An Ugly Peace- What changed in Iraq

January 14, 2010 at 11:53 pm (Global Issues, Politics) (, , , , )


By Nir Rosen

The first of a two-part series on counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. The second is Something from Nothing.

In December 2008 I flew Royal Jordanian from Amman to Iraq’s southern city of Basra. Because of the Muslim holiday of Eid, embassies were closed; a contact in the British military promised to obtain visas for me and a colleague upon arrival. The Iraqi customs officials were offended that we did not follow procedure, but a letter from the British commander got us in. It might not have been necessary: when the five Iraqi policemen who examined luggage at the exit saw my colleague’s copy of Patrick Cockburn’s excellent book on the Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr, they turned giddy. One of them kissed the picture of Muqtada’s face on the cover and asked if he could keep the book. It was not their sentiment that surprised me, but rather their comfort expressing it publicly.

Since the occupation began, Muqtada has been the most controversial public figure in Iraq. A populist anti-American leader, he came from a lineage of revolutionary Shia clerics who opposed the Saddam’s regime and who gave voice to Iraq’s poor Shia majority. Capitalizing on his slain father’s network of mosques and the family name, Muqtada and his followers, called Sadrists, seized control of Shia areas in Iraq when Baghdad fell, especially the slums of Basra and the capital. He rallied marginalized Shias against the occupation, its puppet government, and eventually against Sunni extremists as well. His movement provided social services, and his militia, Jeish al Mahdi—the Mahdi Army or JAM—fought the Americans and defended Shias from extremist Sunni terrorism.

But the Mahdi Army and its rivals eventually propagated sectarian violence, fighting in the civil war and expelling or killing innocent Sunnis. After the February 2006 bombing of the Samarra shrine, a Shia holy site, the two-year-old civil war intensified. With attacks against Sunnis escalating, the largely Shia Iraqi police often looked the other way. The bloodshed was indiscriminate.

By 2007 Muqtada was no longer in control of the militias, many of which had become mere criminal gangs. In August of that year, fearing that the Surge would mean an all-out American assault on Shia communities controlled by his militias, he called for a ceasefire. But he did not tell his men to disarm, and fighting continued, especially resistance attacks against the Americans by recalcitrant former Mahdi Army fighters, who viewed Muqtada’s ceasefire as a betrayal.

Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s government tacitly supported Shia militias throughout the civil war, but in March 2008 Maliki surprised everyone by launching “Charge of the Knights,” a 15,000-man Iraqi Army operation intended to crush Shia militias—especially Muqtada’s followers—who had Basra in their grip. The assault floundered until American backup rescued the beleaguered Iraqi security forces and drove the militias out. Maliki managed to chalk it up as a victory, and his decision to crush Shia militias in Basra, Baghdad, and elsewhere won him the support of many Sunnis.

Jassim Ahmad, deputy head of the Sunni Islamic party in Basra, confirmed the offensive’s impact. He told me that their previous headquarters had been destroyed following the 2006 Samarra bombing with the complicity of local police. Many Sunni sheikhs had been murdered as well. But some Sunnis had returned after Charge of the Knights, with about 400 of them in the local police and army by the end of 2008, according to his figures.

In downtown Basra the campaign’s success was plain. The local economy was thriving, and women could once again walk on the streets without wearing the veil if they chose to. As Ahmad put it, “now the Sunni sect doesn’t have problems in Basra.”

After the operation, local officials held a conference to discuss rebuilding. Despite the conference’s distinctly Shia tone, speakers expressed relief that the militias and “criminals” were gone. They praised Iraqi forces for providing security. There was no mention of the British or the Americans. It felt like a post-occupation Iraq, and the mood of the meeting inspired hope that when the Americans inevitably reduced their numbers, the country would not again fall into civil war.

In a nearby slum, four Mahdi Army men complained that the army stole from homes, but they vowed to support Maliki, despite his crackdown. “We obey Muqtada, and whatever he says, we do, and he said, ‘don’t fight the government,’” they told me. “We are not against the government or the people, just against the occupation. We are giving the government an opportunity.”

