Death of American Ally a Potential Nail in Iraq’s Coffin

When the history of the second Iraq civil war is written, the death of Sheikh Qassem al-Janabi may prove notable for what it said about the rapidly closing window for Iraqi reconciliation.

National Journal
James Kitfield
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
James Kitfield
March 6, 2015, 5:49 a.m.

When his three-car con­voy pulled up to a po­lice check­point in Bagh­dad on Fri­day the 13th of Feb­ru­ary, Sheikh Qassem al-Janabi had little reas­on for con­cern. An in­flu­en­tial Sunni mod­er­ate who was as­sist­ing the Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts to draw Sunni tribes away from the or­bit of the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia, the cha­ris­mat­ic Sheikh Janabi had many friends in high places.

He was in the cap­it­al, sup­posedly far away from any likely IS­IS as­sas­sins. And he was a long­time friend of the United States, which in the past year had sent mil­it­ary forces back to Ir­aq to counter the IS­IS ter­ror­ist group. Sheikh Janabi was rid­ing with sev­en body­guards and his son Mo­hamed, re­cently re­turned to Ir­aq from earn­ing a law de­gree from the Uni­versity of Glas­gow. They were trav­el­ing from their tri­bal home­land south of Bagh­dad on the Muslim day of pray­er.

The men at the po­lice check­point were im­post­ors and sus­pec­ted Shiite mi­li­tia­men, and they bundled up Janabi and his en­tour­age at gun­point, quickly driv­ing them away. Their bod­ies were later found across town in the ram­shackle Shiite slum of Sadr City. Janabi was slumped in the back of one of the cars, his hands tied be­hind his back with his own belt, a bul­let in his head. The bod­ies of his son Mo­hamed and sev­en body­guards lay nearby, all of them shot ex­e­cu­tion style. To reach Sadr City, the gun­men would likely have passed through sev­er­al po­lice check­points, rais­ing ques­tions of pos­sible of­fi­cial col­lu­sion in the murders.

When the his­tory of the second Ir­aq civil war is writ­ten, the death of Sheikh Qassem al-Janabi may prove not­able for what it said about the rap­idly clos­ing win­dow for na­tion­al re­con­cili­ation, and for fore­shad­ow­ing the omin­ous turn to­ward out­right sec­tari­an­ism that the fight­ing in Ir­aq has taken. Cer­tainly the Sunni law­makers who walked out of par­lia­ment in mass protest on learn­ing of his murder un­der­stood his im­port­ance, both real and sym­bol­ic. Along with oth­er mod­er­ate Sunni tri­bal lead­ers who first turned against al-Qaida in 2006-07 and took part in the “An­bar Awaken­ing” dur­ing Ir­aq’s first civil war, Janabi re­jec­ted the ter­ror­ists’ vis­ion of a puri­fy­ing civil war between Sun­nis and Shiites. In­stead he con­tin­ued to em­brace the U.S. vis­ion of a uni­fied and demo­crat­ic Ir­aq un­til the day of this death.

When U.S. of­fi­cials and mil­it­ary forces re­turned to Ir­aq last year, help­fully nudging aside sec­tari­an strong­man and Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki, the ques­tion they posed was wheth­er enough Sunni lead­ers of good­will could still be found to re­kindle the dream of re­con­cili­ation and cre­ate an­oth­er An­bar “mir­acle.” The as­cend­ance of Ir­a­ni­an-backed Shiite mi­li­tias and death squads, and the man­ner of Janabi’s death, sug­gest that such hopes are tenu­ous. In a well-doc­u­mented mas­sacre in the east­ern province of Diy­ala just weeks be­fore his death, for in­stance, more than 70 un­armed Sunni men were killed by Shiite mi­li­tia­men, and there have been nu­mer­ous ac­counts of smal­ler scale at­ro­cit­ies by rov­ing Shiite death squads.

