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
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.”

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