It was clear that something significant had changed in Iraq. While resentment lingered and murders continued, the sectarian violence had subsided, and there was a willingness to think about a future in which different Iraqi communities would live together in peace.

Still, talk about a “post-sectarian future” is premature. The situation is complex and fluid, and people in the communities most ravaged by the civil war understandably tell each other a range of conflicting stories about the roots of the change. One explanation that few are prepared to discuss openly is that Iraq’s civil war ended because Shias won: violence against Sunnis ceased after Sunnis were brutally cleansed from Basra and large swaths of Baghdad, and Shias gained firm control of government ministries and local police. Sunnis knew they were defeated and Shias no longer worried that Ba’athist oppression would resume. With no external enemy, Shia militias began to fight each other and turned into criminal gangs terrorizing their own communities. The defeat of the Sunnis and divisions among Shias created space for new possibilities, and the government and American forces occupied that space.

Other stories emphasize the resurgence of a latent pan-Iraqi nationalism, the consolidation of Iraqi national security forces, the exhaustion of sectarian violence, the shift in views about the militias—from heroes to enemies of the people—and the massive pay-off of mostly Sunni militiamen.

The Madhi Army men told me, ‘We obey Muqtada, and whatever he says, we do, and he said, “don’t fight the government.”’

Indeed it was a combination of all these things, the early 2007 “Surge” in U.S. forces playing a smaller role than American claims often suggest. The Surge benefitted from other changes. Troop increases and a determined counterinsurgency policy came at a time when they could finally be tolerated in anti-occupation neighborhoods because the main struggle had shifted from liberating Iraq from the Americans to inter-Iraqi fighting. Had the Surge occurred a year earlier, it would have met far greater resistance.

• • •

Like Basra’s slums, Sadr City and other neighborhoods on the outskirts of Baghdad are shocking in their neglect. But Washash, in central Baghdad, stood out during the insurgency for its poverty and violence and thus offers both a microcosm of changes since 2007 and a test of post-civil war Iraq.

I first visited Washash in April 2003. Sewage flooded the streets, and an arms market thrived nearby. When American vehicles approached, weapons dealers would hastily conceal their wares. About 60,000 people lived in an area just larger than one square kilometer. As soon as Baghdad fell in mid-April, revenge killings started, and the murders in this Shia-majority neighborhood took on a sectarian tone. In October 2003 a Sunni Sheikh, his brother, and a teenage assistant were riddled with bullets as they walked home from mosque. In August 2004 a police chief and a patrolman were killed in an explosion. In December 2004 several members of a Sunni Salafist group were killed. Sunni and Shia clerics issued a futile joint edict banning sectarian fighting, and by the middle of 2005 sectarian violence was endemic.

American soldiers raiding a house in 2006 found evidence that Shia militias were cleansing Sunnis from Washash. There was a list of nearly 70 homes where Sunni families were expelled and a list of “good” families who were not be disturbed. There were letters threatening Sunnis, as well as copies of a DVD with a message from the Mahdi Army: images of exploding houses. That same month Washash leaders asked the Iraqi government to intervene in a crime wave that had produced 60 corpses. In the summer of 2007 the violence continued to escalate after some Mahdi militiamen who were ousted from nearby Huriya by American forces took up residence in Washash.

Because there was little American activity in Washash until spring 2007, the Mahdi Army ran rampant there. It grew notorious even among other Mahdi Army units for its brutality toward Sunnis and disobedient Shias as well as its gang criminality.

In late July 2007 the American First Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment set up a combat outpost near Washash. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Ed Chesney, the unit partnered with the Iraqi Army and National Police to provide security and controlled the area until July 2008. “Our challenge,” Chesney told me, “was to gain the trust of the people and to work towards building their trust in their own security forces.”

Building trust was, indeed, a huge problem. By 2007 the fear of sectarian violence had effectively segregated neighborhoods; any intervention appeared partisan. “When the army arrested people in Washash, they were almost always Shia, so the people thought [the arrests] were sectarian,” Chesney explained. “But in Jamia they arrested all Sunnis.” In addition, according to Chesney, Iraqi junior leaders performed poorly at times because they were afraid to confront either the Mahdi Army or al Qaeda. “The army around Washash, especially the rank and file, was sympathetic to JAM. . . . We suspected corruption in many areas but were unable to prove it.”

