Will Iraq’s Great Awakening Lead to a Nightmare?

U.S. casualties are down in Iraq. But a retired Army Colonel argues that the surge and American payoffs to Sunni tribal leaders may eventually backfire—producing more instability and possibly a regional war.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

American casualties in Iraq have declined dramatically over the last 90 days to levels not seen since 2006, and the White House has attributed the decline to the surge of 35-40,000 U.S. combat troops. But a closer look suggests a different explanation. More than two years of sectarian violence have replaced one country called Iraq with three emerging states: one Kurdish, one Sunni, and one Shiite. This created what a million additional U.S. troops could not: a strategic opportunity to capitalize on the Sunni-Shiite split. So after Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr decided to restrain his Mahdi army from attacking U.S. forces, General David Petraeus and his commanders began cutting deals with Sunni Arab insurgents, agreeing to allow these Sunnis to run their own affairs and arm their own security forces in return for cooperation with U.S. forces against Al Qaeda fighters. As part of the bargain, the Sunni leaders obtained both independence from the hated Shiite-dominated government, which pays far more attention to Tehran’s interests than to Washington’s, and money—lots of money.

Striking such a “sheikhs for sale” deal (whether they be Sunni or Shiite) is nothing new in the Arab world. The men who ran the British Empire routinely paid subsidies in gold to unruly tribal leaders from the Khyber Pass to the headwaters of the Nile. (Of course, British subsidies were a pittance compared with the billions Britain extracted from its colonies in Africa and Asia.) While the arrangement reached by U.S. military commanders and dubbed the “Great Awakening” has allowed the administration and its allies to declare the surge a success, it carries long-term consequences that are worrisome, if not perilous. The reduction in U.S. casualties is good news. But transforming thousands of anti-American Sunni insurgents into U.S.-funded Sunni militias is not without cost. In fact, the much-touted progress in Iraq could lead to a situation in which American foreign-policy interests are profoundly harmed and the Middle East is plunged into even a larger crisis than currently exists.

First, a warning. We don’t know much about developments within Iraq. Military officers who have recently served in Iraq tell me they don’t truly understand Iraq’s complexity or the duplicitous nature of the Iraqis they work with. In my conservations with them, they raise troubling questions that don’t lend themselves to sound-bite answers on talk radio or the evening news. Is the Great Awakening inside the Sunni Arab community the road to Iraq’s stability, or is it just a pause for Sunni rearmament and reorganization? Is it a means to secure American military bases inside an emerging Sunni client state generously supplied with cash from Saudi Arabia, a kind of cordon sanitaire along the fault line that separates the Sunni Arab world from Shiite Iran and its beachhead in southern Iraq? Does this development mean America wins when our former Sunni Arab enemies regain power in central Iraq? Or—here’s the most disturbing question—will the presumed successes of today be catalysts for yet bloodier civil war inside Iraq or, worse, larger regional war?

With eyes firmly fixed on Jan. 20, 2009—the departure date for this administration—the White House and its generals aren’t publicly addressing such policy implications. They’re not interested in explaining why the world’s most powerful military establishment has resorted to buying off its enemies, effectively supplanting counterinsurgency with cash-based cooptation.

Officers who’ve served in Iraq warn that the Great Awakening could be transitory. “The Sunni insurgents are following a ‘fight, bargain, subvert, fight’ approach to get what they want,” said one colonel. So Americans need to explore whether U.S. forces are courting long-term strategic success, or if the expedient cash surge is leading U.S. forces into a new phase of conflict that could engulf the region and create a perfect storm.

In four years of occupation and civil war, hundreds of thousands of Arabs, including many Sunnis, have been killed, wounded, or incarcerated. About two million more Arabs, most of them Sunni, have fled the country. How many more Sunni and Shiite Arabs have died over the last two years as a result of the civil war is unknown, but the numbers are likely greater than anyone in the Pentagon or State Department is prepared to admit.

That the Sunni Arab population is tired of fighting is beyond dispute, but winning Sunni Arab hearts and minds in the aftermath of the last four years’ violence seems a remote possibility. So, in the absence of the common interest in disposing of Al Qaeda’s unwanted foreign fighters and war fatigue, what besides cash motivates the Great Awakening?

