President Bush Iraq Plan: Seeking Insurgents Hearts And Minds

As Baghdad reels from the latest wave of multiple bombings, the first additional US troops are on the ground and poised for their mission to help the Iraqi government calm the sectarian violence gripping the capital. Yet there are concerns that the US still does not fully understand the source of the violence or how to stop it.

It is still unclear whether this week’s violence was sparked by the desire to avenge another bungled execution by the Maliki government, this time the decapitation-by-hanging of Saddam Hussein’s half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, when he was put to death for war crimes along with another former Hussein aide on Monday. This sparked outrage throughout Iraq’s Sunni community, with suspicion rife that Mr Tikriti’s gruesome end was not accidental but yet another calculated act of Shia revenge. This has almost certainly bolstered the Sunni insurgency, its recruitment efforts and its local support.

During his televised address last week, President Bush made a number of claims that tended towards oversimplification and mischaracterization of the Sunni insurgency.

Mr Bush argues that the Sunni insurgents are threatened by “the mortal danger that Iraq’s election posed for their cause”, which implies that their cause is simply to defeat democracy itself. However, it is clear that the insurgency (including Shia militias such as the Mahdi Army) was fuelled at first by a deep resentment of foreign occupiers, and then by fears that the majority Shia government would marginalize and terrorize the minority Sunni population.

Mr Bush also maintains that the sectarian violence in Iraq began with the bombing of the Shia Golden Mosque in Samarra in February 2006 and escalated that summer. Yet throughout 2005, McClatchy Newspapers had reported that Shia militias had been conducting systematic campaigns of violence against Sunnis, which began after the January 2005 elections. The Shia-led government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari immediately removed Sunnis from the their positions in the army and police forces and replaced them with Shia militants who kidnapped, tortured and killed Sunni clerics and former Ba’athist party members and then dumped their bodies.

Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had urged the Bush administration to crack down on the Shia militias. He was overruled by then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who said they were reluctant to fight both Sunni insurgents and Shia militias.

There is also the inconvenient fact that the US military in Iraq had been training Shia and Kurdish militants to attack Sunni insurgents since 2004. When the mutilated bodies of Sunni clerics and Ba’athist party members started appearing around Baghdad, the US military was quick to blame foreign insurgents.

By branding all insurgents “terrorists” from the outset, and claiming that most of the insurgency had been fomented by foreign jihadists, the US had unwittingly taken sides in an emerging sectarian conflict it did not understand, and had trained and armed groups that President Bush now refers to as “murderers”.

Many Sunnis say that the foreign occupiers will never be trusted and cannot undo their alliance with the Shia government, which they believe has abandoned Sunnis to their fate without political representation, an equal share of oil revenues and basic physical security. They also believe that Prime Minister Maliki will find a way to direct the additional US troops away from Shia militias, as he has done in the past. Mr Bush’s announcement of more troops has served to swell the ranks of the insurgency and further inflame anti-US sentiment.

Other Sunnis have cautiously come to regard the US troops as their only hope of protection from the marauding Shia militias and an Iraqi government they see as an outpost of Iran. Many insurgents are also now regretting their alliances with al Qaeda, who at first seemed to be one of the only organizations that understood and sympathized with the plight of the Sunnis in Iraq.

A recent article in The Guardian included interviews with several insurgents behind the frontline. One insurgent who agreed to be interviewed said: “At the beginning, al Qaeda had the money and the organization, and we had nothing.” However, al Qaeda started slaughtering thousands of Shia, which dragged the nationalist insurgency and the entire Shia population into a blood-soaked sectarian war.

Abu Omar, another insurgent, said: “We Sunni are to blame. In my area some ignorant al Qaeda guys have been kidnapping poor Shia farmers, killing them and throwing their bodies in the river. I told them: ‘This is not jihad. You can’t kill all the Shia! This is wrong! The Shia militias are like rabid dogs – why provoke them?'”

Mr Omar (who has since disappeared) added that he hoped some insurgent groups would be able to establish dialogue with US troops: “I am trying to talk to the Americans. I want to give them assurances that no one will attack them in our area if they stop the Shia militias from coming.” He claimed he still hated the US, but saw them as the lesser of two evils.

An insurgent commander who was present dismissed Mr Omar’s suggestion of a ceasefire: “We are fighting to liberate our country from the occupations of the Americans and their Iranian-Shia stooges.”

“My brother, I disagree,” responded Mr Omar. “Look, the Americans are trying to talk to us Sunnis and we need to show them that we can do politics. We need to use the Americans to fight the Shia. Where is the jihad and the mujahideen? Baghdad has become a Shia town. Our brothers are being slaughtered every day! Where are these al Qaeda heroes? One neighborhood after another will be lost if we don’t work on a strategy.”

Baghdad has indeed become sharply divided sectarian territory, with few remaining mixed districts and each area patrolled by organized neighborhood militias. An increasing number of Sunnis now see the Shia militias as their greatest threat, as Abu Aisha explained: “Each group is in charge of a specific street. We have defense lines, trenches and booby traps. When the Americans arrive we let them go through, but if they show up with Iraqi troops, then it’s a fight.”

“We have been deceived by the jihadi Arabs,” he continued, referring to al Qaeda and other foreign fighters. “They had an international agenda and we implemented it. But now all the leadership of the jihad in Iraq are Iraqis.”

The elevation of Iraqis to the higher ranks of the insurgency has steered it back towards nationalistic goals. According to the Times Online, the Muslim Scholars Association is fighting pressure to issue a fatwa, a religious edict, calling upon young Muslim men throughout the world to join the insurgency in Iraq. “This is exactly what Al Qaeda wants, which we don’t want,” said Mohammed Bashar Faidi, spokesman for the ASA. He added, “We believe the [Shia] militias and the Iraqi army are not fighting for an ideology or their nation but for Iran. The resistance is fighting for their nation and its beliefs.”

As more US boots hit the ground in Baghdad and Anbar in western Iraq, there are hopes that there will be a more balanced approach towards Sunni and Shia militias, and perhaps a better understanding of the insurgency itself.

The commander chosen by President Bush to lead the mission, Lt-Gen David Petraeus, served in Iraq and co-authored the US military’s counter-insurgency manual. Unlike most of his colleagues, Lt-Gen Petraeus is a strong advocate of the “hearts and minds” approach cultivated by the British military, who have extensive experience and demonstrated successes dealing with insurgencies.

Yet even the most sound military strategy cannot provide the political solutions that only the Iraqi government can deliver. For all his promises of national reconciliation, Prime Minister Maliki has shown little interest in winning the hearts and minds – and trust – of his country’s minority Sunni population.

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