U.S. and Iraqi national forces targeted “the criminal JAM element,” which at the time was lead by Hamudi Naji, disliked even by Mahdi Army counterparts for his mafia-like operations. Chesney described him as a formidable opponent responsible for attacks on Sunnis in nearby Mansur. “The Sunnis to the south were petrified of him, and what police there were in the area did not garner trust in the Sunni population.”

Chesney’s problems worsened. Violence against Sunnis escalated after Naji was assassinated in September, although it was not clear who killed him. Hundreds fled Washash, and many were killed, including whole families.

Then, in October, over one thousand men in Washash marched, chanting anti-American slogans in protest of an American-constructed wall around their neighborhood. The Americans hoped the new six-foot tall concrete barrier would effectively seal Washash and stem the violence. Soon it was covered in political and religious posters and graffiti.

By the time I returned to Washash in late 2007, there was only one entrance for cars, and it was guarded by Iraqi soldiers. Elsewhere a few narrow openings between the concrete blocks allowed pedestrians to enter one at a time. About 5,000 families lived there, but most of the Sunnis were gone. The streets remained unpaved; many were flooded with water or sewage. Electric cables hung low from rooftops and criss-crossed like cobwebs. There, I saw more posters and banners honoring Muqtada and his father than anywhere else in Baghdad. It was quiet.

‘You are Shia, one of us,’ the Mahdi Army commander said. ‘I am secular,’ Captain Mushtaq replied, ‘I don’t care if you’re Sunni or Shia or Hindu, I have orders.’

Because it was so dangerous for outsiders, my driver, whose cousin lived in Washash, arranged in advance that we be met by Sheikh Kadhim al Saedy, the head of the local tribal council and a Sadrist, who guaranteed my safety.

We walked down the muddy streets and were soon surrounded by throngs of Mahdi Army men and other residents of Washash, desperate to voice their anger. “We consider the Iraqi Army to be our sons and brothers,” al Saedy told me.

Unfortunately, the army unit here is giving false information about us. They said we are doing many bad things and the neighborhood is unsafe. When the Iraqi Army raids houses, they steal the mobile phones and money, attack the elderly people, and falsely accuse people. Some of our young guys were accused of planting bombs. After the investigation, they discovered it was not true. Some of them were accused of killing people; they said such and such killed ten or fifteen. After the investigation they released him. So there are false accusations against those innocent people. 

“They are dealing with us in a sectarian way,” al Saedy added, “not 100 percent, 1000 percent. Most of the prisoners are Shias, most of the arrests are of Shias.” The Iraqi police were different, he said. “The police are peaceful people. If anyone files a complaint, they will respond to him properly. We don’t have any problem with the police.”

On the corner, women in abayat sat by dozens of colorful jerry cans, waiting for kerosene. They had been waiting for four days.

“My dear,” said an elderly woman with tribal tattoos on her chin, “we don’t have electricity, kerosene, or gas, and we are surrounded and we have been insulted. Where should we go? To whom should we complain?” She said the Mahdi Army cleaned the streets and provided security at night. “It is not true that the Mahdi Army are terrorists. The Americans are the real terrorists.”

A thick, muscular Mahdi Army man explained that the Iraqi Army prevented the kerosene from coming in, and he blamed, in particular, an Iraqi Army captain named Mushtaq. Another man insisted Mushtaq was a Sunni and was punishing them for sectarian reasons.

One of the tribal leaders led me to the rubble of a home the Americans had bombed two months earlier. Seven of his relatives were killed there, some of them children. “If you try to strangle a cat in the kitchen it will scratch you,” he said. “We are losing our patience.”

I heard more complaints about the Americans and the Iraqi Army, especially Captain Mushtaq, when I visited Washash in January and February of 2008. “We are like Palestine,” one man lamented. I saw the opening between the barriers, and behind it an Iraqi Army checkpoint. A soldier spotted me filming and began to approach. “He won’t dare come in,” someone said. “We will fuck him.”

