Looking out for broad revenge (and fixed elections) in Iraq

A legion of analysts are trying to discern Iraq’s future stability since American forces have (mostly) pulled out of cities and the ultimate Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) withdrawal deadline draws closer.

Of all the potential flashpoints – Arab-Kurd haggling over Kirkuk, possible reanimation of criminal Shia militias, insidious meddling by Iran, remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq, etc. – the key metric to me remains whether the government of Iraq (GOI) and the invigorated Sunni political class (with a potent portion found in the Sahawa (Awakening) Political Movement) can tolerate and deal with each other, thus avoiding a wider replay of Sunni insurgency and sectarian conflict that almost ripped the country apart. Signs are mixed, and not necessarily negative.

The GOI assumed responsibility for the majority-Sunni Sons of Iraq (SOI) citizen militia in April, but has been widely criticized for dragging its feet on integrating them into the Iraqi Security Forces and other employment. The slow pace of this integration has been the primary yardstick utilized by frustrated US military advisors and media analysts as evidence the “Shia” government is unwilling to accept accommodation with the Sunnis.

The counterargument by the GOI is that many of the Sons of Iraq are former insurgents, and introducing a militia into the security forces and other civil services will only repeat the widely criticized historical problems with the Iraqi police. The wrinkle: infiltration by Sunnis rather than the previous Mahdi Army infiltration, a twist the powerful Shia political parties are even less comfortable with. This argument doesn’t excuse how long the government has taken to hire these guys, especially with the US helping vet candidates. But it does make it understandable.

And some progress is afoot: only 18,000 of the 89,000 original Sons of Iraq militia members were ever slated to be hired into the security forces, and thus far, 13,000 of those slots (72% of “security” quota) have been filled. The rest are ideally supposed to be moved toward other government work, and yesterday, the GOI hired 3,300 (4.46% of “other civil service” quota) into civil service jobs. This process has been hampered by administrative ineptitude and naked mistrust of opening the door to former enemies and competitors; just under one-fifth of SOI have been hired. But it’s happening. What to watch: how quickly that 3,300 in government jobs other than security rises before and immediately after the SOFA deadline.

Possibly more telling metrics will be the extent to which Maliki woos Sunni political leaders (he is, and has suffered for it politically), and whether the GOI starts using the state security apparatus to target former and potential Sunni adversaries.

What might look like an example of the latter occurred in July, when former Fallujan police chief Faisal Ismail and his executive officer, Issa al-Sari, were arrested on “charges of working with al Qaeda.” I met Faisal on his first week on the job in January, 2007, and the “al Qaeda” portion of those charges are bogus. Both men have violently lost family members to the organization, and would thus probably shoot any number of AQI leaders on sight. The terrorism aspect is more credible.

Faisal is a former Republican Guard Commando. Issa is a former Iraqi intelligence operative. Both men are Sunni, and former insurgents with the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and members of the de facto military arm of the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), the major Sunni political party to actively participate in Iraqi politics when the wider Sunni community boycotted the process. Both men are largely responsible for regenerating Fallujah’s police force and restoring (relative) calm by squeezing the takfiri and insurgents from the city. But whereas sources tell me Faisal may have been content to parlay his resulting folk hero status in Fallujah into political outlets, his former lieutenant was set to deploy nastier means to challenge the Awakening political movement that was rising to power in Anbar.

Sources within Iraq and American intelligence sources have implicated Issa in trying to rig this year’s provincial elections for the IIP, by padding the rolls with displaced persons not in Iraq. He’s also been accused of deploying, or getting ready to deploy, IED cells and a network of informants against Awakening figures and even some of his own people who bucked under his control. In fact, he was apparently discovered with bombs upon his arrest. Issa has also been associated with Hamas al Iraq, the terrorist offshoot of the inactive 1920 Brigades. The result when his meddling was discovered: isolation from both the Iraqi federal government, which rightfully fears some former regime elements like Issa will resort to violence, and much of the Sunni political sphere, some of whom he was targeting for fraudulent election loss (and possibly death).

Both men were arrested, because Faisal’s knowledge of at least some of Issa’s activities could not go unacknowledged. But the former police chief, who many respect for his role in pacifying Fallujah, may be released.

Issa was beaten during interrogation, and rumor on the streets of Fallujah holds that he was killed in custody. As of last week he is, in fact, alive, and may stay that way. But he’ll also likely remain in jail for some time.

The lesson: the GOI sometimes targets Sunnis for arrest (or replacement at a job) for legitimate reasons, rather than simple revenge. I actually find the arrest of Issa encouraging, indicative that the GOI and Awakening political elements will contentedly unite to go after organizations reaching into the verboten old bag of explosive tricks while jockeying for power in the new Iraq. This doesn’t mean that Iraqi government moves are transparent or anywhere near Western standards of jurisprudence. But thus far, I haven’t seen or heard evidence of wider score settling that indicates the generic “Shia” and “Sunni” forces in Iraq aren’t willing to horse trade with each other enough to accommodate mutual existence and participation in government. It’s still early, though. Time will tell.

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