Officers familiar with Iraq’s Sunni Arab leaders insist these leaders genuinely believe that if left alone by U.S. occupation forces and receiving modest financial support from Saudi Arabia they can eventually crush the Shiite militias and regain their dominant position inside Iraq. If true, the “awakening” may simply be an opportunity for Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to consolidate and prepare without American interference for an inevitable, future showdown with the Shiites whether U.S. forces withdraw or not.

A former U.S. Army battalion commander with extensive service in Iraq reports, “It is my sense the Sunni Arab leaders are using the pause in the fight with U.S. forces to take a breather, harden and regroup themselves much like a conventional army would rest and refit after a major battle. Besides, who do the generals in Baghdad think are targeting and killing Iraqi Security Forces? It’s the Sunni insurgents. They’re just not shooting at us right now.”

One of the unspoken assumptions that underpins the “awakening” is that U.S. occupation forces can place untold thousands of Sunni insurgents on the U.S. government’s payroll, allowing them to rearm and recuperate inside Sunni-pure enclaves while U.S. forces open a new front in the war against the Shiite militias. Thus far, Tehran has advised its Shiite friends in Iraq to restrain their fighters in the hope the U.S. occupation will end and allow the Shiites to consolidate their victory. The question now is whether the Shiite militias will continue to lie low or risk the kind of campaign against U.S. forces that the Sunnis waged for nearly four years.

No one knows the answer. But it is doubtful Muqtada al-Sadr will do nothing as U.S. forces halt operations against the Shiites’ old enemies and allow these enemies to rebuild. He may well step up attacks on Americans, assisted by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Security Forces. And if that happens, retaliatory attacks by U.S. forces on the Mahdi Army could mobilize the Shiite population behind Muqtada al-Sadr in the fight against their old Sunni Baathist oppressors who are now openly allied with the Americans. In such a battle—a revived civil war—what the majority Shiite Iraqi army will do is another unknown.

What happens in Iraq will not stay in Iraq. That is, other states have an interest in the Sunni-Shiite fight. In many Arab countries, particularly the United States’ oil-providing protectorates in the Persian Gulf, the ruling elite fear Iran and oppose the emergence of a Shiite-dominated Iraq, something the U.S. military occupation effectively created when it sided with the Shiites against the Sunnis in 2003. These ruling elites worry that they too could be replaced one by one with “faithful” Sharia-based Islamists.

The Bush State Department seems determined to exploit such fears, promising that giant American bases like the 30,000-man Balad Air Base will offer the Sunni elites security in the form of an anti-Iranian Maginot line that stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Turkish border. This may be the Bush administration’s strategic ploy to win the support (or acquiescence) of neighboring Sunni Arab countries for continuing the U.S. military occupation of Iraq long after Bush leaves office. However, what the corrupt ruling elites of the Arab world agree to and what their restive populations will accept are very different things—meaning that a status quo predicated on U.S. troops remaining stationed in Iraq lacks stability.

Tehran is certainly watching developments in Iraq with interest. The Iranian leaders have turned out to be very competent chess players in foreign affairs, carefully calculating each move. As demonstrated by the recent National Intelligence Estimate’s reassessment of Iranian nuclear aims, the Bush administration and its generals are, at best, poker players. Every raise and bluff by the Bush administration and its generals in Baghdad has been effectively countered with some very thoughtful, strategic moves by Tehran—moves aimed at cultivating close relationships with Turkey, Russia, China, and even Europe.

This brings us to the big concern: The unresolved (if not heightened) instability within Iraq could lead to unforeseen consequences of a strategic nature—say, a war between Turkey and the Kurds. Inside Turkey, the United States is viewed as a false friend, and as having betrayed the interests of its steadfast Turkish ally. Not only has Washington failed to end Kurdish support in Iraq for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which advocates independence for Kurds inside Turkey, but the United States also occupied Iraq over Ankara’s strong objections. These points of friction coincide with an Islamic revival and a growing desire within Turkey for an assertion of national power. Like the Orthodox Church and Russian nationalism, Islam is inextricably intertwined with Turkish identity, culture, and history.

