During his visit to Iraq last week, President Bush carved out an hour to sit down with Shaykh Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha, the controversial head of the Anbar Salvation Council who had become a symbol of America's Anbar strategy. The pictures from that photo-op were likely the Shaykh's death warrant: Abu Risha was assassinated today, even as Bush prepared to use the Anbar strategy's "success" to justify our continued involvement in Iraq.
David Petraeus was quick to blame al-Qaeda for the stunning murder, a leap to judgment emblematic of all which is wrong with America's current views of the Sunnis of Iraq. In reality there are a plethora of likely suspects, reflecting the reality of an intensely factionalized and divided community which little resembles the picture offered by the administration's defenders. Leaders of other tribes deeply resented Abu Risha's prominence. Leaders of the major insurgency factions had for weeks been warning against allowing people such as Abu Risha to illegitimately reap the fruits of their jihad against the occupation. The brazen murder of America's closest Sunni ally in Iraq was as predictable as it was shocking, and carries a powerful message to both Iraqis and Americans about the real prospects for the long-term success of the American project.
Iraq's Sunnis must be amazed at the role they are playing in today's Washington. A year ago, they were "dead-enders," brutal killers disgruntled over their expulsion from power and nostalgic for the return of Saddam Hussein. The suggestion that Americans might productively talk to Sunni insurgents would have met with as much Beltway scorn as do calls today to engage in talks with Iran or Syria.
The best way to deal with these Sunni throwbacks, we were told back then, was to unleash American firepower and pummel them until they surrendered or died. America's failures were failures of timidity and political correctness. Arabs only understood force, and America needed to beat them into submission and forget about "struggling to win hearts and minds which can't be won." The rubble of Fallujah and the prisons of Abu Ghraib bear silent testimony to the influence of such thinking.
How times have changed. Since their turn against al-Qaeda which began last year, the Sunnis have become the foundation of the administration's case for staying in Iraq. Good thing we didn't kill them all.
Alas, while the president's men may have discovered Iraq's Sunnis, they still show little sign of actually understanding them. The cheerleaders for the surge have constructed a Disney-esque fantasy of an Iraqi "Sunni World" which might as well be in Orlando for all it has to do with the grim realities of today's Iraq.
The Sunni turn against al-Qaeda had very little to do with American diplomacy or military efforts, and far more to do with local power struggles and preparations for the widely-expected coming war with the Shia. The origins of this shift in Sunni politics date back to last year's attempt by al-Qaeda in Iraq to impose its hegemony over the Sunni insurgency and to establish physical and political control in a variety of locales.
Al-Qaeda's attacks on Iraqi Shia had always been controversial among the insurgency's factions, many of which preferred to keep a tight focus on attacking American forces and Iraqi government personnel. Al-Qaeda made many enemies with its grandiose rhetoric, attacks on local political figures, attempts to enforce Islamic morality, and decisions to muscle in on tribal smuggling routes. When it declared the "Islamic State of Iraq" as an umbrella for the insurgent groups, the major "nationalist" factions which make up the overwhelming majority of the insurgency decided they had seen enough. The Islamic Army of Iraq released the first public denunciation, other factions followed suit, and nasty fighting (both verbal and military) ensued. The root of the conflict was a struggle for power within the Sunni community -- not attitudes towards the United States or even the central Iraqi government. The turn against al-Qaeda did not mean abandoning the insurgency, even if some of the groups are willing to use American support for their current tactical needs.
General Petraeus worked creatively and effectively to encourage this trend, and soldiers and diplomats on the ground seem to be aware of the complexities of the new "cooperative" mission. The same can't be said for surge cheerleaders in the United States. Much of the conventional wisdom about the Sunni areas now seems to come from the impressions formed by politicians and journalists on stage-managed visits to Iraq, or by carefully crafted press interviews with "former insurgents" hand-picked by American military handlers. But we don't need such a mediated view. Leaders of the major Iraqi Sunni groups actually speak quite often and quite candidly to their own people, though: in open letters, in official statements posted on internet forums, in the Arab and Iraqi press, and in statements released on al-Jazeera and other satellite television stations. What they say in such statements, in Arabic, when addressing their own constituencies, might be considered a more reliable guide to their strategy and thinking. So what are the major Iraqi Sunni leaders saying?
