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Finding a Place for the ‘Sons of Iraq’

Introduction

In August 2006, tribal sheikhs in Iraq's Anbar Province publicly turned against a chief U.S. threat: al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Their decision to cut ties with AQI, dubbed the "Anbar Awakening" by Iraqi organizers, has been hailed a turning point in the U.S.-led war effort. Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told lawmakers in Washington the uprising reduced U.S. casualties, increased security, and even saved U.S. taxpayers money. Yet the future of the Awakening movement--and its associated security forces, the so-called Sons of Iraq (SOI) volunteers--continues to test Iraq's fractious political climate. Internal disputes within the predominantly Sunni groups have threatened the movement, some experts say. Sunni groups have also complained about low pay and a lack of opportunities for employment within Iraq's army and police forces. These concerns reached an apex in late 2008, when the U.S.-led military coalition began handing oversight for the Sons of Iraq--including responsibility for payment and job placement--to the Iraqi government. The first handover in Baghdad was reportedly smooth; over 51,000 Sons of Iraq members were paid on time by the Iraqi government, and job placement and training courses continue. But analysts question whether the peace will hold. CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon, for one, writes in Foreign Affairs that while the Awakening strategy may bring short-term stability to Iraq, the long-term effect could be runaway "tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism."

Anbar Awakes

While the U.S. military considered aligning with Iraqi tribes soon after the war began, it was the brutality of al-Qaeda in Iraq that eventually gave birth to the Awakening movement. By the summer of 2006, the insurgent group, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had deeply entrenched itself in Anbar Province west of Baghdad. The...

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