Sunday, August 19, 2007

Has the Sunni Insurgency Been Defeated?

It may be too early for this question, but it begs to be asked nonetheless: Has the Sunni insurgency been defeated? The signs are preliminary but promising. Clearly, Al Qaeda in Iraq is no longer a serious threat to plunge Iraq into full scale civil war. They can still pull off the occasional spectacular car or truck bombing, but their ability to incite the sectarian bloodbath of 2006 has been greatly diminished by Operation Phantom Thunder and the turning of Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda.

In Balance of Terror, freelance journalist Michael Totten explains the delicate balance that is the relative peace of Baghdad today. He also describes the paradox of civilian dual alliances within the Shi'a community. Many civilians support Moqtada al-Sadr's and his Mahdi Army, which includes the violent Jaish al-Mahdi, the Shiite militia group blamed for much of that sect's insurgent and sectarian violence. But at the same time, they are openly friendly with coalition troops and Totten believes that if that friendliness were faked, someone would be shooting at Americans (and, they're not). Totten expresses some confusion over that. However, it bears noting that JAM militia groups were the ones who pledged to protect Shiite civilians from Sunni insurgent attacks and the horrors of Al Qaeda control. In the chaos of immediate post-Saddam Iraq, Shiite militias did what they said they would do. It makes sense for the Shi'a to bear some allegiance to those who fought for them. But as the Mahdi Army melted into the background for Operation Phantom Thunder, coalition troops stepped forward and took on the role of protector and guardian against Al Qaeda and Sunni militias. The same rule applies--the enemy of my enemy...

Coalition counterinsurgents are now seeing more attacks from JAM and Shiite insurgents. These dual allegiances may be sorely tested in the coming months. Iraqi Security forces, who are majority Shiite, may find themselves barrel to barrel with members of the Mahdi Army, a group many ISF and their families sympathize with. It seems, at least for now, that the counterinsurgency is about to make a turn, and the territory it is about to enter is fraught with risk.

Nouri al-Maliki is a Shiite, and has been accused of sectarian bias by his critics. He is backed by by Grand Ayatolla Ali al-Sistani, who himself has close ties to Iran. Maliki also enjoys at least tolerance by Moqtada al-Sadr. As the counterinsurgency shifts more to dealing with Shiite militias, the political friction is certain to heat things up.

Totten learns that the coalition believes al-Sadr can be "flipped." They are, at least for now, holding out for that possibility. While al-Sistani holds a deeply religious connection to Tehran, al-Sadr's connections are about money and power. He's the Shiite political equivalent of a mafia don. Alliances are not personal; they're just business.

All of this must also be seen in the context of "all politics is local." Tribal and family ties are the fabric of Arabic culture. Contrary to the belief of many westerners, those ties can transcend religion. They are al-something first, and al-something last, whether they be Sunni, Shia or Iraqi in between.

"Flipping" al-Sadr could be as easy as showing his followers that we have their interests in mind as liberators. It could be as difficult as undermining his support by neutralizing his militias and simply outdoing him in the humanitarian arena. This of course begs another question: With the Sunni insurgency marginalized, Al Qaeda all but defeated and the counterinsurgency turning to address Shiite militias, how do we blunt the influence of Iran?

Interesting times lie ahead.