Finding a Place for the ‘Sons of Iraq’

Finding a Place for the ‘Sons of Iraq’

The Sunni awakening movement and the Sons of Iraq security forces it inspired helped restore peace. Iraq’s long-term stability could hinge on keeping the movement satiated, experts say.

April 23, 2008 4:07 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

This publication is now archived.


In August 2006, tribal sheikhs in Iraq’s Anbar Province publicly turned against a chief U.S. threat: al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Their decision to cut ties with AQI, dubbed the "Anbar Awakening" by Iraqi organizers, has been hailed a turning point in the U.S.-led war effort. Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told lawmakers in Washington the uprising reduced U.S. casualties, increased security, and even saved U.S. taxpayers money. Yet the future of the Awakening movement--and its associated security forces, the so-called Sons of Iraq (SOI) volunteers--continues to test Iraq’s fractious political climate. Internal disputes within the predominantly Sunni groups have threatened the movement, some experts say. Sunni groups have also complained about low pay and a lack of opportunities for employment within Iraq’s army and police forces. These concerns reached an apex in late 2008, when the U.S.-led military coalition began handing oversight for the Sons of Iraq--including responsibility for payment and job placement--to the Iraqi government. The first handover in Baghdad was reportedly smooth; over 51,000 Sons of Iraq members were paid on time by the Iraqi government, and job placement and training courses continue. But analysts question whether the peace will hold. CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon, for one, writes in Foreign Affairs that while the Awakening strategy may bring short-term stability to Iraq, the long-term effect could be runaway "tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism."

Anbar Awakes

While the U.S. military considered aligning with Iraqi tribes soon after the war began, it was the brutality of al-Qaeda in Iraq that eventually gave birth to the Awakening movement. By the summer of 2006, the insurgent group, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had deeply entrenched itself in Anbar Province west of Baghdad. The relocation of U.S. military forces to the capital that summer contributed to the group’s gains, experts say. Col. Sean MacFarland, who commanded a U.S. combat team in the provincial capital of Ramadi that summer and helped initiate the Awakening movement, told reporters in July 2006 that government buildings had "become really little more than shells" used to "hide snipers and [Improved Explosive Device] triggermen." Military commanders say al-Qaeda in Iraq relied on indiscriminate violence and extremist ideology to further its goal of establishing a caliphate--a single, transnational Islamic state. But the heavy-handed approach backfired. Alienated by a foreign-led, religiously zealous insurgency, Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha approached MacFarland (TIME) about shifting his allegiance to the United States. Thousands of Sunni civilians ultimately joined a U.S. alliance.

"Until the United States really draws down and is not completely tied up with security affairs in Iraq it’s going to be really difficult to say how the Sons of Iraq are going to be treated." -- Kenneth Katzman, specialist in Middle Eastern affairs for the Congressional Research Service

More on:


But experts stress the moves by Sunni sheikhs were more a repudiation of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s actions than an embrace of U.S. objectives. David Kilcullen, a counterterrorism expert who has advised Gen. Petraeus, says the Awakening was motivated in part by concerns about protecting Iraqi women. In a 2007 essay for the blog, Kilcullen wrote that al-Qaeda strategy in Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere had been to marry senior al-Qaeda fighters to local brides. The aim was to sow deep roots in a community. But in Iraqi tribal structure, "marrying women to strangers, let alone foreigners, is just not done," Kilcullen says. This tribal protocol led to the rejection of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s advances and, eventually, he adds, "this led to violence." Other points of contention for Iraqi tribesmen were the widespread belief that the insurgent group had links to Shiite Iran, viewed with vitriol by Iraq’s Sunnis, and reports that it disrupted tribal business ventures, including smuggling and construction enterprises.

The Spread of a Movement

The Awakening movement quickly spread beyond Anbar. By spring 2008, security forces associated with local Awakening groups had reached nearly two-thirds of the country’s provinces. The Sunni-dominated forces established a presence in Nineveh, Diyala, Babil, Salahuddin, Baghdad, and beyond. In nearly every case, local security forces were created from the ground up, with sheikhs, tribal leaders, and other power brokers entering into security contracts with coalition forces. Lists of potential recruits were then vetted by U.S. and Iraqi officials. These groups, which were self-armed, have formed a kind of neighborhood-watch program, coordinating operations with U.S. and Iraqi combat commanders in their particular regions.

