In New Iraqi Conflict, 'Sunni Awakening' Stays Dormant

During the U.S. war in Iraq, American forces paid Sunni tribal leaders in the western and northern regions of the country to turn against al-Qaida. The episode was called the "Sunni Awakening." But now, with ISIS consolidating its gains in these same regions, the tribes involved in the Awakening are cutting deals with the militant group or staying on the sidelines entirely. Shashank Bengali of The Los Angeles Times explains.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with a look at how recent history in Iraq is influencing the current crisis. A turning point in the U.S. war in Iraq was the so-called Sunni Awakening, that's when the U.S. military began working with Sunni tribal leaders. The U.S. ended up paying them to assist coalition forces and take up arms instead against al-Qaida and Iraq.

Part of the idea was that tribal gunmen would eventually transition into the Iraqi army or government, and things didn't work out that way. Though the tribe succeeded in helping to repel al-Qaida in Iraq, they ended up being spurned by Iraq's Shiite leaders.

Shashank Bengali of the LA Times has been reporting on how that bad experience is shaping the Sunni reaction to the ISIS onslaught taking place now in Iraq. We've reached him in Baghdad. Shashank, thank you for joining us.

SHASHANK BENGALI: My pleasure.

CORNISH: So help us understand what happened to the leaders of the local brigades and militias who were part of the Sunni Awakening movement after the U.S. withdrew from Iraq. Why do they feel so burned?

BENGALI: Well, starting in 2008, the U.S. government hand control over the Sons of Iraq program to the Iraqi government, and that's where things began to sort of fall apart. The Sons of Iraq movement say that they didn't get all that they had been promised. A lot of the jobs were never offered, salaries were lower than they expected, some of the jobs were quite menial. And then a lot of the guys began to get arrested by Iraqi forces. This Shias in Maliki's government, some of them regarded the Sons of Iraq as thugs or terrorists and a number of them were arrested. Quite a few remain arrested. Hundreds, in fact, are believed to still be in detention awaiting trial.

BLOCK: When you interviewed one of these leaders about what's happening now, what did they have to say about how they view ISIS?

BENGALI: Well, none of them are fond of ISIS. I spoke to a former Sons of Iraq commander in southern Baghdad, he led about 2,000 Sunni fighters to repel al-Qaida and Iraq from his neighborhood back in 2006 and 2007. In the years since, he says he survived six car bombings, 300 mortar and rocket attacks against his house. He has no love for al-Qaida or for their successors in ISIS. But he says that to take up arms and defend the government in Baghdad against ISIS would be basically like defending a sworn enemy, which is the Maliki government.

BLOCK: Shashank Bengali, is the U.S. or the Iraqi central government reaching out to these leaders once again? And if so, are they using the same inducements of money or resources that American commanders used back during the war?

BENGALI: Well, U.S. officials are trying to reach out to these old contacts that they had during the Sons of Iraq movement. I've heard from a couple of U.S. officials that they've been talking to Sunni tribes here in Iraq and saying, look, if you wait until Maliki is gone to rise up and fight ISIS, it could be too late given the rate at which ISIS is advancing and gathering territory. I put that argument to awakening leaders and they just don't really buy it.

BLOCK: Shashank, were there any conversations with these tribal leaders that surprised you?

BENGALI: Well, I'll just go back to that tribal leader that I spoke with in the Sons of Iraq who was working in south Baghdad. You know, he risked his life and has lost a number of relatives in the fight against al-Qaida. And I asked him, look, if ISIS were to show up at your door tomorrow, what would you say? And he very simply said he would step aside and point them in the direction of the Green Zone, which is about ten miles due North in the center of Baghdad - the former U.S. military-run enclave that is now the seat of Iraqi government institutions. And he said, I would tell them if they had any quarrel, to take it up directly with Maliki and with the Iraqi government.

BLOCK: Shashank Bengali, he's a Los Angeles Times correspondent in Baghdad. He spoke to us about why those in the Sunni Awakening, former U.S. allies, are sitting out of the current battle in Iraq with ISIS. Shashank Bengali, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BENGALI: My pleasure, thank you.

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