• • •

When I returned to Washash in March 2009, the concrete walls remained, but cars could now drive into the market, and the Mahdi Army had been expelled.

I found Captain Mushtaq. I told him people had accused him of being a Sunni and targeting them for sectarian reasons. “I’m a Shia,” he laughed, “how can I be sectarian?”

Before the war Mushtaq had been an artillery officer. When an American lieutenant colonel asked him to join the new Iraqi Army in September 2003, he did. The next year, the Americans made Mushtaq an officer, and he commanded a company in charge of the airport road in Baghdad.

“At the time,” he told me, “there was only al Qaeda, not the Mahdi Army. We confiscated a lot of weapons and car bombs. This was before the sectarianism started.” He moved to the Iraqi National Guard based in the airport. There were very few Sunni officers. “They worried that the Americans think ‘Sunnis are terrorists,’ but Americans judged people on whether they were good.” On the night of the 2006 Samarra Shrine attack, Mushtaq’s unit had orders to protect all Sunni mosques and Islamic party headquarters. “But not all of the Iraqi Army was clean,” he said:

and some officers told their soldiers to let the Mahdi Army operate freely. . . . Most officers were in a bind: if they acted like real officers and were patriots, they would lose their families and their houses because they lived in a Shia area. This happened to me. 

Mushtaq first clashed with the Mahdi Army in Washash in 2006, when it was commanded by Naji.

I was on patrol, and I saw two guys with pistols and an MP5 [submachine gun] put a man in the trunk of their car. The men ran away and left their weapons. The guy in the trunk was Sunni. His family came to get him, and we kept the vehicle and guns. 

According to Mushtaq, at the time, much of the government supported the Mahdi Army, so the fighters had access to good information. That is how Naji managed to obtain Mushtaq’s phone number.

The Americans stopped ‘commuting to work’ from bases. They worked within communities, offering services, getting to know the people, and protecting them.

“You are Shia, one of us,” Naji told him. “We don’t want anything from you, just return the car and the weapons.” Mushtaq responded that if Naji gave him the names of the two fugitives, he would return the car. “These men are in the Mahdi Army,” Naji replied. “How can I give them to you?” Naji used religious language. “I am secular,” Mushtaq said, “I don’t care if you’re Sunni or Shia or Hindu, I have orders.”

“We captured a lot of Mahdi Army guys back then,” Mushtaq told me, “but we got orders from the prime minister’s office and Baghdad operations center to release them.”

When the Mahdi Army was at its peak, Mushtaq explained, it had the support of two individuals in the Prime Minister’s office: Major General Adnan al Maksusi, an intelligence officer, and Dr. Basima al Jadhri, an advisor to Maliki on the Ministries of Interior and Defense, and later on Reconciliation. “They used to fire all officers who were against the Mahdi Army or who arrested [members of] the Mahdi Army.”

In mid-2007 Mushtaq and his men stopped a government vehicle leaving Washash and heading to Sadr City. The men in the car wore track suits and had two pistols. The Americans said they were Mahdi Army leaders and took them. Naji called Mushtaq and demanded their release. “You arrested them so you bring them back to us.”

Naji called Mushtaq again that night. “What have you done about them?” he asked. “You’re crazy,” Mushtaq replied, “the Americans have them.” When I expressed surprise to Mushtaq at the Mahdi Army’s audacity, he said, “The state was on their side. We were afraid of the Mahdi Army. They weren’t afraid of us.”

Naji arranged for Mahdi Army men and some Iraqi national police to go to Mushtaq’s house, but they went to his neighbor’s house by mistake. The posse insisted that the neighbor’s ID card was fake, and they put him in the trunk of their car. Naji called Mushtaq’s phone and was surprised when Mushtaq answered. “Who are you?” he asked. “Mushtaq,” the captain replied. “So who is the lamb we have here?” Naji asked, using slang for a victim about to be killed. The neighbor was released, terribly beaten. Mushtaq sent some of his family to the south and his wife and children to Egypt.

A week after the failed raid on Mushtaq’s house, the Mahdi Army killed his uncle. In response, Mushtaq decided to wipe out the Mahdi Army in Washash.