According to the Pew Research Center, only 9 percent of Turks still hold a favorable view of the United States, a figure that places Turkey last of 46 countries surveyed. Turks now see America as a threat to Turkish national security. The anti-American attitude has been reinforced in the past few years within popular culture. In the Turkish blockbuster Valley of the Wolves Iraq, a small Turkish force heroically battles an evil U.S. military commander and his troops. In Metal Storm, a recent best-selling work of fiction, an all-out war between Ankara and Washington in 2007 is described, a war Turkey wins with the aid of Russian and European support.

Iran suspects it is a matter of when, not if, the Turks intervene in northern Iraq. Turkey, which boasts the largest army in NATO, is the 500-pound gorilla of the Muslim world and Iran knows it. And anti-Kurdish sentiment is leading to an alliance between Iran, Turkey, and Syria, each of which fear growing Kurdish independence.

It’s hard to imagine a worse outcome for the United States than the sudden intervention of 100,000 Turkish troops in northern Iraq. Turkish intervention would rob the United States of the support of Kurdish troops that are now policing northern Iraq against Al Qaeda and containing the Sunni insurgency. And the Iranians, who are the real power behind the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government, would support a Turkish military intervention. (Russia and China might support the anti-Kurdish alliance, too.)

All this could well embolden the Sunni Arab insurgents to renew their war against the U.S. military. In the midst of this, the Saudis, Egyptians, and Gulf oil protectorates might even turn to the Turks, the natural leaders of the Sunni Muslim world, as a preferable alternative to their ties with the West and Israel. And add to this mix the instability within nuclear-armed Pakistan. This could all lead to a dreaded situation in which the United States finds itself stuck in the middle of a regional war, with the potential for chaos in Iraq on the rise and Iran’s influence in Iraq growing.

Which brings us back to the Great Awakening. As 2008 approaches, all we can say with certainty is that unrelenting Arab hatred of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and the nature of the Sunni-Shiite struggle will make it unlikely that the cash-for-cooperation strategy will buy Iraq genuine stability, let alone the legitimate political order that is needed. (In the Saidiyah neighborhood of Baghdad, U.S. military officers have groups of “concerned citizens”—mainly Sunni—on the payroll. And the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has tried to undermine this effort, fearing the United States is organizing a rival Sunni force.)

Wherever American forces operate, they make a difference to their surroundings, but even officers with years of service in Iraq doubt that whatever the U.S. military builds for Iraq will survive the withdrawal of U.S. military power. History supports their conclusion. The last thousand years of history demonstrate that the imposition of foreign, particularly Western Christian, political systems or control on Muslim Arabs through military occupation has no chance of enduring permanently.

The storm may not hit soon. Until January 20, 2009, there is a high probability that the Arabs will take all the cash the generals are willing to give them, make minimal trouble, and bide their time. The Turks also prefer to wait for U.S. forces to leave or draw down before they intervene to eliminate the Kurdish threat. And Iran is nothing if not patient.

That said, if the next administration fails to disengage its forces from Iraq and renews the determination to hold on to the country, if it does not renounce the myth that America’s mission in the world is to impose American concepts of political order on foreign peoples burdened with undeveloped economies and dysfunctional societies, all bets are off. Sunni and Shiite patience may well wear out, neighboring powers may cooperate to intervene, and this worst-case scenario (or one just as frightening) may eventually come to pass, compelling the United States to fight a major regional war far from its shores, one that is irrelevant to its strategic interests.

Meanwhile, thanks to superficial analysis and weak reporting from the media, the right questions about the “awakening” are going unasked and, therefore, unanswered. If the Marine Corps leadership were able to achieve a cease-fire with the Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province, a place where U.S. forces sustained a disproportionate number of their casualties on a monthly basis over the last three years, was it really necessary to commit additional U.S. combat troops? Why was it not possible to extend the Anbar model to the rest of Sunni-held Iraq? Or did the generals in Baghdad begin cutting deals with the Sunni insurgents only when the mounting casualties from the surge in the spring and early summer of 2007 compelled them to do so?

But the main problem is the belief held by U.S. policymakers and generals that the critical issue in Iraq is tactics, not the overall mission: occupying and trying to control a Muslim Arab country. Given the conventional wisdom that the U.S. counterinsurgency efforts are working, the imperial hubris at the top of the Bush administration, and the complacency in Congress, the conditions are ideal for a spin-off war that could cause us one day to wonder how we Americans could have ever been so stupid as to occupy Iraq.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2024 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2024 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.