Bloody Revenge and Coercion

Al-Qaeda is increasingly directing its attacks in Iraq against the Sunni Sahwa militia, which is helping government troops fight terrorism. According to Birgit Svensson, al-Qaeda's purpose in doing so is to exact revenge on those who have joined the militia and to coerce others to switch sides again

An American soldier stands in front of a destroyed house in Baghdad (photo: AP)
Al-Qaeda's attacks on the Sahwa militia, which works closely with the US Army, are motivated by revenge against what they consider to be Sunni traitors

​​ This time it was the turn of the Sunnis. Whereas on the previous weekend, bomb attacks had been directed against Shia pilgrims in Baghdad, this past Sunday, a suicide bomber lined up in a long queue of waiting Sunnis in the southwest of the Iraqi capital and set off his deadly explosive belt, claiming over 40 lives and injuring just as many.

The majority of those killed were members of the Sunni Sahwa militia, which has been successfully fighting al-Qaeda forces with the Americans. At the time of the blast, they were queuing to collect their pay.

In the Sunni province of Anbar to the west of Baghdad, which used to be a stronghold of al-Qaeda, another suicide bomber killed five people. Over the past few weeks, Anbar has seen an increase in the number of attacks on Sahwa militia leaders.

The message is clear: vengeance on breakaway fighters and the demand that they should switch sides again. Sunnis in Iraq are under two-fold pressure. Here, as in Iran, the Shias form the majority, and this is why Sunni al-Qaeda has been particularly indiscriminate in its attacks, which it now also directs at its fellow Sunnis.

Sheikh Matlab Ali al-Mesari saw all this coming. He sits at his desk, which is covered with scores of small teacups, wearing a simple suit and tie instead of the usual cloth headdress, which is traditionally white in the summer and red and white chequered in winter.

Divisions among Sunnis

"The Sunnis are deeply divided, and that is not good," he explains, expressing concern. The political situation is unstable, he continues, and they don't know if they will participate at all in the next government. He goes on to say that he has always feared becoming too close to both the Americans and the government, and that it is this distance that has helped him maintain his independence.

A mosque in Baghdad (photo: AP)
Sheikh Matlab Ali al-Mesari regrets the fact that the Sunnis in Iraq are deeply divided; although the security situation has improved, the atmosphere remains explosive and dangerous

​​ As president of the Patriotic Tribes of Iraq Coalition, he did not wish to be controlled by party politics. Nevertheless, he decided to run as a candidate in the January 2009 provincial elections so that the tribes would also have a voice in the political process. Sheikh Matlab obtained a seat in the Baghdad provincial council.

One of the main reasons why the security situation in Iraq has improved considerably since 2007 is that the government and the USA have succeeded in mobilizing Iraqi tribes and winning them over as partners in the war against terrorism.

The establishment of the Sahwa militia

Beginning in Anbar Province, this proved to be a decisive contribution to the containment and at least partial repulsion of al-Qaeda. According to a 2008 EU Council strategy paper written during the Austrian presidency, the Sunni terrorist network has not only redirected fighters from Iraq to Afghanistan, but also part of its leadership. This indicates that al-Qaeda has recognized the significance of co-operation between Sunni tribal groups and US troops, writes Gudrun Harrer, author of the EU document.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Maliki (photo: AP)
According to al-Mesari, the arrest of Sunni tribesmen in the run-up to the parliamentary elections "violates the idea of reconciliation that Prime Minister Maliki constantly talks of upholding"

​​ The American policy, which pulled the rug out from beneath the Sunni terrorists, was referred to as "using the Sheikhs". By the end of 2008, the US military had officially registered some 103,000 Iraqis as "Sons of Iraq", the name used by the Americans for members of the Sahwa militia, who earned an average 300 dollars a month.

In the wake of the gradual withdrawal of US forces, the Iraqi government was supposed to take over responsibility for the fighters and pay them. So far, however, it has not carried out these duties adequately.

Sheikh Matlab also recalls the wave of arrests of Sunni tribesmen before the parliamentary elections of 7 March, supposedly with the aim of apprehending those with "blood on their hands". Those detained were accused of acting in collusion with insurgents and al-Qaeda. "This violates the idea of reconciliation that Prime Minister Maliki constantly talks of upholding," criticises the Sheikh.

Animosity towards the American occupiers

A man with no intentions of reconciliation whatsoever and who instead promotes division today sits in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Sheikh Harith al-Dhari is regarded as the ideological leader of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. He appealed to his followers early on "not to provide any support to the occupiers and refrain from any contact with them without legitimate reason."

Sheikh Harith al-Dhari (photo: AP)
The Iraqi government has issued a warrant for the arrest of Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, who is considered the ideological leader of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq

​​ Even today, his animosity towards the Americans and the Iraqi government remains strong, although the number of his followers has considerably decreased since he went into exile. The Iraqi government accuses him of having fuelled the conflict between Sunnis and Shias in 2006 and 2007 and have issued a warrant for his arrest.

Harith al-Dhari has now discovered a new enemy, the Sahwa militia. They have fallen for the line given by the Americans and the "Zionists", he bellows into the telephone; they have helped destroy the resistance in Iraq. He then launches into a tirade, using every kind of swear-word imaginable to describe his former supporters and fellow tribesmen.

Birgit Svensson

© 2010

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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