Timeline: The Iraq War By April 2008, more than 95,000 citizens had joined the anti-al-Qaeda movement, according to Lt. Col. Rudolph Burwell, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. Roughly 80 percent of the forces are Sunni, and 19 percent are Shiite. It is estimated that 91,000 are under contract with coalition forces, each receiving the equivalent of $300 in U.S. currency a month for the security services they provide (in early 2008 the United States was spending $16 million a month on these salaries). Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, the U.S. military’s chief of reconciliation and engagement in Baghdad, tells there were roughly 800 separate Sons of Iraq contracts in place across Iraq in late December 2008, with varying pay scales.

Some observers have likened the payments to bribery. "The Americans think they have purchased Sunni loyalty," Nir Rosen, a fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security, told Congress in April 2008. "But in fact it is the Sunnis who have bought the Americans" (PDF) by buying time to challenge the Shiite government. Yet few dispute that security and stability have increased dramatically since the Awakening began. In April 2008, Petraeus told lawmakers that tips from Sunni volunteers had "reduced significantly" al-Qaeda in Iraq’s ability to strike, while increasing the number of weapons caches uncovered and confiscated. Analysts also believe the movement has taken a toll on the insurgent group’s capabilities. Farook Ahmed of the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan research institution, estimates that in the six months leading to February 2008, the number of AQI fighters dwindled (PDF) from around 12,000 to about 3,500. The Washington Post reported in February 2008 that AQI leaders were softening their tactics to try to regain the support of an alienated Sunni population. By late 2008 the AQI presence in Iraq was greatly diminished.

Time to Transition

By early November 2008, over half the Sons of Iraq fighters had been transitioned from U.S. oversight to Iraqi control, with monthly payments coming from the Iraqi government. The initial phase of the handover included 51,000 volunteers in Baghdad, the vast majority of which were given government jobs or placed in job training programs. Roughly 2,300 members of the Sons of Iraq were enrolled in police training courses in December 2008, according to the U.S. military. The Iraqi government has said it plans to integrate between 20 percent and 30 percent of the Sons of Iraq into the country’s army and police forces. Training programs are also under way, with the U.S. military assisting in the creation of vocational training centers, apprentice programs, and public works placement initiatives.

Some experts predicted the initial phase of the transition would prove rocky if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reneged on promises to pay Sunni fighters or integrate them into Shiite-led ministries. But so far such concerns have proven largely unfounded, says Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs for the Washington-based, nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. "It’s been smoother than expected," Katzman told in December 2008. "It’s been almost two months [since the October 1 handover], and so far I have not seen any major problems."

Challenges Ahead

Despite the gains, potential pitfalls remain. For one, the alliance is viewed with suspicion by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which worries that local Sunni forces--some of whom targeted U.S. and Iraqi soldiers before switching sides--will pose a threat to government authority. The Pentagon, in a March 2008 report to Congress (PDF), said challenges include "the potential for infiltration by insurgents; the possibility of distortions in the local economy if salaries are not carefully managed; and the need for a comprehensive plan to transition Sons of Iraq to sustainable forms of employment in the [Iraqi Security Forces] or in the private sector."

"The Americans think they have purchased Sunni loyalty. But in fact it is the Sunnis who have bought the Americans." -- Nir Rosen, fellow, New York University Center on Law and Security

More on:


More on:


The true test, analysts and U.S. military officials say, will come after January 1, 2009, when Sons of Iraq forces in four provinces--including long-restive and ethnically diverse Diyala--come under Iraqi control. Kulmayer, for one, believes Iraq is ready to bridge the sectarian divide. "We are beyond the tipping point with the Sons of Iraq," he told the American Forces Press Service. "They have invested in the future of Iraq, and the Iraqi government is offering them hope in the future. They’re going to be part of that." But Katzman says it’s difficult to guess how the Sunni forces will be treated by Shiites in Baghdad until after U.S. forces have left the scene in large numbers. "Let’s not say we have sustainable, irreversible progress until we see some of these institutions perform on their own," he says. "Until the United States really draws down and is not completely tied up with security affairs in Iraq it’s going to be really difficult to say how the Sons of Iraq are going to be treated."

