The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

"We need to use the Americans to fight the Shia"

The Guardian has a fascinating article on the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, including this interview with an arms dealer:

Rami was no longer involved in fighting, he said, but made a tidy profit selling weapons and ammunition to men in his north Baghdad neighbourhood. Until the last few months, the insurgency got by with weapons and ammunition looted from former Iraqi army depots. But now that Sunnis were besieged in their neighbourhoods and fighting daily clashes with the better-equipped Shia ministry of interior forces, they needed new sources of weapons and money.

He told me that one of his main suppliers had been an interpreter working for the US army in Baghdad. "He had a deal with an American officer. We bought brand new AKs and ammunition from them." He claimed the American officer, whom he had never met but he believed was a captain serving at Baghdad airport, had even helped to divert a truckload of weapons as soon as it was driven over the border from Jordan.

These days Rami gets most of his supplies from the new American-equipped Iraqi army. "We buy ammunition from officers in charge of warehouses, a small box of AK-47 bullets is $450 (£230). If the guy sells a thousand boxes he can become rich and leave the country." But as the security situation deteriorates, Rami finds it increasingly difficult to travel across Baghdad. "Now I have to pay a Shia taxi driver to bring the ammo to me. He gets $50 for each shipment."
The box of 700 bullets that Rami buys for $450 today would have cost between $150 and $175 a year ago. The price of a Kalashnikov has risen from $300 to $400 in the same period. The inflation in arms prices reflects Iraq's plunge toward civil war but, largely unnoticed by the outside world, the Sunni insurgency has also changed. The conflict into which 20,000 more American troops will be catapulted over the next few weeks is very different to the one their comrades experienced even a year ago.
Most of the article is about the shift in the Sunni insurgency in their view towards US troops. Here's what one insurgent said:

He was more despondent than angry. "We Sunni are to blame," he said. "In my area some ignorant al-Qaida guys have been kidnapping poor Shia farmers, killing them and throwing their bodies in the river. I told them: 'This is not jihad. You can't kill all the Shia! This is wrong! The Shia militias are like rabid dogs - why provoke them?' "

Then he said: "I am trying to talk to the Americans. I want to give them assurances that no one will attack them in our area if they stop the Shia militias from coming."

This man who had spent the last three years fighting the Americans was now willing to talk to them, not because he wanted to make peace but because he saw the Americans as the lesser of two evils. He was wrestling with the same dilemma as many Sunni insurgent leaders, beginning to doubt the wisdom of their alliance with al-Qaida extremists.
Well they should have thought of that a long time ago... Do read the whole article, it's quite provocative.

Update: Here is a related report from regular Arabist reader Andrew Exum that argues that the Iraqi civil war is a war of militias. He concludes:

It is by no means clear that the U.S. military has sufficient resources to accomplish the tasks outlined by civilian policymakers, namely the pacification of Iraq. In particular, although it may still be possible to constrain the Iraqi militias, the U.S. military does not have the resources on the ground necessary to fight a major battle in which militia elimination is the goal. It would be better instead to concentrate on training the Iraqi military, while keeping order on the streets as much as possible and working with the Iraqi government to provide jobs and security and to preempt the worst sectarian violence. Admittedly, these modest goals are not necessarily sufficient to achieve the ambitious victory articulated by President Bush this week, but are nevertheless as much as can realistically be expected from U.S. soldiers and Marines in the current environment.
I find that conclusion a rather tall order -- judging from past performance and the sheer amount of hatred involved (not to mention incitation from Iran and Saudi Arabia among others), even this outcome is not realistic. I hope I am wrong, since the alternative that will sooner or later prove tempting will be letting one side win to stop the war.