Argument

The Iraqi Re-Awakening

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is making all the same mistakes that the United States once made in Anbar. Can he change course before al Qaeda overruns the restive province?

Gen. Raad al-Hamdani holds a unique place among Iraqi military commanders: He openly confronted Saddam Hussein -- and lived.

The incident occurred during a high-level briefing in the summer of 2002. A war with the U.S. was looming, but Saddam told Hamdani not to worry. There won't be a war, he said confidently, because the American people "have no taste for blood." 

Hamdani, who commanded six divisions in Saddam's elite Republican Guard Corps and was viewed as one of his country's toughest fighters, disagreed. The Americans would not only invade, he responded -- their plan was to occupy Baghdad after a lightning campaign. The only way to fight them, he argued, was to "bleed them slowly" in a series of delaying actions.

Saddam might easily have lost his temper, but he smiled and dismissed his general's prediction. After all, there was good reason to value Hamdani's knowledge: He not only owned a library filled with books on America's World War II campaigns, he was known for his obsessive study of U.S. military tactics. Saddam regularly taunted him about his obsession, calling him "my American General."

After his conference with Saddam, Hamdani returned to his command. Less than a year later, his divisions fought the U.S. Marines in Nasiriyeh, but failed to hold the southern Iraqi city's bridges. Without air power, Hamdani's army didn't stand a chance; most of his units were destroyed. After Saddam was toppled, Hamdani returned to his home in Baghdad where, one night, American soldiers burst through his door, wrestled him to the ground, and questioned him. Hamdani was enraged.

The experience didn't rob Hamdani of his courage. After his questioning -- and after receiving death threats from Iraq's new Shiite-dominated government -- he moved to Amman. From there, he worked with Anbar tribal leader Talal al-Gaood to kick-start a political opening with the U.S. military that led to the Anbar Awakening. Hamdani's idea, proposed in a quiet meeting with U.S. Marine Corps officers in an Amman hotel in July 2004, was to arm Anbar's Sunni militias to face off against Islamic extremists flooding into the province from Syria. Anbar's insurgents, he told his U.S. military interlocutors, had at least one thing in common with their American occupiers -- they both hated al Qaeda. 

Gaood established a think tank called the Iraq Futures Foundation in Amman in the summer of 2005, and signed Hamdani on as the organization's military advisor. The think tank's goal was to unite Anbar's tribes against the al Qaeda threat. While it took many months for this vision to be realized, their pioneering work -- alongside officers of the U.S. 1st Armored Division -- resulted in the formation of the Anbar Awakening Council. The council fought off al Qaeda, empowered Anbar's Sunnis, and returned the province to political and economic stability.

Hamdani, who is still living in Amman, is now increasingly concerned that his achievements in Anbar are unraveling. Over the last few months, he's watched with growing alarm as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cracked down on an anti-government protest movement in the province, laying the groundwork for the resurgence of al Qaeda.

His worries are shared by current and former U.S. military officials, who believe that Iraq will need to build another Awakening to defeat al Qaeda, but are convinced the obstacles to doing so will be even more daunting this time around.

Maliki appears to be preparing the Iraqi Army for a renewed assault on Anbar province. His forces shelled the outskirts of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi on Monday, Feb. 3, and the Iraqi Defense Ministry claimed that the attacks killed 57 militants. The violence has returned Anbar to the dark days of 2004 and 2005, when hundreds of U.S. soldiers lost their lives battling a jihadist insurgency there.

"People who know Iraq and Anbar best saw this coming as early as this last summer," a former senior advisor to both Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates told me. "Maliki kept poking at Anbar, inflaming the tribes. It was an absolutely cynical power play. He figured the angrier Anbar got, the more he could pose as Iraq's strongman. He thought he'd be viewed as the defender of the Shias and win himself another term as prime minister."

But by cracking down on Anbar's Sunnis, the Iraqi premier set the stage for a full-blown uprising.

