The insurgency was largely made up of three factions (keeping in mind that each faction was itself splintered):
- Sunni insurgents fighting the American occupation and battling Iraqi Shiites to regain the power they’d lost after Saddam Hussein’s toppling.
- Shiite insurgents fighting Sunnis and the American occupation.
- Sunni insurgents under the banner of Al Qaeda in Iraq—a largely Iraqi force with a proportion of fighters from Arab countries—battling Shiites, the American occupation, but also Sunnis not complying with al-Qaeda’s austere, dogmatic version of Islam.
Reasons for the “Awakening”
The so-called “Sons of Iraq” began their awakening for three reasons:
- First, to re-assert a measure of political control over Iraqi politics, which they felt, accurately, they had yielded to Shiites by battling them militarily and by boycotting elections. (Shiites controlled Baghdad and Iraq’s oil, except for the northern oil fields controlled by Kurds).
- Second, to counter what most Iraqi Sunnis perceived as al-Qaeda-in-Iraq’s regressive and brutal version of Islam.
- Third, because Sunnis switching sides were aided by motive they shared with American strategy: The American occupation’s interest in balancing growing Shiite power, which is backed by Iran, with Iraq’s Sunnis, who make up about 40 percent of the Iraqi population. So even though Sunnis had battered American troops, the larger political calculation, for the Bush administration, was to restore a balance of power within Iraq that checked Shiite hegemony over the region. The only way to do that was to arm, lavishly pay and sponsor the same Sunni militias that had waged war on Americans.
American Motives, and Risks, in Encouraging the Awakening
Recognizing an opportunity to use the Awakening to its advantage, the U.S. military renamed members of the Awakening “Sons of Iraq” and actively recruited them into a security militia with the promise of $300 a month. Thousands of Sunni insurgents who’d fought the Americans became their allies, at least tactically.
The stipend, and the re-forming of the militias under the more palatable euphemisms of "citizen's patrols" or "Sons of Iraq," were ways for the American military to make up for the disastrous decision by the American Coalition Provisional Authority, in the early months of the occupation in 2003, entirely to disband the Iraqi military, which had been made up mostly of Sunni forces.
According to a June 2008 Pentagon report to Congress by the Multinational Force in Iraq, “The emergence of Sons of Iraq (SoIs) to help secure local communities has been one of the most significant developments in the past 18 months in Iraq. These volunteers help protect their neighborhoods, secure key infrastructure and roads and locate extremists among the population. What began primarily as a Sunni effort, now appears to have taken hold in several Shi’a and mixed communities. Today there are 103,000 SoIs contributing to local security in partnership with Coalition and Iraqi forces.”
“But,” reported John Burns of The New York Times, “critics of the strategy, including some American officers, say it could amount to the Americans’ arming both sides in a future civil war. The United States has spent more than $15 billion in building up Iraq’s army and police force, whose manpower of 350,000 is heavily Shiite. With an American troop drawdown increasingly likely in the next year, and little sign of a political accommodation between Shiite and Sunni politicians in Baghdad, the critics say, there is a risk that any weapons given to Sunni groups will eventually be used against Shiites. There is also the possibility the weapons could be used against the Americans themselves.”
Misconceptions About the Awakening: The “Surge” Did Not Create ItJudging from pronouncements by President Bush and by John McCain, the insurgency in Iraq was successfully beaten back thanks in large part to the administration’s troop escalation, or “surge,” beginning in spring 2007.
The “surge” is perceived to have given rise to the Awakening movement. In fact, the Awakening preceded the troop escalation by almost a year.
Misconceptions About the Awakening: Al-Qaeda in Iraq Not the Main Reason
The Bush administration and the American military portrayed the Awakening as fundamentally motivated by opposition to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. But the Al-Qaeda in Iraq movement, while certainly a factor, has never been as significant a factor as the Americans claim. As Andrew Tilghman wrote in the Washington Monthly, a scenario fraught with more spin than evidence took hold of the American narrative about al-Qaeda’s presence in Iraq:
After a strike, the military rushes to point the finger at al-Qaeda, even when the actual evidence remains hazy and an alternative explanation—raw hatred between local Sunnis and Shiites—might fit the circumstances just as well. The press blasts such dubious conclusions back to American citizens and policy makers in Washington, and the incidents get tallied and quantified in official reports, cited by the military in briefings in Baghdad. The White House then takes the reports and crafts sound bites depicting AQI as the number one threat to peace and stability in Iraq. (In July, for instance, at Charleston Air Force Base, the president gave a speech about Iraq that mentioned al-Qaeda ninety-five times.)Next page: Awakening Conflict Between The Sons and the Shiites.