Iraq’s Tribal“Sahwa”: Its Rise and Fall

From 2007 to 2008, Iraq’s tribal “Sahwa” (Arabic for “Awakening”) was a key component of the U.S. “surge” strategy and largely credited for its role in the dramatic reduction of violence across the country. In the last two years, though, members of the movement have increasingly become the target of a retaliation campaign led by al-Qaeda’s “Islamic State of Iraq” and other insurgent groups still active on the battlefield, with almost daily assassinations and attacks in which hundreds have died. In the present context of resurgent violence, persistent political tensions triggered by the 2010 stalemate and the U.S. military’s scheduled withdrawal of its remaining troops by the end of 2011, the Sahwa’s future looms as one of the most crucial tests of Iraq’s stabilization and successful “democratic” transition. Concerns over the fate of the movement also come amid the growing alienation of its members from a government that has overall failed to incorporate them into its new security apparatus. While U.S. officials might continue to downplay this scenario, reliable sources indicate that a number of Sahwa fighters have already flipped back into armed struggle, including within the ranks of their erstwhile nemesis, al-Qaeda.

Building on my own extensive research, this article seeks to analyze a worrying trend and shed new light on the complex nature of the Sahwa since its appearance on the Iraqi scene. It first attempts to highlight the multiple reasons for the movement’s gradual downfall, especially following the U.S. military drawdown in the summer of 2009, with specific focus on the motives likely to have incited some of its members to revert to al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups. The second part emphasizes aspects of continuity linking the Sahwa’s recent evolution to the more historical transformations of Iraqi tribalism. It attempts to show, more particularly, how Iraq’s tribal structures have undergone a continuing dynamic of “subversion” that actually preceded the establishment of Iraq’s modern state. The last part underlines why U.S. policy makers should draw serious lessons from the movement’s experiment, in particular why “tribal engagement” strategies in conflict configurations, even when bringing short-term security gains, should not be used at the expense of genuine state- and nation-building efforts.