Yesterday, Greg Jaffe at the Wall Street Journal (subscription required… at least until Murdoch gets hold of it) provided unexpectedly precise answers:
To understand how the U.S. managed to bring relative calm to Iraq’s unruly Anbar province, it helps to pay a visit to Sheik Hamid Heiss’s private compound.
On a recent morning, a 25-year-old Marine Corps lieutenant from Ohio stacked $97,259 in cash in neat piles on Sheik Heiss’s gilded tea table. The money paid for food for the sheik’s tribe and for two school renovation projects on which the sheik himself is the lead contractor. Even the marble-floored meeting hall where the cash was handed over reflects recent U.S. largesse: The Marines paid Sheik Heiss and his family $127,175 to build it on his private compound.
Such payments have encouraged local leaders in this vast desert expanse to help the U.S. oust al Qaeda extremists and restore a large measure of stability and security…
“These guys do everything with money,” says Lt. Col. John Reeve, who is the second-in-command of the 6,000-Marine regiment in the area. “Every deal goes to the sheik. He then trickles the money down to reward sub-tribes who cooperate and punish those who don’t.”
Be that as it may, there are inevitably conflicting reports about the political cost of the US-Sunni alliance in Anbar.
Jaffe’s Sheik Heiss is blunt about his political agenda:
[S]ome city leaders and prominent sheiks in Anbar have also already begun to talk about the next fight — against the Shiite militias in Baghdad. “If the Americans give us orders and money we will get rid” of the militias, says Ramadi’s Sheik Heiss. “We will have a new government — run by Sunnis — that will be fair to all.”
The eclipse of Shiite political dominance and the restoration of Sunni rule would be a rather more significant price than the marble floor for the Heiss family compound.
Of course, Sheik Heiss does not appear to be insisting on Sunni rule. At best, one might say he seems eager for Sunni political dominance.
In a Washington Post article that tries to name a price for Sunni cooperation in Anbar, Ann Scott Tyson finds even less of a strident swagger among “former” Sunni insurgent figures.
The Sunni insurgent leader… explained to a U.S. sergeant visiting his safe house why he’d stopped attacking Americans.
“Finally, we decided to cooperate with American forces and kick al-Qaeda out and have our own country,” said the tough-talking, confident 21-year-old, giving only his nom de guerre, Abu Lwat. Then he offered another motive: “In the future, we want to have someone in the government,” he said, holding his cigarette with a hand missing one finger.
Abu Lwat is one of a growing number of Sunni fighters working with U.S. forces in what American officers call a last-ditch effort to gain power and legitimacy under Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government. The tentative cooperation between the fighters and American forces is driven as much by political aspirations as by a rejection of the brutal methods of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, U.S. officers and onetime insurgents said….
“This is much less about al-Qaeda overstepping than about them [Sunnis] realizing that they’ve lost,” said Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, a planner for the U.S. military command in Baghdad. As a result, Sunni groups are now “desperately trying to cut deals with us,” he said. “This is all about the Sunnis’ ‘rightful’ place to rule” in a future Iraqi government, he said.
That story tends to confirm earlier proclamations by Right Zionist figures like Fouad Ajami and Reuel Marc Gerecht that a dirty war fought by Shiite militias had essentially broken the back of the Sunni insurgency.
Tyson quotes US military officers–like Col. Rick Welch, head of reconciliation for the U.S. military command in the capital, who appear relatively confident that Sunni political aspirations can be contained. But Tyson’s former insurgent doesn’t seem entirely ready to subordinate himself to either the Maliki government or the US occupation.
“Some of the insurgent leaders may have a political agenda and want to run for office at some point,” said Welch, who has helped negotiate with Sunni insurgent groups including the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Army of Truth and the Islamic Army.
The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is “worried that the Sunni tribes may be using mechanisms to build their strength and power eventually to challenge this government. This is a risk for all of us,” Welch said….
Sitting cross-legged in the dim abandoned house, Abu Lwat said he seeks a new government in Iraq. “We don’t want to be like the people who sit in the Green Zone and take orders from Bush,” he said, referring to the American president. “We want to free people and fix their problems.”
It is probably too early to discern the final price of peace in Anbar.
The outcome will depend, in part, on the political aspirations of the Sunni forces with which the US has aligned itself, to say nothing of neighboring Arab regimes who are similarly uncomfortable with Shiite rule in Iraq.
But the outcome will also depend on the play of forces in Washington.
Will the US ask Sheik Heiss and his allies to wage war against Iraqi Shiites and, perhaps, Iran as well?
My hunch is that Cheney, for one, has not yet lost faith in the Maliki government and continues to be committed to the construction of an enduring US-Shiite alliance in Iraq.