Counter-Terrorism: Sunni Arabs Seek Self Defense

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December 31, 2007: In Iraq, the rapid change in direction of the fighting, with the sharp drop in terror attacks, and U.S. casualties, was largely the result of several trends combining. First, there was the surge offensive itself. With five additional American brigades, and a growing number of Iraqi police and troops, terrorist organizations (both al Qaeda and Iraqi Sunni and Shia Arabs) were raided with unprecedented vigor. That was possible because of another trend; the amount of information the U.S. had on the terrorists. In one of the unheralded accomplishments of the war, U.S. intel organizations had compiled a huge, computerized, database of Iraqi terrorists. Troops could access a lot of this data in the field, but mostly it was used to build a web of information that made it more difficult for the terrorists to hide, or even remain anonymous.

The third trend was the growing (for several years) anti-terrorism sentiment in the Iraqi Sunni Arab community. These Sunni Arabs provided cover for the terrorists. Without people willing to keep their mouths shut, while terrorists built bombs or housed dozens of gunmen next door, there would be no terrorist attacks. In about half of the country, where there are no such "cooperative" Sunni Arabs (or simply no Sunni Arabs at all) there has been no terrorism. This has been the case in the far north, where the Kurds run their own autonomous state. In the far south, many areas are either completely devoid of Sunni Arabs, or the ones that live there have been hostile to terrorists, and tolerated by their Shia Arab neighbors.

As the surge forces proceeded to clear entire towns and neighborhoods of terrorist groups, the Sunni Arab civilians were offered a deal. If they would establish a local security force, and stop future terrorist operations, the U.S. would provide weapons, training and cash. If the local guard force could not do the job, the U.S. and Iraqi troops would be back, and that could be very bad for the neighborhoods. This had been tried before in Sunni Arab areas, but not with complete success. This time around, there was a widespread attitude change among the Sunni Arabs. The feeling was that the whole terror campaign had been a failure, and the only way out now was to turn on the terrorists. It was always obvious that the Americans could go anywhere and kill terrorists. But now the Iraqi army and police, made up largely of Kurds and Shia Arabs, was also able to fight. This was something new, and the Sunni Arabs didn't want to be on the receiving end of more counter-terrorist operations carried out by Kurdish and Shia Arab troops.

So far, the Sunni Arabs have 60,000 paid local guards, and another 12,000 volunteers. Many of these guys had previously worked for terrorist organizations. That's where the cash payments came in. U.S. intel knew that a lot of terrorism was carried out by men doing it for the cash, as much as because they wanted get the Americans out, and Sunni Arabs get back into power.

The surge attacks began last April. By August, the Sunni Arab and al Qaeda terrorist organizations were broken and on the run. Their situation only got worse going into the Fall. The number of attacks plummeted, as did U.S. and Iraqi (military and civilian) casualties. Earlier in the year, 3,000 Iraqis (uniformed and civilian) were dying a month. Now it's about 500 a month.

Another important, but less reported, aspect of the surge campaign, was the attention paid to Shia Arab militias. Several of these were supported by Iranian Shia radicals, who were encouraging, and sometimes paying, Iraqi Shia to kill Americans and Iraqi security forces. By late Summer, these Shia militias were getting a lot of attention. Leaders were being arrested, and terrorism supplies (bombs, weapons in general) were being confiscated. Names and biometric data was collected on members of the militias. These guys knew what they meant. They were no longer anonymous. Now the Americans knew who they were, and where they lived. That made many Shia Arab militiamen less enthusiastic about attacking anyone.

The new Sunni Arab self-defense organizations often see attacking neighbors as part of a good defense. There are a lot of unresolved disputes in Iraq, and the Shia Arabs fear that the new Sunni Arab militias will come after them. In a few cases this has happened, and vice versa. Will it escalate into large scale violence? No one knows.

 


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