On Dec. 28, Maliki declared martial law in Ramadi, Anbar's capital, and sent his security services into the city to arrest Iraqi parliamentarian Ahmed al-Alwani, one of the leaders of the protest movement. In the ensuing melee, five of Alwani's bodyguards were killed, along with his brother and sister. Two days later, after accusing the protest leaders of consorting with terrorists, Maliki imposed a curfew on the province.

A call went out among Anbar residents to resist the curfew, and gunmen soon attacked government security forces, burning police cars and Humvees. The fighting was intense across the province, with Iraqi military units facing off against well-armed local militias.

Maliki soon realized that he had overreached and, on Dec. 31, withdrew his forces from Anbar's largest cities. However, his move only compounded his earlier mistakes -- Fallujah and Ramadi were now left undefended. Over the next several days, much of the province was overrun by tribal militias, as well as by fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

In Amman, Hamdani was incensed. "Terrorism is born from the womb of despair," he wrote to me in January, "and is made worse by poor political decisions and bad policies. We are seeing this in Iraq now, when the people of Anbar who were protesting for their rights were called terrorists. The current problems weren't caused by terrorists, but by Nouri al-Maliki's poor political judgment. This didn't need to happen."

* * *

The Marine Corps officers and senior Pentagon officials who met Hamdani for the first time in Amman in 2004 share his bleak assessment.

Among these is Col. Mike Walker, the former commander of the 3rd Civil Affair Group (CAG), a Marine Corps reserve unit that deployed to Anbar after being activated in March 2004. Walker, who spent his career as a California public school math teacher, argues that Maliki's actions are the result of American miscalculations that began when the U.S. failed to make Iran pay for crushing the 2009 Green Movement.

Walker, who maintains sporadic contact with the Anbaris he met in Amman and Iraq, ticks off the resulting series of events, like a row of toppling dominos. The "failure to show resolve" in backing the Green Movement, he says, "signaled American disengagement from the region, emboldened the Assad government in Syria and forced Maliki into Tehran's grasp. As Washington retreated from the region, the vacuum they left behind was filled by Tehran's hardliners. That forced Maliki to tilt further toward Iran, and away from other Arab States and the West."

"Maliki was never a Sunni 'hater,'" Walker adds, "but in seeking a modus vivendi with Iran, he had to pander to their surrogates in Iraq, the radical Shiite members in his ruling coalition. In doing so, he unwisely wasted much of the good will and trust he had developed with the Iraqi Sunni minority."

Walker's thinking reflects the views of the Marines he served with nearly a decade ago. These men are now haunted by news that al Qaeda has re-established a presence in Fallujah, after so many U.S. soldiers lost their lives to drive the jihadist group from the city in 2004. Much like the tribal leaders they met during their deployment, they once again find themselves caught between contending fears -- of Iran on the one hand, and extremist Islamists on the other.

"Once you're engaged in that kind of thing, you never forget it," says Marine Col. Dave Harlan (ret.), who was the 3rd CAG's liaison in Amman. "We forged a political opening because we knew that would save lives. It was the right thing to do. But we should have at least maintained our contact with the tribes. If we'd have built on those contacts, there's no way al Qaeda would have come back." 

But the Anbar Awakening also involved another battle: The struggle between senior U.S. military commanders and powerful political forces within the American government, who opposed the opening for ideological reasons.

Marine Corps Maj. Patrick Maloy (ret.), a 1st Marine Expeditionary Force staff officer who was deployed to Anbar in 2004, says that those conflicts meant that the U.S. military was pursuing the Awakening with one hand tied behind its back.

"Extraordinary efforts were made to deliver Anbar by a select few," Maloy says of the 3rd CAG's efforts in Anbar, "but were then rejected by the State Department and White House. We delivered it anyway, without funding, without support and mostly in the face of those who thought the Awakening was going to go away. But that was never going to happen; the Awakening was the one thing that could have a stabilizing effect."

Top U.S. military and diplomatic officials initially were extremely hostile to the idea of working with Anbar's tribes. When Gen. George Casey, the head of U.S. forces in Iraq, learned that the 3rd CAG was talking to Anbar's leaders, he quickly strung up red tape: He barred the Marines from having any future meetings with the tribes without approval of the State Department, reassured interim Shiite Prime Minister Ayad Allawi that the meetings had been stopped, and accused 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Cmdr. James Conway of engaging in "a goat rope."

