U.S. exit may spur Iraq unrest

If we hear from the Americans they are not capable of supporting us . . . within six hours, we are going to establish our groups to fight against the corrupt government,” says the commander, a portly man with gold rings and lemon-colored robes who, perhaps understandably, spoke on condition of anonymity. “There will be a war in Baghdad.”

The commander and another insurgent leader interviewed belong to the secret world of Sunni tribesmen and old military officers who laid down their arms and helped bring relative peace to Iraq in the past two years. They decided to try to fight the Shiite religious parties in control of the government through political channels instead — but they never renounced the insurgency.

Now the dormant insurgent groups, with men, weapons and networks intact, are approaching their moment of truth. If their efforts to enter the mainstream fail, it appears almost inevitable that they will take up arms again, either after national elections early next year or sooner.

With U.S. forces preparing to withdraw from Iraqi cities next month, insurgent groups see no sign of progress on their demands for the Americans to guarantee their entry into the political system and protect them from the parties in power.

As the insurgents watched and waited, they saw the Shiite-led government continue to jail their fighters, despite their decision to hold their fire. Likewise, they noticed the inability, or unwillingness, of U.S. troops to stop a crackdown against leaders of the Awakening movement, their Sunni brethren who left the insurgency for formal partnerships with the Americans.

The disenchantment of the Sunnis also could have implications for Afghanistan, where the U.S. military hopes to reproduce the success of the Iraq “surge” by reaching out to moderate Taliban elements. The fate of the Awakening movement and the inactive insurgent groups could cause Taliban fighters to think twice before embarking on a similar path.

In the end, the distrust between the Shiites and Sunnis involved may be too strong to overcome.