By this time the Surge had started, and the Americans were beginning to view the Mahdi Army as the primary threat to stability in Iraq. But they would distinguish between those Mahdi Army men loyal and obedient to Muqtada and those who functioned more as criminal gangs.

Chesney had heard good things about Mushtaq, and offered him whatever help he needed. Mushtaq turned over all his intelligence information.

The Iraqi Army and the new American troops worked on a plan. They built the walls around Washash and set up a joint security station (JSS) on what they called a Sunni-Shia “fault line,” with a quick reaction force to counter the Mahdi Army. The previous American base had been too far away. After meeting with American platoon leaders and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and introducing them to his team, Mushtaq suggested they initially target al Qaeda, so that locals would not think they were only going after the Mahdi Army. The Americans agreed.

The first target was an al Qaeda leader in Mansur. “It was a great operation,” Mushtaq told me, “we found a car bomb and an IED factory. The intelligence was all ours.” One month later the Americans arrested the al Qaeda leader thanks to the ID cards they found in his house.

The next week Mushtaq’s source told him about a Mahdi Army weapons depot. The Americans set up a decoy mission to a Sunni area in Mansur and sent a small force to Washash to take the real target. They found four bombs, as well as sniper rifles and machine guns. The cache was in a an empty house that belonged to displaced Sunnis. Mushtaq suggested turning the house into an Iraqi Army base for conducting night missions, and with cooperation from U.S. troops, this, too, was done.

After Naji’s death, his nephew Hikmat, known as Hakami, took his place. Hakami fled Mushtaq’s area of operations, but the captain was determined to get him. Eventually he did.

Mushtaq thinks this was the end of the Mahdi Army, but he also believes that its supporters remain in government. Mushtaq was jailed for two months, he claims, because of his aggressive pursuit of the Mahdi Army. “They made fake charges against me. They accused me of killing Shias.” Others say Mushtaq beat a Mahdi Army suspect to death. Mushtaq told me that he paid $30,000 to the man’s family and was released. But he was not on active duty for several months, and he viewed it as additional punishment.

Although he pursued the Mahdi army with a vengeance, Mushtaq insists on the distinction between the Mahdi Army and Muqtada himself:

Muqtada defended Shias from al Qaeda. The Mahdi Army used bad guys for personal gain. . . . Al Qaeda was the same. They said ‘we have to protect your area from the Mahdi Army and the Americans,’ and then they turned on the people and harmed the area. But we good people were the victims. 

• • •

Captain Mushtaq attributes the turnaround in Washash to his efforts, not the Americans’. However, Chesney and his subordinate, Captain Clarence Wilhite, are more willing to share the credit, praising Mushtaq even though they regarded him with suspicion at the beginning. As Wilhite put it:

We found it kind of weird that he had recorded conversations with Naji on the cell phone. He clearly was not [working with JAM], but he dove pretty far into the deep end to find out critical information. 

Wilhite recalled his first days in Washash—May 2007:

‘Desolate’ was the one word that came to mind when I first arrived. My first patrol was an eye opener. The smell of raw sewage running through the streets in 105-degree heat, sights of Muqtada al Sadr pictured everywhere, Naji graffiti everywhere, few people in sight, and young guys in track suits watching us at every corner and disappearing around the next. At the time, it was a nightmare, but also an opportunity. 

Wilhite was the face of the early 2007 change in American strategy. Instead of reducing the number of American troops in Iraq and handing over Iraq to the Iraqi government, the Americans built up the troops and stopped “commuting to work” from large bases. They began to work from within communities, getting to know the people, protecting them from militias and providing services for them.

