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Waiting for democracy

By Bashdar Ismaeel - posted Wednesday, 30 January 2008

A year after US President George W. Bush announced his controversial surge strategy to rapidly bring security and stability to Baghdad and the suburbs, a marked decline in violence has been reported and security has increasingly improved, a fact that even Bush's Democratic challengers have found hard to deny. However, perhaps Bush's greatest success story was not the effectiveness of the deployment of 30,000 additional US troops, but the onset and expansion of contentious Sunni local Sahwa, or Awakening Councils, armed and brokered by American forces.

The first tribal council in Anbar province was designed to take advantage of growing public unrest at the brutal al-Qaida tactics on the streets, with daily murders making life for communities untenable. Before then, the volatile Anbar region had been a notorious icon of the rampant Sunni-led insurgency.

The evident success of the Awakening Councils, also referred to at times as Concerned Citizens and other aliases, prompted the US government to expand the movement: it is now estimated to number at least 70,000 forces in mainly Sunni-dominated areas with about another 20,000 embedded in the Anbar police force.


On one hand, the disenfranchised Sunni population turning against al-Qaida forces as opposed to the traditional American “invaders” was naturally a welcome relief for US forces, seemingly stuck in a quagmire and still chasing an elusive exit strategy. On another hand, it marked a turn of fortunes in Iraq and made a terror-free and united Iraq at least a theoretical possibility.

Although at times embraced as a great tactical success for the US, the establishment of the councils has turned many a head within the Iraqi ethnic-mosaic and raised fear, predominantly among the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, of bolstering Sunni militias only to increase the magnitude of their war with Shiite-controlled Iraqi Security Forces and Shiite militias, where Sunni's hold a deep mistrust.

Due to tribal affiliations in Anbar province, the Iraqi government reluctantly accepted that the risk of rogue splinter groups was less, due to the influence of tribal leaders in the region.

However, further expansion into Diyala province - where al-Qaida relocated and formed a new, self-proclaimed Islamic State - and talk of mobilising Sunni forces further north into ethnically disputed areas in Ninevah and Kirkuk, have caused a great deal of unrest for the Kurdish administration and become another deeply contested political issue on the Iraqi national level.

Kurdish fear of unrest

The Kurdish objective has always been to keep Iraqi civil strife at bay from the prosperous and stable autonomous Kurdistan Region, which they have achieved with much sacrifice, at all costs. The hotly disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk has been an intense focus of terrorists and rogue elements intent on creating sufficient unrest in the city to derail a planned referendum on its future status and spark bitter infighting between Arabs and Kurds.

Extending the Awakening Councils to arm and support Sunni Arabs in the Kirkuk province may make some sense to the US administration, which is hell bent on evicting terror groups in the area, but the Kurds, with a deep mistrust of their Iraqi brethren, fear the worst from such a proposition.


With the likely annexation of Kirkuk to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) once a referendum is finally held, the risk of a Sunni backlash is high. However, the potential bloodshed and unrest that could emanate from a newly armed Sunni Arab population would be catastrophic.

This led to a statement this week from Kurdish official Mohamded Mullah Qader, strongly emphasising that the Kurdish leadership would not allow the formation of any such councils in Kurdistan or surrounding ethnically disputed cities.

Kurdish officials and their Shiite counterparts in the Iraqi government have conceded that Awakening Councils have played a pivotal role in improving security in some restless and violent provinces. However, clearly the US may have unwittingly released a deadly virus into the Iraqi socio-political landscape by overlooking long-term implications of such a broad move by introducing another potential time bomb that Iraq could well do without.

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About the Author

Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel is a London-based freelance writer and analyst, whose primary focus and expertise is on the Kurds, Iraq and Middle Eastern current affairs. The main focus of his writing is to promote peace, justice and increase awareness of the diversity, suffering and at times explosive mix in Iraq and the Middle East.

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