In their literature and public rhetoric, the Sunni insurgency has already defeated the American occupation -- which is why the Americans stopped fighting them and came to them for help in fighting al-Qaeda. One discovers virtually nothing in this literature of the American conceit that our forces wore them out or forced them to come to the table. During his meeting with President Bush in Anbar last week, Abu Risha, reportedly joked that his people had achieved in four months what the American military could not achieve in four years. It was one of the few claims made by Abu Risha with which most Iraqi Sunnis would agree, and one which should probably have infuriated more Americans than it seems to have.
Most of these statements are already looking past the question of al-Qaeda, and are instead in preparation for the aftermath of an American withdrawal. The overwhelming theme of recent Sunni discourse is the need to achieve political unity to prepare for a post-occupation Iraq. While Americans celebrate their cordial relations with certain tribal shaykhs, the insurgency's leaders publicly fumed that the fruits of their victory might be snatched by undeserving interlopers. The widely disseminated pictures of President Bush shaking hands with Sattar Abu Risha, the epitome of such illegitimate bon vivantes, were likely his death warrant.
Meanwhile, certain tribes worry that the groundwork is being laid for the domination of Sunni politics by other tribes, and that this is in fact the American plan -- to leave behind a divided, suspicious, and compromised array of tribes which will be unable to act politically. An important recent open letter from the highly influential Association of Muslim Scholars powerfully invoked the experience of the Afghan jihad, which collapsed upon itself after defeating the Soviet Union. The famously fractious insurgency has been trying hard to put forward a public political front to fill this perceived void, though at this point the various projects still seem to exist mostly on paper.
Partition, soft or hard, has far fewer fans in Anbar than in Washington. Most Sunnis continue to support a unified Iraqi state, and have exaggerated expectations about the role they should play in such a state. A recent letter from the "Amir" of the Islamic Army of Iraq claimed that Sunnis made up 60 percent of the population of Iraq, and few Sunnis seem ready to accept the status of "tolerated minority" within a Shia-dominated state. The Maliki government is almost universally denounced as sectarian, culpable for sectarian cleansing, and an Iranian puppet.
There is absolutely nothing in current Sunni discourse to suggest that any sort of "bottom up reconciliation" with the Shia is taking place or that the tactical cooperation with American forces against al-Qaeda is producing any kind of meaningful integration into the Iraqi state. Far more common is the need to prepare for future conflict with the Shia and, increasingly, the Kurds (see Kirkuk and Mosul). Resentment over the sectarian 'cleansing' of Baghdad runs exceptionally high, and few Sunnis seem prepared to accept any political settlement which does not include their return to Baghdad -- something that the Shia militias (which continue to dominate the Iraqi Police) seem rather unlikely to accept.
Finally, the alliance of convenience with American forces has not translated into support for the United States at the mass level. A public opinion survey conducted last month -- well into the surge -- found that only 1 percent of Sunnis say they have confidence in American forces and only 1 percent of Sunnis support the American presence in Iraq. Rather, 72 percent of Sunnis say that the US forces should leave immediately, 95 percent say that the presence of U.S. troops makes security worse, and 93 percent still see attacks on coalition forces as acceptable. Such results should make obvious the vacuity of claims that the turn against al-Qaeda was a victory for American diplomacy.
These Iraqi views throw into sharp relief the point I made in early August that the American strategy of empowering Sunnis at the local level actually worked against the goal of strengthening the national Iraqi state. This contradiction emerged as a key theme in this week's congressional hearings, and forced the president's team to concoct a gerry-rigged strategic argument linking the developments at the local and national levels. But these scenarios are almost impossibly utopian and astonishingly divorced from the messy realities of politics. The idea that the current strategy will produce bottom-up reconciliation, develop a political constituency for moderation, and push political development on the national level is deeply misleading. Does anybody really believe that handing these angry young Sunnis jobs in a police force dominated by the most sectarian Shia militias will give them a stake in the current political system?
Abu Risha's murder demonstrates the strategic naivete of these arguments. The Anbar strategy relies on a series of best-case scenarios in which virtually nothing can go wrong -- and when, in Iraq, has nothing gone wrong? Other powerful players were always going to be willing and able to take steps against a process which threatened their interests: not just al-Qaeda, but competing tribes, insurgency groups, and Iraqi Shia, all of whom fear that the guns will soon be aimed at them. The murder of Abu Risha exposes realities which should have been obvious, and offer a grim context for Bush's attempts to rest the case for America's war in Iraq on Anbar's "success."