By 2011 only a skeletal formation was left to resist ISI. ISI filled the ensuing void with characteristic aggression, prioritizing murdering surviving Sahwa before turning on Shi’a majority areas, to revive the genocidal bloodshed of 2004--2007. By 2013, they had prepared the ground sufficiently for their hyper violent comeback, which only grabbed global attention in June last year with the dramatic “fall” of Mosul (govt. control there had long been weak).
And yet, with daily ISIL atrocities, many forget that this ultra-violence is a pillar of salafist brutality in Iraq: in February 2007, some 90 car bombs hit Baghdad alone, many aimed at civilians as a stated ISI policy of fostering sectarian warfare.
This attack capability declined rapidly, in large part due to a combination of US army, Special Forces and Sahwa led intelligence, but debates about whether a large, well paid Sahwa could have survived ISIL without US forces are set to continue. A key issue is that there has never really been sweeping, national level attempt at reconciliation in Iraq, beyond the local level, such as the efforts of admirable civil society activists like the late, great Ammar al Shahbander.
Reconciliation is beautiful: it is how conflicts end. The problem is, the Sahwa was US-Sunni reconciliation, not Sunni-Shi’a reconciliation. The legacy of Saddam’s dictatorship has made the latter an enduring problem, but it is a problem the US may not be able to solve. Iraqis need our support overcoming the past, and thanks to the uniting effect of Daesh’s atrocities, they may have found an opening in spontaneous pan sectarian cooperation, which could move the national debate beyond de-Baathification.
Again, this is something the West can and must support, despite the slowness of the Iraqi government to roll out support to new Sunni militia units--a key emphasis should be to bring them into the armed forces, rather than risk creating another militia. At some point, if not already, this will require closer engagement with Iran. That will not be an easy task, given that the leading Iranian General in Iraq, Qassim Suleimani, whose nemesis was once David Petraeus, is said to firmly believe that the US is supporting ISIL. But we already have a number of Iraqi politicians who could act as interlocutors.
Looked at through the prism of Iraqi govt. forces’ atrocities, some observers appear to conclude that Iraq is incapable of fighting terrorism in any other way than to hit Sunni communities with extreme force, displacing everyone and treating those who remain as potential terrorists. Already however, there has been a marked contrast between fighting in Jurf al Sakhar/ Nasr (which was depopulated) and Tikrit, where the effort is to restore services and bus locals back to their neighbourhoods.
An honest look at the history of Western counterinsurgency and counterterrorism reveals we had many advocates of this “enemy centric” approach seen in Jurf al Sakhar, not so long ago.
Even in Malaya, seen as the blueprint for politically led intervention (rather than military led) Britain’s approach was one of displacing families and controlling food supplies, and yet some historians uphold this episode as exemplary (See Richard Stubbs.) It would no doubt raise eyebrows today, but Kurdish fighters have been using similar food supply control tactics in northern Iraq, following concerns that civilian supplies would go to ISIL.