During the Surge it was well known that one of the winning strategies employed by the United States was to reach out to different insurgent groups and try to get them to turn on the Islamic State. That eventually led to the Sahwa. What is far less known was that the Americans also had a series of talks with Shiite armed groups as well that were opposed to the occupation. The Force Strategic Engagement Cell (FSEC) did much of this work. Richard Welch is a retired U.S. Army Colonel who was the chief of staff of the FSEC. This is an interview with Welch to discuss the little known attempts by the Americans to reconcile with the Shiite militias.
1. During a war the military is obviously going to be focused upon using force to defeat its opponents. The Strategic Engagement Cell was initiated by General David Petraeus to take a different tract. What were the goals of the Cell and how was it organized?
The main purpose of FSEC was to facilitate and expedite reconciliation and political accommodation at the national, regional, and local levels between the Government of Iraq and armed groups operating outside the political system. The end state was the goal of fostering a stable, secure, prosperous, and democratic Iraq and to expose, isolate, and eliminate irreconcilable elements.
The goal of strategic engagement was to reduce violence, promote national unity, political accommodation, and isolate violent extremists. It was to be accomplished through the process of opening dialogue, gaining commitment to the cessation of violence, moving to a normalization of relations, facilitating the process of re-integration, and finally achieving national reconciliation.
The cell was organized with teams that focused on engaging Sunni and Shia’ groups, coordinating with the government especially those government entities dealing with the Sons of Iraq [Sahawa—Tribal Awakening] program, and an intelligence support team that provided support for those engagements.
2. Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army were the major Shiite combatants in the battle for Baghdad. During the Surge the U.S. started addressing him as sayid as a sign of respect, and held a number of talks with his representatives. What was the U.S. trying to accomplish with these talks, was any progress made, and if not why?
The use of the title “Sayid” was not used in the sense of acknowledging that Al-Sadr was of the caliber of a true Sayid because he was not at that point in time nor is he now in the eyes of most who were involved in this process. The term was used when talking with his representatives to respect them and how they saw Al-Sadr in their eyes. It was done so as not to alienate those with whom we were engaging.
Aside from the reasons stated in the answer to the first question related to goals, other goals of the talks were to find out more about Al-Sadr and his objectives and the inner workings of his group in order to develop new engagement strategies and refine old ones. It was also used to better see the Al-Sadr organization as not a monolithic group but in its component parts and sub-groups in order to develop engagement strategies that could achieve the process of persuading some sub-groups or members of his group to be reconciled, renounce violence, and join the political process thus weakening the militant voices within the movement.
It should be noted that much of this work had to be done through intermediaries and/or privately because Al-Sadr had issued an order that anyone who was dealing directly with the “occupation forces” would be punished and/or expelled from the movement. The Iraqi government, through the Prime Minister’s reconciliation committee was dealing directly with Al-Sadr and his close circle during this time as well.
There was progress made in combination with the government’s engagement of the group in that Al-Sadr announced a cease fire during the time period in discussion primarily based on the political heat he was taking for trying to participate in the government while at the same time actively engaging in hostilities with his militia [Jaysh al Mahdi]. There was also progress made in various areas of Baghdad, in coordination with the government’s reconciliation initiatives as well as the US initiatives to achieve local cease fires and political accommodation.
3. Asaib Ahl Al-Haq (AAH) was one of many breakaway Sadr factions that formed during the Iraqi civil war. Its sole focus was attacking Coalition forces. For example, the group was responsible for a 2007 raid in Karbala that killed several American soldiers. That led to the arrest of AAH’s leader Qais Khazali and his brother Laith. The Americans had talks with AAH as well, including with Qais while he was in detention. What was the main point of contention in those meetings, and how did they turn out?
While there are conflicting views on this process, in my personal and professional opinion, this engagement program of AAH was a failed effort for the US and for the Iraqi people. It was a short to mid-term success for Prime Minister Malaki in that it gave him a militia that he didn’t have before that could help him informally control the streets and as a counter to the forces and influence of Moqtada Al-Sadr. It was a long term success for the Khazali brothers, the AAH leadership [most all of whom were in Iran] and for the Iranians operating in Iraq.
The engagement process was effective in learning more about the AAH leadership, organization, tactics and procedures. However, the real problem was that, in order to maintain influence and show Khazali that the US was a trusted agent and sincere about reconciliation, the US leadership agreed to release AAH affiliated prisoners from detention and/or transfer them to Iraq custody at the request of Al Malaki who would later release them. The additional pressure came when the government of Iraq pressured the US leadership to release or transfer all prisoners held by the US on the eve of the US withdrawal from Iraq. Once those gates opened they could not be closed and the US lost any leverage since Khazali, Malaki, and the Iranians knew that the US position was weak in the face of withdrawal.
The main contention was actually among and between US commanders on the ground who were prevented from targeting any elements that were part of AAH even though they were conducting insurgent operations and activities. Those commanders were the loudest voices against the AAH engagement and release program but it fell on deaf ears of the US senior leadership who had made the decision to continue the program.
4. Finally, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was connected with both of these groups. The premier also had ties with Iran, which was a major supporter of the Mahdi Army and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. Can you give some details about what role Maliki played with the two militias and their backers in Tehran?
Actually Tehran’s campaign in Iraq has so far proven to be the most effective to support its regional interests. It was never effectively countered by the US effort in Iraq. Tehran exerted influence over, on and through all three of the groups or individuals mentioned.
As I mentioned above, Malaki’s goal was to weaken the Sadrist movement in any way that he could. Sadr was a thorn in the side of Malaki so he expended much effort and resources through the Iraqi NSA and Malaki’s “national reconciliation committee” to do just that. Malaki reached out to AAH and initiated and mandated the non-targeting of AAH members and their release from US detention centers. The US was Malaki’s pawn in that game. As I indicated, he did that to gain the support of AAH for his own purposes and also to weaken and reduce the influence of Al-Sadr and his group.
After the AAH members were released from prison and sheltered by Malaki, I received reports up until I left Iraq in December 2011 that Malaki had issued senior AAH members special badges from his office and provided them with armored SUVs that gave them free access through the streets and neighborhoods of Baghdad. The reports were that AAH was in control of many of the predominantly Shia’ neighborhoods and that the ISF were not allowed to prevent their activities in the city. There was a war for control of the streets underway between AAH and elements of Al-Sadr.
Today, AAH and other Iranian-backed Shia militias are the primary forces being employed against the ISIS threat in Iraq. They are actually engaged in sectarian cleansing of the Sunni areas under the guise of fighting ISIS. Their intent, as part of Tehran’s plan, is to totally disrupt Sunni areas by either killing or imprisoning military-aged Sunni males, displacing the remainder of the Sunni population, and destroying the infrastructure in Sunni areas. This is done in part as retribution from Iran for Saddam’s crimes against the Iranian people, to eliminate a potential recruiting pool for ISIS, to reduce capacity of the Sunni to have any future meaningful participation in the political process, and to draw new lines and spheres of influence for Iran and its Shia’ puppets in the Iraqi government.
In the end, the greatest barrier to true political reconciliation in Iraq was and continues to be the Shia’ elites, especially those most closely aligned with Tehran, that secured power in 2005 and have refused to give up or share power in a meaningful way since that time. The problem was made worse by the US Administration that adopted a “sit back and let them handle it themselves” and a “let’s watch bad things happen to the good people of Iraq” attitude. This was tantamount to giving a green light to the malign, sectarian actors that had seized control of the government and who had unfettered access to the Iraqi treasury and regular continuing stipends and patronage from Iran.