The United States’ embrace of the “awakening” will go down in the history of the Iraq conflict as one of the gravest strategic errors made in a field of grave errors. The U.S. military in Iraq has never fully understood the complex interplay between the Sunni resistance, al-Qaida in Iraq, and the former government of Saddam Hussein. Saddam may be dead, but not so his plans for resistance. The massive security organizations which held sway over Iraq during his rule were never defeated, and never formally disbanded. The organs of security which once operated as formal ministries now operate as covert cells, functioning along internal lines of communication which are virtually impenetrable by outside forces. These security organs gave birth to al-Qaida in Iraq, fostered its growth as a proxy, and used it as a means of sowing chaos and fear among the Iraqi population.
The violence perpetrated by al-Qaida in Iraq is largely responsible for the inability of the central government in Baghdad to gain any traction in the form of unified governance. The inability of the United States to defeat al-Qaida has destroyed any hope of generating confidence among the Iraqi population in the possibility of stability emerging from an ongoing American occupation. But al-Qaida in Iraq is not a physical entity which the United States can get its hands around, but rather a giant con game being run by Izzat al-Douri and the Sunni resistance. Because al-Qaida in Iraq is derived from the Sunni resistance, it can be defeated only when the Sunni resistance is defeated. And the greatest con game of them all occurred when the Sunni resistance manipulated the United States into arming it, training it and turning it against the forces of al-Qaida, which it controls. Far from subduing the Sunni resistance by Washington’s political and military support of the “awakening,” the United States has further empowered it. It is almost as if we were arming and training the Viet Cong on the eve of the Tet offensive during the Vietnam War.
Keeping in mind the fact that the Sunni resistance, led by al-Douri, operates from the shadows, and that its influence is exerted more indirectly than directly, there are actual al-Qaida elements in Iraq which operate independently of central Sunni control, just as there are Sunni tribal elements which freely joined the “awakening” in an effort to quash the forces of al-Qaida in Iraq. The diabolical beauty of the Sunni resistance isn’t its ability to exert direct control over all aspects of the anti-American activity in Sunni Iraq, but rather to manipulate the overall direction of activity through indirect means in a manner which achieves its overall strategic aims. The Sunni resistance continues to use al-Qaida in Iraq as a useful tool for seizing the strategic focus of the American military occupiers (and their Iraqi proxies in the Green Zone), as well as controlling Sunni tribal elements which stray too far off the strategic course (witness the recent suicide bomb assassination of senior Sunni tribal leaders). 2008 will see the collapse of the Sunni “awakening” movement, and a return to large-scale anti-American insurgency in western Iraq. It will also see the continued viability of al-Qaida in Iraq in terms of being an organization capable of wreaking violence and dictating the pace of American military involvement in directions beneficial to the Sunni resistance and detrimental to the United States.
One of the spinoffs of the continued success of the Sunni resistance is the focus it places on the inability of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to actually govern. The U.S. decision to arm, train and facilitate the various Sunni militias in Iraq is a de facto acknowledgement that the American occupiers have lost confidence in the high-profile byproduct of the “purple finger revolution” of January 2005. The sham that was that election has produced a government trusted by no one, even the Shiites. The ongoing unilateral cease-fire imposed by the Muqtada al-Sadr on his Mahdi Army prevented the outbreak of civil war between his movement and that of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and its militia, the Badr Brigade.
When Saddam’s security forces dissolved on the eve of the fall of Baghdad in March 2003, the security organs which had been tasked with infiltrating the Shiite community for the purpose of spying on Shiites were instead instructed to embed themselves deep within the structures of that community. Both the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade are heavily infiltrated with such sleeper elements, which conspire to create and exploit fractures between these two organizations under the age-old adage of divide and conquer. A strategic pause in the conflict between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military on the one hand and the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade on the other has served to strengthen the hand of the Mahdi Army by allowing time for it to rearm and reorganize, increasing its efficiency as a military organization all the while its political opposite, the SCIRI-dominated central Iraqi government, continues to falter.
Further exacerbating the situation for the American occupiers of Iraq is the ongoing tension created by the war of wills between the United States and Iran. The Sunni resistance has no love for the Shiite theocracy in Tehran, or its proxies in Iraq, and views creating a rift between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade as a strategic imperative on the road to a Sunni resurgence. Any U.S. military strike against Iran will bring with it the inevitable Shiite backlash in Iraq. The Shiite forces that emerge as the most independent of the American occupier will be, in the minds of the Sunni resistance, the most capable of winning the support of the Shiites of Iraq. Given the past record of cooperation between the Mahdi Army and the Sunni resistance, and the ongoing antipathy between Sunnis and SCIRI, there can be little doubt which Shiite entity the Sunnis will side with when it comes time for a decisive conflict between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade, and 2008 will be the year which witnesses such a conflict.