Among Wilhite’s challenges was getting the Iraqi Army to buy into the plan of persistent security in the area. Just before taking over security duties in Washash and establishing the JSS, the company arrested an Iraqi Army commander who was actively working with Naji. “We identified the [Iraqi Army] company commander as being complacent and facilitating JAM’s operations in Washash. He was detained and replaced. . . . The establishment of relationships, much like with any person in Arab culture, was absolutely critical.” Wilhite:

In the beginning, I took these guys out on patrol to Washash with one of my platoon leaders, Lieutenant McCool. They were hesitant to be seen in Washash, they didn’t want to be there. They peeked around every corner like they were about to get killed. They didn’t talk to anyone. In time they started to change. In the late fall, we found about ten to fifteen dead Sunnis in Washash, and they were the main detail that pulled them out, wrapped them in blankets, and took them away. Customs prevent us from touching Arab bodies of course. There were several other key events along the way: the death of one their fellow soldiers and the injury by a low-grade [armor-penetrating shell] to two of my soldiers. . . . These key events and the daily interaction with my junior leaders gave these guys confidence to want to go out on patrol. By February, they were stopping by our JSS three hours early to talk to McCool and the other NCOs to tell them where they wanted to go and what they found out during the day. 

Mushtaq and I started an informal ritual of sorts with one of our interpreters, ‘Steve.’ Mushtaq found out that I like kahi, the Iraqi equivalent of flatbread pancakes, and sugar syrup, sheera, for breakfast, so he would call and stop in after a late night patrol, and we would eat and talk about Washash, his family, his kids, his upcoming vacations, my family, his country’s political situation, ‘fucking Iraq’ as he always said, and then conversation would usually migrate back to targeting and intelligence and where he felt we needed to go. I would say this was a fundamental difference in how ‘we,’ the American Army, conducted business and the Iraqi Army. We sit down in formal settings over PowerPoint slides and talk facts and draw assumptions and courses of action in a fairly rigid manner, whereas Mushtaq and the [Iraqi Army] were all about establishing and building relationships and then digging into the details of the matter. 

Wilhite was pleased with his relationship with Mushtaq: they shared intelligence and information gained in interrogations, and they coordinated joint patrols. If Iraqi Army officers got into firefights with JAM, the Americans tried to send backup as soon as possible. (Mushtaq confirmed that whenever he called the Americans, they would come.) And Wilhite praised Mushtaq’s second battalion Commander Lieutenant Colonel Wael for coming in “with great ideas, strong personality, and an open mind. A few commanders out there I would go so far as to trust my soldiers to be led by them. Others should have been rooted out and fired.”

Captain Wilhite stated that the increasing calm stemmed from the ‘exhaustion of sectarian violence’ and a ‘Sunni return to politics,’ among other factors.

Captain Wilhite’s efforts were plagued by the local leadership vacuum left by the violence. So Wilhite launched Operation Round Table in order to identify remaining people of influence. He was looking for “Iraqi Army battalion, company, and platoon leadership; local leaders; civic leaders; religious leaders; and just about anyone left who was willing to talk to us about what they needed to support the community.”

The tribal leaders offered themselves as community representatives, but their help never panned out. “I always considered the Washash Sheikhs Council fairly useless and ineffective,” Wilhite admitted.

When they did show up, it was, ‘I want,’ ‘we need,’ ‘give me this,’ ‘we are important,’ ‘no there is no JAM in Washash,’ ‘no I will not commit to anything,’ ‘tell Americans to stop coming into Washash.’ Pretty frustrating to me and Lieutenant Colonel Chesney. I couldn’t trust the council leaders in Washash as far as I could throw them. 

Even so, Wilhite thought American forces were slowly winning the trust of the people of Washash by reliably providing security.

When we were on the streets at night, more people were around. We actively advertised who we caught and what they had allegedly done. I remember after a raid, an old man even gave us a big smile and an American good thumbs up. I felt we were starting to gain momentum because the population of Washash saw us pulling these guys off the streets. 

He cites a number of reasons for success: keeping the pressure on JAM, weakening its network, working with the community, Naji’s assassination, and the walls, which restricted militia members’ movement. All helped stamp out violence in Washash. But he also saw a number of larger trends supporting U.S. efforts throughout Baghdad, including Muqtada’s ceasefire.

I feel that violence went down in Baghdad because of a collection of reasons. One, pure exhaustion of sectarian violence. Two, Sunni return to politics, sort of, and the influx of the Awakening and its transition to the Sons of Iraq to police the streets. 