Targeting the Sons

Beyond the logistical challenges of the U.S. handover, Sons of Iraq fighters have also come under intermittent fire from their original enemy: Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Over the years, Sons of Iraq commanders and volunteers have routinely been targeted by AQI strikes, and attacks continue. Sheikh Abu Risha, the initiator of the U.S.-backed tribal revolt, was killed ten days after meeting with President Bush in September 2007. His death preceded an ultimatum from insurgents, warning Sunnis they would be attacked if they cooperated with the United States. Those threats continue to result in bloodshed. In January 2009, a suicide bomber targeting a tribal reconciliation meeting near Baghdad killed a pair of Sons of Iraq fighters (WashPost). CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot argues that militants consider the Awakening the most serious threat they face: "That’s why they are putting so much effort into targeting Awakening members." Kulmayer tells 528 SOI members were killed in 2008 alone, with an additional 828 wounded.

Where from Here?

How to demobilize the Awakening forces without reverting to previous levels of violence will remain one of Iraq’s near-term challenges. Handover of all SOI personnel in the nine Iraqi provinces where they operated is scheduled to be completed by April 2009. As the Iraqi government assumes greater control over the fighters, observers will be watching whether Baghdad continues to pay the former fighters. Experts will also be tracking job placements. Sunni volunteers have sought employment in the Iraqi Security Forces, but officials in Baghdad have resisted. For now, civilian jobs within the Iraqi government appear the likeliest possibility, but as unemployment rises and oil prices fall, economic troubles could make integration difficult. Another source of potential friction could be political, as Awakening Councils seek to transform their growing cachet into viable political movements during January 2009 provincial elections, an ambition that worries (FT) the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

The potential for violence if Sunni fighters are not transitioned into permanent government jobs is seen by some analysts as a necessary evil. CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle argues that the bottom-up strategy of forging local cease-fires may not be the best military strategy. "But given the alternatives," he told lawmakers in April 2008, "stabilization from the bottom up may be the least bad option." Terrence K. Kelly, an expert with the RAND Corporation, an independent research organization, says the short-term security gains achieved by turning tribes, criminal gangs, and other groups against al-Qaeda in Iraq can’t be overstated. Kelly, who worked on militia demobilization efforts for the U.S. government in Iraq in 2004, acknowledges the long-term challenges of incorporating Sons of Iraq fighters into Iraq’s governmental structure or otherwise reintegrating them into society. But he adds: "For right now we need them." In a December 2008 report coauthored with Brookings Institution fellows Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, Biddle, too, cautions that transitioning SOI fighters "cannot be sustained on autopilot" and will require ongoing U.S. supervision.

But other experts are not so sure the risks were, in retrospect, worth taking. Lt. Col. Gian P. Gentile, a history professor at the U.S. Military Academy and former battalion commander in Iraq, told in April 2008 he does not agree that U.S.-allied Sunni security forces will want to reconcile and share power with Baghdad. "The Sunnis want to resume their place where they hold the preponderance of power, and to do that they have to fight to get it. The Shia, conversely, want to crush them." CFR’s Simon takes an even darker view. "For many Sunnis, Shiite rule remains unacceptable," Simon writes in Foreign Affairs. "When former Sunni insurgents no longer believe that Washington will restore them to dominance, their current U.S. paymasters will once again be their targets."


Top Stories on CFR


Steven Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at CFR, and Ray Takeyh, the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle East studies at CFR, sit down with James M. Lindsay to discuss Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel and the prospects for a broader Middle East war.


CFR experts preview the upcoming World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) Spring Meetings taking place in Washington, DC, from April 17 through 19.   


A year into the civil war in Sudan, more than eight million people have been displaced, exacerbating an already devastating humanitarian crisis.