Even more omin­ously, Ir­a­ni­an-backed Shiite mi­li­tias are lead­ing the Ir­aqi of­fens­ive launched this week to re­take the Sunni strong­hold of Tikrit, former home of Sad­dam Hus­sein. Mul­tiple cred­ible re­ports in­dic­ate that Ir­a­ni­an Re­volu­tion­ary Guard forces and Shiite Hezbol­lah fight­ers are act­ively sup­port­ing the of­fens­ive, which re­portedly is over­seen by in­fam­ous Ir­a­ni­an Quds Force Com­mand­er Gen­er­al Qassem Sulei­mani. There are also re­ports that Sunni ci­vil­ians in Tikrit, ter­ri­fied of re­venge killings and a cam­paign of eth­nic cleans­ing, are flee­ing north to the IS­IS-oc­cu­pied city of Mo­sul. Shiite mi­li­tia com­mand­ers have prom­ised on state tele­vi­sion to take re­venge in Tikrit for IS­IS’s mas­sacre of Shiite sol­diers cap­tured at nearby Camp Speich­er last June, when hun­dreds were ex­ecuted in an at­ro­city video­taped and pos­ted on You­Tube.

Just as wor­ri­some, U.S. of­fi­cials re­mark­ably in­sist that they were taken “by sur­prise” by a Tikrit of­fens­ive in­volving tens of thou­sands of Ir­aqi troops and ir­reg­u­lars. Not only were they ap­par­ently not con­sul­ted, but U.S. forces are not provid­ing air power to the cam­paign. Nor are U.S. of­fi­cials oth­er­wise in­volved in the biggest Ir­aqi coun­ter­of­fens­ive since IS­IS cap­tured roughly a third of the coun­try last sum­mer.

“Bot­tom line, Ir­a­ni­an-backed Shiite mi­li­tias are do­ing most of the anti-IS­IS fight­ing in the Tikrit cam­paign and else­where in Ir­aq, and that is ter­ri­fy­ing to Sunni pop­u­la­tions who have heard all these stor­ies about eth­nic cleans­ing, both real and ex­ag­ger­ated,” said Ken Pol­lack, a seni­or fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Cen­ter for Middle East Policy, and formerly a CIA Middle East ana­lyst. “The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion seems to think that re­con­cili­ation is something that they can fo­cus on later, or just leave to the Ir­aqis to sort out them­selves, but they are flat-out wrong,” said Pol­lack, who re­cently re­turned from Ir­aq. “This is not a the­or­et­ic­al is­sue. If this trend con­tin­ues, the United States really will be­come the air force for Ir­a­ni­an-backed Shiite mi­li­tias and the Kur­d­ish Pesh­merga in a sec­tari­an civil war.”

An Un­likely Ally

In ret­ro­spect, Sheikh Qassem al-Janabi was an un­likely ally. In 2004 he was an in­flu­en­tial Sunni tri­bal lead­er in an area just south of Bagh­dad that was so vi­ol­ent and over­run by in­sur­gent activ­ity that U.S. com­mand­ers dubbed it the “Tri­angle of Death.” When two for­eign con­tract­ors work­ing for the U.S.-led co­ali­tion were kid­napped by in­sur­gents in the area, dip­lo­mats in Bagh­dad reached out to him for help. Janabi put the word out through tri­bal net­works that the con­tract­ors should not be hurt, and at the re­quest of the dip­lo­mats he worked as an in­ter­locutor, even­tu­ally ar­ran­ging a deal for the con­tract­ors to be re­turned in ex­change for a ransom.

Only a U.S. bri­gade com­mand­er in the area got word of the deal, and he called Janabi in for ques­tion­ing. Des­pite the fact that Janabi was work­ing on be­half of co­ali­tion dip­lo­mats in Bagh­dad, the col­on­el was angry that he hadn’t been tipped off to the ex­change in or­der to ar­rest the kid­nap­pers.