And last:

U.S. forces operating on a common doctrine and forward-projected to better protect and integrate into the population with the Iraqi Army. Bottom line, in my eyes, yes, the Surge worked because of the several contributing factors. My junior leaders busted their butts to work with the [Iraqi Army], and we had a pretty good relationship with [Mushtaq’s unit]. 

• • •

There is yet another explanation of why things got better in Washash. Abu Karar, a Khazali tribesman who had been elected in August 2008 as the head of Washash’s tribal council, takes the credit. A large, grave man with dark reddish skin, a stain on his forehead from praying, and a bounty of Shia rings, he worked in the Ministry of Housing under Saddam as an accountant.

Until 2006 there was no displacement in Washash, he told me, and there were no explosions. Until then the Mahdi Army was an army of principles and creed, and they fought the occupation.

They did a good job and everybody liked them, including me. They improved Shia areas. But after the Samarra explosion, their way of thinking changed. They became gangs, they took money from people, and each house in Washash paid 5,000 dinars a month. If you didn’t pay they blew up your house. . . . When there were no Sunnis left, they started to kill Shias. 

On August 14, 2008 Abu Karar led what he calls a “revolution” in Washash. His tribe coordinated with the Iraqi and American armies and carried weapons with their permission. They attacked the Mahdi Army at 6 a.m. “We knew where they stayed and we arrested 16 of them. After the arrests, we found 27 bodies, and 25 were Shias.” He bristled when I suggested that this sounded like the way the Awakening groups started. “We don’t believe that,” he said, “most Sunnis supported al Qaeda and turned on them because of pressure from the government.” He viewed the Awakening as former al Qaeda men, but he was not former Mahdi Army.

“My service to the area caused me to be elected,” he bragged. “Since then nobody has been killed in Washash.” Abu Karar also claims responsibility for the return of Sunni families. “It was my personal effort and my tribe’s effort,” he said. “I told them ‘we want your return to be peaceful, without vengeance. Use the law or come to me to do it the tribal way, and anybody carrying weapons will be expelled again.’” Forty families came back.

He dismisses Mushtaq’s role in the peace: “I think Captain Mushtaq cooperated with the Mahdi Army sometimes. He is not clean.” Nor does he think the Iraqi government did anything for Washash. “The state didn’t thank me, they never asked how do I pay or feed those 80 young men protecting the streets. We don’t have a state . . . . it was all autonomous, unilateral. We depend on ourselves and our sons.” He lifted his arm and squeezed his biceps.

But he worries that the militias will try to make a comeback. “We want the walls still up,” he declared. “Now the market is good in Washash because there is security.”

Muhamad Ismael, a Sunni who fled Washash in late 2006, agreed. He was on his motorcycle when men shot at him nine times. First he fled to Ghazaliya with his wife and three children, but the area was riven with fighting, so they moved to Abu Ghraib. There he joined the police. He quit three months later, when he saw a policeman’s decapitated body on the ground, the head resting on top of a wall. Muhamad returned in late 2008, and he was still scared. His brother, who fled to Amiriya, had not yet followed him home.

I asked him how he felt to be back in Washash. “I feel like I was born again because of the new security. . . . When the Americans leave, Iraq will fall once again.”

A friend who worked for the local American unit said that Mushtaq and the Iraqi Army were the ones who secured Washash. “The first cause for the security is the people of Washash here,” he added. He, too, supported the walls remaining around Washash. “If you remove the walls a car bomb can enter.”

• • •

But the prospects for Washash may not be that grim. Captain Wilhite took note of larger forces that bode well for Washash’s future. “JAM was dissolving when we left, not necessarily directly because of our actions, but also the situation.” Maliki’s crackdown on Shia militias in early 2008 had set things in motion—in Washash, and in Iraq more broadly.

Despite the relative calm in Iraq, it is clear that the post–civil war order is one of enshrined sectarianism. The state now belongs to the Shias.

During the civil war, the tacit alliance between Shia factions within government and without was highly effective. In fact, the subsiding of violence in Iraq in 2007 was evidence of that success: fewer people dying because there were fewer to kill; the cleansing had nearly been completed, with Sunnis and Shias separated in walled enclaves run by warlords who had consolidated control. The security gains American officials boasted about immediately after the Surge were largely the result of the expulsion of millions of Iraqis from their homes and the construction of walls to divide or imprison them.

