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Analysis: Why Awakening II won't save Iraq this time

Jul. 1, 2014 - 07:56AM   |  
Iraqi troops raise up their weapons as they arrive to support the Sunni anti-al-Qaeda militia Sahwa (Awakening) in Ramadi on June 21.
Iraqi troops raise up their weapons as they arrive to support the Sunni anti-al-Qaeda militia Sahwa (Awakening) in Ramadi on June 21. (AFP via Getty Images)
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In early 2006. Ramadi was a godforsaken place, with rubble-strewn streets and abandoned buildings. Americans had secured the main routes through the city, but not much else. Al-Qaeda in Iraq had boldly declared the city its capital and militants roamed through most neighborhoods, free to intimidate residents.

In less than a year, al-Qaeda in Iraq had been driven from most of the western Iraq city and law and order were returning, thanks to a tribal revolt known as the Awakening.

With Iraq unraveling once again, some Obama administration officials are looking to the Awakening as a model for supporting the Sunni tribes and driving a wedge between them and the Sunni extremists who are seizing towns and have proclaimed the creation of a new religious state. As in 2006, the Sunnis have turned to extremists as their only protection against the hated Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

Tensions between Sunnis and the government have been rising since the departure of U.S. troops in 2011. The American presence had provided a buffer between the Sunnis and the government.

"We were the mortar that brought those two bricks together," says Jim Lechner, a retired Army officer who was one of a handful of American commanders who helped foster the Awakening.

Today, the Awakening is often cynically described and sometimes dismissed as a U.S. policy to buy off thousands of Sunnis by placing them on the payroll of local police or self-defense groups. It's tempting to think that the U.S. can pull it off again, this time from a distance, perhaps using surrogates.

Except it really was never about money. It is almost inconceivable Awakening II could get off the ground without Americans there to nurture it. This was not something that was cooked up in Washington, or even Baghdad.

The American commander who arrived in the city that spring was Col. Sean MacFarland, a determined officer with an unconventional streak. He ordered his troops into the city, driving al-Qaeda from its sanctuaries. By summer, the Americans had fought the militants to a standstill. But they needed Iraqi support.

Enter Sheik Sattar abu Reisha, a tribal leader with a checkered past who carried a Western style Colt revolver under his gold braided robes and cultivated a reputation for violence.

Even with Americans in Iraq it was difficult to choose the right allies. Until Sattar came along, the Americans had struggled and mostly failed at finding partners for their battle against a growing insurgency.

MacFarland's superiors were wary of Sattar. He was an oil smuggler, and his tribe was hardly among the most influential in Anbar province.

But MacFarland, now a major general, saw potential. At a time when wealthy Sunni tribal leaders had decamped for Amman and Dubai, Sattar had stayed in Iraq. His father and other family members had been gunned down by al-Qaeda militants. Sattar's beef with the extremists was personal.

In September 2007, Sattar got a chance to savor his victory. He was invited to meet President George W. Bush when the president visited Anbar province to talk to those who had help turn the province around.

A little more than a week later, on Sept. 13, the sheik was assassinated.

Some Americans worried Sattar's death would spell the end of the Awakening. It didn't. That would come later, after American troops left in 2011.

Resurrecting it now without Americans on the scene doesn't seem likely.

"Now with us not in the mix," Lechner says, "you're asking the Sunnis to come to an agreement with a Shiite government that's already proven untrustworthy."


Michaels is a military writer at USA TODAY and author of A Chance in Hell: The men who triumphed over Iraq's deadliest city and turned the tide of war.

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