“Sheikh Janabi told him that would have cer­tainly got­ten the host­ages killed, but the U.S. bri­gade com­mand­er ar­res­ted him any­way,” said Rick Welch, who at the time was an Amer­ic­an ad­viser in Ir­aq in charge of a U.S.-led tri­bal “con­flict res­ol­u­tion” pro­gram that Janabi sup­por­ted. “I vis­ited Janabi in Abu Ghraib pris­on a bunch of times, and thought I had ar­ranged for his re­lease by the time I ro­tated back home in 2005. Then I re­turned to Ir­aq in 2007 and learned that he was still in pris­on! I was so furi­ous that we Amer­ic­ans could be so ar­rog­ant and stu­pid, but I fi­nally got him re­leased, and we worked closely to­geth­er for the next four years.”

By 2011, Welch was in charge of the U.S. mil­it­ary’s re­con­cili­ation pro­gram in Ir­aq, which sought to es­tab­lish re­la­tion­ships and provide the con­nect­ive tis­sue between Sunni tri­bal lead­ers and the Shiite-dom­in­ated gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad. After wan­ton slaughter by Sunni al-Qaida and Shiite death squads very nearly pushed Ir­aq over the abyss in­to an all-out sec­tari­an civil war in 2006-07 — a slide re­versed only by the U.S. troop surge and the An­bar Mir­acle — every­one un­der­stood that re­con­cili­ation between Shiites, Sun­nis, and Kur­ds was the only hope for a uni­fied Ir­aq.

After U.S. mil­it­ary forces ex­ited Ir­aq in 2011, however, Prime Min­is­ter Ma­liki began a re­lent­less cam­paign to purge gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions and the se­cur­ity forces of Sunni lead­ers, and he vi­ol­ently crushed the mostly peace­ful protests of Sunni demon­strat­ors that res­ul­ted. “After the U.S. forces left, Ma­liki knew that he was un­checked, and he looked for every ex­cuse to vi­ol­ently sub­jug­ate the Sun­nis, to the point where a lot of Sunni tri­bal lead­ers even­tu­ally de­cided that their chances for sur­viv­al were bet­ter with IS­IS than with Ma­liki’s gov­ern­ment,” said Welch. And yet Janabi re­mained a friend of the United States and the demo­cracy pro­ject to the end. “I was in touch with him just a few weeks be­fore he was murdered, and he was crit­ic­al of the sec­tari­an agenda of the Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment, but even more so of IS­IS. He kept en­cour­aging Ir­aqis who had fled the coun­try to come back and help re­build it.”

New Prime Haid­er al-Abadi talks a good game in terms of in­clu­sion and re­con­cili­ation, said Welch, but the fact that he has ceded se­cur­ity to Ir­a­ni­an prox­ies and Shiite mi­li­tias that are the flip side of the same sec­tari­an coin as IS­IS sug­gests that the Ir­aqi lead­er has in­suf­fi­cient polit­ic­al and mil­it­ary back­ing. The United States has to sup­port Abadi much more force­fully in try­ing to rein in the Shiite mi­li­tias, said Welch, be­cause the tent­at­ive and re­act­ive ap­proach that U.S. of­fi­cials have taken, in com­par­is­on to Ir­an, is put­ting Amer­ic­an friends like Sheikh Qassem al-Janabi at risk. “He was a good man, with a beau­ti­ful son, and their death sick­ens me. I con­tin­ue to see their faces in my dreams.”

A Nar­row Tightrope

To date U.S. of­fi­cials say that Abadi has largely lived up to his prom­ise to form a more in­clus­ive gov­ern­ment and seek re­con­cili­ation with the Sunni tribes. They laud him for reach­ing a long-elu­sive deal to share oil rev­en­ue with Kur­ds in the north, for in­stance, and for agree­ing to the fu­ture form­a­tion of Na­tion­al Guard units made up of loc­al, in­di­gen­ous troops, as op­posed to hav­ing an over­whelm­ingly Shiite army en­for­cing se­cur­ity in Sunni areas. Abadi has also agreed to al­low a more fed­er­al sys­tem of gov­ernance — per­mit­ted un­der the Ir­aqi con­sti­tu­tion — that will give Sunni provinces more autonomy.

