing American forces and isolating Al Qaeda from the more moderate Sunni population.

When I met Gen. David Petraeus in August 2007 at my office in Baghdad’s Amiriyah neighborhood, he embraced me and told me the world owed the Sons of Iraq a great debt.

Iraq is once again on the verge of becoming a catastrophic failure torn apart on sectarian lines. Each day, hundreds of civilians are slaughtered by ISIS militants.

The menace of sectarian violence, coupled with shortsighted decisions by the Shiite-dominated Maliki government, has reopened a protracted fight for power in the country. The situation is exacerbated by the government’s loyalty to foreign entities, corruption and a poor security framework.

We cannot precisely recreate the Sunni Awakening, but we can and must learn from its success if we wish to weaken ISIS.

After the U.S. left Iraq, the Iraqi government greatly restricted power-sharing with Sunni political rivals. This created a rift between Iraqi citizens and the government agencies that are charged with protecting them. In response, we saw the rise of revolutionary organizations, criminal enterprises and terrorist networks.

Meanwhile, Iraqi laws and regulations prohibited, and still prohibit, ordinary Sunnis from stopping the advances of terrorist networks. For instance, the way the constitution’s antiterrorism law is interpreted and implemented today, any Sunni can be arrested and accused of terrorism without cause, convicted without due process and pass years in jail without a trial.

This fear puts Sunnis in the position of choosing between the lesser of two evils: ISIS or the Iraqi government.

In 2012 and 2013, Sunnis voiced their frustration with the Shiite-controlled government in nonviolent ways. Those efforts were crushed by Maliki’s government. The radical, Sunni-based Islamist organizations are a direct reaction to their marginalization in the political arena.

No wonder ISIS is gaining momentum.

Nor will the existence of a new “unity” government change the dynamic in and of itself. Most Sunnis believe the new regime will bend to pressure from Iran. The postponement in nominating ministers of interior and defense has raised serious doubts that the new government will be impartial and efficient.

As the Obama administration begins to implement its strategy to combat ISIS, what would convince Sunnis like me to fight these radicals the way they fought AQI in 2007?

First, the Iraqi government must stop the indiscriminate bombing of Sunni areas. The standard for collateral damage must be raised to avoid incidents like the Fallujah hospital bombing of March 2014, or the hit on the governor of Anbar last week. Second, the Iraqi government needs to declare amnesty and release the thousands of detainees that have been held without due process. Third, they must end the official role of Shiite militias in the government’s security apparatus. They only radicalize moderate Muslims. Fourth, they must indicate a desire to rebuild the counterterrorism and intelligence apparatus into a professional force that is not focused on sectarian issues. Fifth, they should begin a dialogue with Sunni leaders who were forced into political exile. Sixth, they need to give Sunni leaders public guarantees that they will be protected from government prosecution if they choose to fight ISIS.

Because the rift in the country is so great, there may ultimately be no political solution other than separating the country into three distinct states or a federation of micro-states. But if there’s any chance of holding Iraq together, this is it.

Ghaffoori was a leader of the Sunni Awakening.

By Sa’ad Ghaffoori

(Reprinted with permission from The New York Daily News.)

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