Conway was enraged, particularly since it was Casey who had suggested that his commanders try to co-opt the insurgency. "Conway was so angry I thought he was going to have a stroke," recalls Maloy.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went even further: After learning that Col. John Coleman, Conway's chief of staff, had met with Hamdani in Amman, she directed that he be detained, placed under house arrest, escorted out of Jordan, and flown to Baghdad to explain his actions. Coleman had no trouble justifying his behavior once back in the Iraqi capital, telling American officials that talking with Anbar's tribes was better than fighting them house to house in Fallujah.

Conway agreed with his chief of staff and supported continued contact with Anbar's tribes. "Gen. Conway didn't like being laughed at, and he didn't like the implication that his staff officers were amateurs," says one of his former senior officers. The general continued to support contact with Anbar's tribes and quietly did his best to overcome the political obstacles that Washington put in his way. He eventually succeeded: In September 2006, the Anbar Awakening Council was formed, uniting 42 of Anbar's clans.

Jerry Jones, an official who worked in the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and who steered the 2004 Anbar opening through the department's treacherous shoals, believes that Anbar served as "a laboratory for what is happening from Morocco to Yemen." The province is a testing ground for Iraqi unity, a battleground between Arab extremists and moderates and forms the borderland where the majority Sunni and Shia worlds rub up against each other.

But Jones, like Hamdani and the Marines of the 3rd CAG, comes down hard on Iraq's prime minister. "It's great that we're going to send Iraq military help to fight al Qaeda," he says, "but what the country really needs is some political tutoring" for its leaders. "If I were Nouri al-Maliki," Jones adds, "and I had a choice between tying my country's future to the mullahs in Iran or to the peoples of Anbar, I'd choose Anbar every time. Hands down."

Maliki, however, seems to be making the opposite decision -- his government is now throwing up the same obstacles to a rapprochement in Anbar as top U.S. officials once did. Baghdad has opposed a rollback of de-Baathification requirements (one of the key demands of the Ramadi protests), a greater share for Anbar in Iraq's resource wealth, and the release of Anbari detainees held in Baghdad's jails.

The language being used now by Baghdad is eerily similar to the rhetoric coming out of Washington a decade ago: No matter how justified their demands, Anbar's leaders are "terrorists."

* * *

The real question is whether Maliki's government will learn any faster than Washington that giving Anbar's Sunnis a share in governing Iraq is the best way to fight Islamist extremists.

If it doesn't, Baghdad could reverse the significant economic and social gains that followed the Awakening. Since 2008, Iraq has been one of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world, more children are in school than ever before, and the country is undergoing the biggest building boom in its history. And if it remains politically stable, the central bank governor projects that GDP could grow more than 9 percent in the coming year.

For James Clad, a former National Defense University instructor and Department of Defense official who participated in the Amman meetings in 2004, the question now is whether Nouri al-Maliki "will build on what was started, or whether he will squander it away for political reasons."

"The key to political stability is economic growth," Clad adds, "but for that to happen, Anbar needs to be united."

But that's very much in doubt now, as a result of Maliki's heavy-handed actions in Ramadi. "A good portion of Anbar's leadership and about half of the tribes are lined up against Baghdad," a serving U.S. military officer at the Pentagon told me. "That's very bad news. To fight al Qaeda effectively, as they did starting in 2005, the tribes have to be united. Maliki botched this."

Watching from Amman, Raad al-Hamdani is pleased that the Pentagon, at least, is not underestimating what's at stake in the province. "Anbar is only 28 percent of the area of Iraq," he says, "but its influence goes much deeper. The people of Anbar are fighting for their rights, their civil rights. It's the same fight that can be seen on the streets of every Arab country."

The Arab Spring, in his reading, first sprang to life during the Anbar Awakening -- and is being squandered by the machinations of Maliki and Iraq's central government. "The fight for Anbar," he concludes, "is a fight for the soul of the Arab world." 

AZHAR SHALLAL/AFP/Getty Images

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