After the March 2008 Charge of the Knights, when Shias in Iraqi security forces began to fight Shia militias, there was no longer a Shia bloc. This opened up the possibility of cross-sectarian alliances between Shia and Sunni nationalists, all opposed to the occupation. Maliki’s decision to target unruly Shia militias was one of the most important factors ensuring the civil war territorial gains would hold, and the reduction in gang and militia violence would continue. Sunnis suddenly changed their minds about the Prime Minister and started supporting him. Mitigating forces, of course, remain. The deep hatred many Sunnis feel for the Sadrists after two or three years of the Mahdi Army indiscriminately slaughtering Sunni civilians continues to hinder the nascent alliance.

Although Maliki’s motivations for the crackdown are not well understood—U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General Petraeus had only a day’s notice of the offensive—most agree it was a good move. A senior American military official working on Iraq shared his take:

I think Maliki started to realize that if his security forces didn’t control the country, then he wasn’t really the leader. It was a purely institutional move to assert the primacy of the prime minister. How Maliki became a nationalist is a long story that I don’t totally understand myself. I think part of it was just growing into the job. I also think that there was a seminal moment in Basra when his personal bodyguard—and I understand the two were close—was killed by a Sadrist round. 

While Charge of the Knights might have seemed like a failure at first, with the Americans coming to the rescue, it won Maliki the support of many Iraqis and demonstrated that he could take initiative. He capitalized on his success by establishing tribal support councils throughout the south. The council members benefitted from his largesse and often acted as his own Awakening councils, even arresting Mahdi Army men. It was a naked attempt to steal support from Shia groups with a deeper grassroots base than the Prime Minister’s, and it worked. Maliki was beginning to assert and expand his control. After Charge of the Knights, Sunnis gained enough confidence in the government to give it a chance, and chastened Shias followed suit, assisting Maliki in his attempts to combat al Qaeda and Shia extremism.

Following his American-assisted victories, Maliki wisely adopted a key element of counterinsurgency theory and tried to establish the credibility of his government as the non-sectarian group that could protect the population. The Sunnis were beaten, but now Maliki could lead in the name of a nationalism that could also win Sunni support.

As for the Americans who made Maliki’s success possible, their fate improved because of this turn of events and because of the serendipitous emergence of an Iraqi counterinsurgency based on popular outrage simultaneous with the U.S. troop build-up. Americans were by then the least of all evils. Cleansed from Shia neighborhoods, Sunni guerilla groups could no longer operate, and, caught between Shias, the Americans, and al Qaeda, some became more open to cooperating in stabilizing the country.

The increase in American troops came just when Iraqis could accept it, and, for once, the Americans demonstrated the flexibility to respond to rapid changes on the ground and form alliances with locals. The walls they built around neighborhoods were onerous, but successful in controlling the population and protecting Iraqis and themselves.

Despite the relative calm, it was clear during my trips to Iraq in 2008 and 2009 that the post-civil war order was one of enshrined sectarianism. At the Ministry of Interior, I saw televisions in the lobby and waiting room tuned to Shia religious channels. Shia religious music blared from the radios of police vehicles. Shia religious banners hung on the Ministry of Interior and other ministries while Shia religious flags waved in the wind above the nearby Ministry of Oil and other government buildings. On the walls of the Baghdad Council there was a large mural of Shia pilgrims marching to Karbala. A confident expression of Shia identity, much as I saw at the airport in Basra, was now the most common manifestation of sectarianism. The state now belonged to the Shias.

Since 2003 millions of Iraqis have lost their homes. Hundreds of thousands have died. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned by the Americans. Iraq’s demographic distribution has been irrevocably changed. Sectarianism rules, if less explicitly violently than it once did. The new government is among the most corrupt in the world. It is beginning to resemble its Baa’thist predecessor in its authoritarianism and brutality. But it faces no immediate threats, and its strength gives it some form of legitimacy, even among Sunnis. An ugly peace may indeed hold in Washash and the rest of Iraq.

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