November 30, 2007

NIAC Memo: An Inconvenient Reality: Sunnis Remain Source of Most Foreign Fighters in Iraq

Fighters from “friendly” Sunni countries, including Saudi Arabia and Libya, still comprise the majority of foreign insurgents in Iraq. This inconvenient reality — generally ignored by the Bush Administration to date in its bid to pressure Iran — has been once again borne out by a large trove of documents captured by U.S. forces this September in Sinjar, near the Syrian border.

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As reported on November 21 in the International Herald Tribune, Saudi nationals comprise 41%, or 305, of the estimated 750 foreign fighters that have infiltrated into Iraq since August 2006. Another 39%, or 290, came from North African countries, including Libya.

This information reinforces the continuing fallacy of Bush Administration assertions that Iran is the source of most anti-U.S. violence in Iraq. While Iran is clearly a key source of political and military support for Shi’a factions and their affiliated militias (including funds, weapons, and training), Tehran maintains a broad and complex range of interests in Iraq.

Regardless of how unpalatable some of Iran’s interests and actions in Iraq may be to the Bush Administration, Tehran is not hell-bent on pouring fuel onto the fires of sectarian conflict in its western neighbor and has not pursued a one dimensional approach. The record of Iranian behavior since 2003 bears this out.

Iran is a long-standing sponsor of most Iraqi Shi’a political groups. As a result, it supports the Shi’a-led, U.S.-sponsored government in Baghdad and has expended significant efforts in bolstering its prospects. This includes becoming Iraq’s largest trading partner in recent years as well as an active provider of investment in badly-needed areas of infrastructure.

Ironically, the Bush Administration has begrudgingly accepted Iran’s influence, as well as its capacity to support its client state. Beginning in June, the U.S. has now held several rounds of discussions with Tehran in Baghdad, with additional talks slated to take place in the near future.

While these talks have been billed as dealing only with “security issues in Iraq,” they are quite obviously an important breakthrough in U.S.-Iranian relations and have broadened the menu of options the U.S. can choose from to pursue an improved environment in Iraq. Moreover, they have yielded tangible results to date.

In recent months Iran has apparently honored its commitment made to the Iraqi government to reduce the flow of weapons — in particular, the deadly Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) known as Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs) — into Iraq. This development has been recently acknowledged by the Pentagon itself, which in early November noted that the number of EFP incidents has declined from 99 in July to 53 in October.

Even if one accepts the problematic premise that all EFPs in Iraq today originate in Iran or are employed by Shi’a militias alone, this trend is clearly a positive one. It underscores Iran’s capacity to constructively support stability in Iraq. Perhaps more importantly, it highlights the discrepancy between the declining number of EFPs and the continued flow of foreign Sunni Arab fighters into Iraq that appears largely unimpeded by the “friendly” Sunni states.

Moreover, the number of Iranian fighters in Iraq is miniscule compared with detainees from Arab states or Sunni Iraqis. A reported 11 Iranians have been detained by U.S. forces to date, and it is unclear if this number includes those whose diplomatic status was been raised by both the Iranian and Iraqi governments at the time of their detention.

This compares with the more than 25,000 individuals detained by the U.S. in Iraq, four-fifths of whom are Sunni Arab — either Iraqi or foreign nationals. These numbers are even more eye-opening when one considers that only roughly 20% of all Iraqis are Sunnis.

Despite widespread Iraq coverage, the extent to which the ongoing insurgency in Iraq is an overwhelmingly Sunni one remains an under examined story. It is also largely publicly unacknowledged in Washington, DC, particularly among hawks and in the Bush Administration’s policy making circles.

U.S. continued reliance upon Sunni Arab regimes in the region for a host of foreign policy goals is a well-established fact, as is the adversarial relationship the United States has had with Iran since 1979. Nevertheless, our conflicts with Iran should not overwhelm our ability to be clear-eyed about the realities on the ground in Iraq. Nor should they be permitted to be made to appear as somehow larger or more intractable than they actually are.

Willfully ignoring the realities of the characteristics of the Iraqi insurgency only erodes our ability to manage this difficult set of challenges. Despite the overall reductions in violence since the increases in U.S. forces in Iraq this spring, the future of Iraq will be determined by the extent to which Iraqis are able to forge an enduring compromise regarding governance arrangements.

Given its ties and influence with Iraqi Shi’a groups, Iran’s support for this process will facilitate its success. Its opposition will make it that much more difficult, a prospect for which the Bush Administration has yet to articulate any convincing response — in effect leaving us dependent on at least tacit Iranian support.

Giving Sunni Arab states a free pass on their unwillingness to reduce the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, while focusing disproportionately on Iran, belies the unwillingness of the Bush Administration to make the hard choice essential to success in Iraq.

Dr. Bahram Rajaee is a NIAC Senior Policy Consultant and Middle East expert.




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