Friday, September 29, 2006





From Gareth Porter writing for the Asia Times :

Are the Sunni leaders in Iraq's al-Anbar province finally coming around to joining the US counterinsurgency war?

That's how the New York Times portrayed the situation last week. Times reporters quoted a Sunni tribal leader in Anbar as saying that 25 of 31 tribes in the province had banded together to fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Iraqi insurgents allied with them.

The newspaper said US officials, who had "tried to persuade the

Sunni Arab majority in Anbar to reject the insurgency and embrace Iraqi nationalism", saw the announcement as an "encouraging sign".

But careful readers of the Times report would have noticed that something was missing from the picture of the political-military situation in Anbar that is crucial to making sense of the tribal leader's announcement, as well as the spin put on it by the unnamed US officials.

The missing piece is the home-grown Sunni armed resistance to the US occupation, which enjoys the strong support of the Sunni population and tribal leaders in the province and has been at war with the foreign terrorists of al-Qaeda for many months. According to a report by prominent security analysts Anthony Cordesman and Nawaf Obaid, foreign fighters represent only 4-10% of some 30,000 armed insurgents in Iraq.

The omission of any mention of the indigenous Sunni resistance forces from the Times story followed a Washington Post report on a secret US Marine Corps intelligence analysis of the situation in Anbar, in which Pentagon officials were quoted as saying the document portrays a "vacuum that has been filled by the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq".

The disappearance of Sunni resistance forces from these papers' coverage of the situation in Anbar mirrors the view presented by the US military briefers for the past six months, which has systematically ignored what has become, in effect, a third force in the war in Iraq - a Sunni resistance to both the occupation and al-Qaeda.

That third force emerged last year out of the struggle in the Sunni heartland of Iraq over the constitutional referendum and December parliamentary election. Al-Qaeda in Iraq threatened anyone in Anbar province who participated in the referendum with death, but the major Sunni armed groups broke openly with al-Qaeda and supported full participation by Sunnis to defeat the referendum.

Sunni resistance groups then began attacking al-Qaeda forces in Ramadi, Husayba and other towns in Anbar. By early 2006, these armed groups had captured 270 foreign infiltrators, according to the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper. US military command spokesman Major-General Rick Lynch publicly confirmed in January that the insurgents had killed six "major leaders" of al-Qaeda in Ramadi.

From late November to February, Lynch made the fundamental conflict between the Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda a major theme of his briefings. He told reporters, "The local insurgents have become part of the solution."

But the Sunnis' solution included the demand that the United States set a date for withdrawal in return for their ending the insurgency and cooperating with an Iraqi government against al-Qaeda. And in the interim period before a final withdrawal, the Sunnis wanted the withdrawal of US forces from Anbar, along with the largely Shi'ite army units they had sent in to control the province.

At a meeting at a US base in Ramadi in December, reported by the London Sunday Times in February, a former Iraqi general, Saab al-Rawi, representing the Iraqi Sunni insurgents in the province, asked General George Casey, the senior US commander in Iraq, for the withdrawal of US forces from Ramadi and their replacement by a brigade of former soldiers from the area.

But Casey angrily refused, accusing Rawi of wanting a US pullout so the insurgents could take over the city. The Iraqi general recalled that his forces had protected the city for six months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. "You have not protected this city and can never do so," said Rawi, "for you are foreigners here - unwanted and unwelcome."

The Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government was more responsive to the Sunni plea. The Los Angeles Times reported on January 29 that national security adviser Mowaffak Rubaie acknowledged that the major Sunni resistance organizations were in an irreconcilable conflict with al-Qaeda. "We are talking about two ideologies," he declared.

Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari promised the Sunni tribal leaders in January that he would support the request for the replacement of US troops in Ramadi with local Sunni forces, according to Al-Hayat.

But that never happened, and the US military command soon reversed its line on the Sunni armed organizations. Instead of touting them as important to the solution to the al-Qaeda problem, the US military command began to act as though the United States didn't need Sunni armed organizations at all.

In his March 9 briefing, Lynch dropped the distinction between the Sunni armed organizations and al-Qaeda. "The people of Iraq are uniting against the insurgency," he declared. And he added, "Remember, democracy equals failure for the insurgency."

A review of the transcripts of US command briefings since then reveals that the spokesman has systematically avoided any comment suggesting that there is a third alternative to al-Qaeda control over Anbar and occupation by US and Shi'ite troops.

In contrast to the official military line, however, in April the London Daily Telegraph quoted the senior US officer in Ramadi, Colonel John Gronski, as saying that almost all the fighting against coalition forces in his sector had been by Iraqis, and that in the previous five months not a single foreigner had been detained in and around Ramadi. Gronski also admitted that the Sunni insurgents had the support of the local population and that local tribal leaders regarded the resistance as "legitimate".

After the new government was formed under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in May, representatives of the Sunni resistance pressed their case in talks with the Iraqi government. USA Today reported on July 4 that the government was "studying a request from some local insurgent leaders to supply them with weapons so they can turn on the heavily armed foreign fighters who were once their allies ..."

But Washington has continued to oppose such schemes, according to Ayad al-Samarrai, the second-highest official of the Sunni-based Islamic Party. In a report published on September 13, The Times of London quoted Samarrai saying leaders in Anbar had made several proposals to the US on building "an indigenous army and police force" in the province, but to no avail.

The US resistance to arming the Sunnis in al-Anbar, he said, had led many Sunni leaders to believe the US was deliberately helping al-Qaeda because it preferred chaos there.

The Sunni resistance to both al-Qaeda and the occupation represents an acute embarrassment to the US military and the administration in Washington. The US needs the help of the Sunni resistance against al-Qaeda, but to get it, it must admit that it can't do the job itself. Since that option is still unacceptable, the administration has had to pretend that there are only two sides in the struggle in Anbar - not three.