One key, yet overlooked, factor behind recent declines in Iraq's violence is U.S. support for new Sunni militias made up of former insurgents and al-Qaeda sympathizers. Direct financial support provided by the U.S. military to these groups - known collectively as the
movement - have helped make the movement the main authority in certain Baghdad neighborhoods and other parts of Iraq.
While Americans debate what might happen when U.S. troops redeploy, an equally important question is what might happen when the United States turns off the tap and stops purchasing the security provided by these militias. Will these groups be integrated into the Iraqi government and civil society, or will they initiate violent turf battles against their rivals?
The United States today pays the 90,000 members of these sahwa organizations monthly stipends of $300 each, about $27 million a month, essentially paying them not to kill other Iraqis and not to attack U.S. forces. This new movement, which consists of mostly Sunnis, though a handful of Shia tribes have taken part, has undoubtedly enhanced stability in certain parts of Iraq. And with the right strategy in place, these former insurgents could be a linchpin of a long-term sustainable security framework in Iraq.
The problem is that members of the movement are increasingly flexing their military and political muscle in ways detrimental to the overriding political goals of the surge. In recent weeks, the leaders of these Sunni militias have grown impatient, and thousands of their members have gone on strike, unhappy at playing a temporary role as security contractors. One sahwa leader recently commented that if his fighters were not incorporated into security forces within three months, "there would be war again."
How to avoid this is a key question that proponents of the "surge-has-worked" argument fail to answer. Conservatives such as Sen. John McCain paint a rosy picture that glosses over two grim realities:
First, the U.S. initiative to work with these new Sunni militias has undermined the goal of reconciliation between Iraq's competing factions. Since the United States started working with these irregular forces, Iraq's central government has grown increasingly suspicious of this U.S. initiative. As a consequence, the Iraqi government has been a major impediment to integrating these members into Iraq's state security structures.
Second, by working to strengthen these militias to achieve short-term security gains, the United States may have made it more difficult to achieve a long-term and sustainable security arrangement in Iraq. Only 20,000 sahwa members - a small portion of the overall 90,000 - have either been integrated into government security forces or given civilian jobs. Yet no clear strategy exists for the remaining 70,000, who have been steadily receiving salaries and fighting al-Qaeda elements.
Last month Brig. Gen. Raymond Thomas, deputy commander MNF-North, remarked that in his area of operation, dealing with the "unemployment issue" associated with any potential dissolution of sahwa forces was critical. This is true for sahwa forces across Iraq.
The token integration of sahwa movements does little more than paper over sharp differences between Sunni and Shia politicians' hedging their bets. Many Sunni leaders are simply trying to hold on to power, and many Shia leaders are just attempting to give the appearance that they are working toward reconciliation. In short, the policy of supporting these new Sunni militias without a clear end game risks making Iraq's internal conflicts even more vicious than they were in 2006 and 2007.
So what is to be done? The United States must work more forcefully to ensure that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moves to integrate America's new Sunni allies into the central government. This week, Maliki made yet another oral commitment to move forward on the integration of these forces, but, as with other past promises, it remains to be seen if he will deliver. The United States must signal that it will stop its independent funding of the Sunni militias that are part of the sahwa movement, providing ample time for Iraq's Ministries of Defense and Interior to assume financial responsibility. With the price of oil hovering around $110 a barrel, the Iraqi government does not lack the resources to fund these groups on its own.
It is time for the United States to use its leverage to press Iraq's leaders to reconcile their differences over power-sharing and make the security gains achieved last year sustainable. Bridging the differences between Iraq's competing groups is impossible until the United States sends a clear signal that the independent support it has provided to Sunni militias in the sahwa movement is ending.