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Keeping ‘Bottom-Up’ From Bottoming Out

Author: Greg Bruno
October 9, 2007

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Suicide blasts targeting Sunni tribal leaders cooperating with the U.S. military pose a major challenge to enlisting local sheiks in the war against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Sheik Maawia Naji Jebara, leader of the Salahuddin Awakening Council, was killed (NYT) in a roadside bombing near Samarra October 4. A second Salahuddin leader, Thamer Ibrahim Atallah, came under fire (al-Jazeera) when a bomber detonated explosives outside his home in Baiji five days later. Atallah survived, but the assassination attempts may have hit their targets nonetheless. Two days before the attack on Jebara, the largest Shiite political party called on the Pentagon to “abandon its recruitment” of Sunnis into the Iraqi police. “Stop this adventure,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s United Iraqi Alliance declared in a statement (WashPost).  

Washington is unlikely to oblige. Bolstered by progress in the once-restive Anbar province, Pentagon officials have pinned hopes for a stable Iraq on local tribal leaders’ willingness to turn their weapons against rival militias. President Bush made a surprise visit (AP) to Anbar last month to meet with leaders of that province’s Awakening Council; the so-called “bottom-up” approach to security was highlighted a week later in congressional testimony by Gen. David Petraeus. Yet opposition to the administration’s preferred security plan is mounting. Anbar tribal leader Abu Risha, the “most prominent figure” (NPR) in the U.S.-led tribal revolt, was killed (American Prospect) ten days after meeting with President Bush. His death preceded an ultimatum from al-Qaeda in Iraq, warning Sunnis they would be attacked if they cooperated with the United States. While the threat hasn’t stopped the strategy from spreading beyond Anbar—to Babil, Baghdad, Diyala, and elsewhere—some experts now question its long-term prospects.

Colin Kahl and Shawn Brimley, writing in Foreign Policy before Petraeus’ testimony, opined that relying on Sunni tribes for security could backfire. “Today’s saviors could very easily become tomorrow’s enemy,” they write. Another significant hurdle is the growing opposition among the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. When cooperation was limited to Anbar, Nouri al-Maliki’s government tolerated the relationship. But as these U.S.-trained security forces move toward the country’s power center, top government officials are being politically squeezed, some observers say. The Economist notes that Shiite leaders feel threatened because they worry arming Sunnis will create new militias and become “a recipe for civil war.”

That said, evidence suggests U.S. cooperation with Sunni tribesmen has contributed to a reduction in violence. The number of daily attacks in Anbar, for instance, fell 73 percent between August 2006 and July 2007, according to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index (PDF). Col. Michael Kershaw, a brigade commander working with Iraqi tribal forces, told reporters October 5 that nearly nine-thousand “concerned citizens” are being employed as security forces in his sector. In return for $10 a day, these conscripts man checkpoints and share intelligence on insurgent activities. “The security situation has changed really for the better,” Col. Kershaw said. Shiite tribal leaders in southern Iraq have also discussed working with the Americans.

Yet the targeting of tribal leaders has given pause. Even Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, an ardent supporter and early architect of the tribal strategy, has sounded a note of caution. “On balance, the results are positive so far in my view,” Kilcullen writes in a lengthy blog entry in the Small Wars Journal. “Having said all that, it is clear that the tribal revolt could still go either way.”

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