Un­til U.S. train-and-as­sist forces can com­plete the task of help­ing to re­build Ir­aqi Se­cur­ity Forces decim­ated by Ma­liki’s cronyism, cor­rup­tion, and purges of Sunni com­mand­ers, however, Abadi has in the short term con­tin­ued to rely dis­pro­por­tion­ately on well-es­tab­lished Shiite mi­li­tias and Ir­a­ni­an back­ing. Un­der cur­rent plans, U.S. com­mand­ers hope to field 12 Ir­aqi com­bat bri­gades, but they con­cede that these are also over­whelm­ingly manned by Shiite troops.

“In the end, we have said that it’s im­port­ant that Ir­aq be for all Ir­aqis, but right now — no sur­prise — much of the Ir­aq Se­cur­ity Force in the field and avail­able for train­ing is Shiite, be­cause much of the Sunni pop­u­la­tion has either de­par­ted Sunni areas, or else live un­der IS­IS dom­in­a­tion,” re­tired Gen. John Al­len, Pres­id­ent Obama’s spe­cial en­voy for the glob­al co­ali­tion to counter IS­IS, said this week at the At­lantic Coun­cil. Abadi is try­ing to bal­ance the equit­ies of all ele­ments of the gov­ern­ment, Al­len said, but he is in the midst of a tur­bu­lent crisis and “walk­ing a nar­row polit­ic­al trail in try­ing to en­sure that all mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment — Shiite, Kur­d­ish, and Sunni — feel that their in­terests are best served in a uni­fied Ir­aq.”

As a seni­or U.S. com­mand­er in Ir­aq in 2007 dur­ing the An­bar Awaken­ing, Al­len knows bet­ter than most that the Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment’s heavy re­li­ance on Shiite ir­reg­u­lars is a grave risk. If what happened to Sheikh Qassem al-Janabi is re­peated once Tikrit is re­cap­tured or in oth­er Sunni areas “lib­er­ated” by over­whelm­ingly Shiite Ir­aqi forces, then the ex­pedi­ent deal that Abadi and his Amer­ic­an back­ers have made with the dev­il could well tear Ir­aq apart. “How the out­come of the coun­ter­of­fens­ive un­folds,” Al­len said, “how pop­u­la­tions lib­er­ated from IS­IS are treated and rep­res­en­ted by a cent­ral gov­ern­ment that is largely Shiite — that will de­term­ine in the end wheth­er Ir­aq’s Sun­nis want to be part of this ex­per­i­ment.”

What We're Following See More »
STARTS LEGAL FUND FOR WH STAFF
Trump to Begin Covering His Own Legal Bills
1 days ago
THE DETAILS
DISCUSSED THE MATTER FOR A NEW BOOK
Steele Says Follow the Money
1 days ago
STAFF PICKS

"Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who wrote the explosive dossier alleging ties between Donald Trump and Russia," says in a new book by The Guardian's Luke Harding that "Trump's land and hotel deals with Russians needed to be examined. ... Steele did not go into further detail, Harding said, but seemed to be referring to a 2008 home sale to the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. Richard Dearlove, who headed the UK foreign-intelligence unit MI6 between 1999 and 2004, said in April that Trump borrowed money from Russia for his business during the 2008 financial crisis."

Source:
BRITISH PUBLICIST CONNECTED TO TRUMP TOWER MEETING
Goldstone Ready to Meet with Mueller’s Team
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"The British publicist who helped set up the fateful meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a group of Russians at Trump Tower in June 2016 is ready to meet with Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's office, according to several people familiar with the matter. Rob Goldstone has been living in Bangkok, Thailand, but has been communicating with Mueller's office through his lawyer, said a source close to Goldstone."

Source:
SPEAKING ON RUSSIAN STATE TV
Kislyak Says Trump Campaign Contacts Too Numerous to List
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak said on Wednesday that it would take him more than 20 minutes to name all of the Trump officials he's met with or spoken to on the phone. ... Kislyak made the remarks in a sprawling interview with Russia-1, a popular state-owned Russian television channel."

Source:
“BLOWING A SURE THING”
Sabato Moves Alabama to “Lean Democrat”
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login