Don’t panic, Iraq’s most powerful Sunnis are telling some old American friends. We’ll take care of these upstart ISIS nuts—as soon as they oust Nouri al-Maliki from Baghdad.
That’s the message Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, leader of Iraq’s biggest Sunni tribe, gave John R. Maguire, a retired former CIA deputy station chief in Baghdad, when he visited Iraq three weeks ago to talk about future oil deals in the region.
And Maguire, a veteran senior CIA paramilitary official, believes it. The tribes that once worked with the Americans to defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq, he insists, will again rise up again to oust its spawn, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS]—a movement so extreme it was denounced by Osama bin Laden’s successor.
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“They're already drawing lines around how this is going to work, to get rid of these guys,” Maguire tells Newsweek. “So the fight is coming, but they can't do it until they're sure they have disrupted Maliki and they've got some breathing space to create a different government in Baghdad.”
For now, Maguire says, the Sunni leaders are furnishing tribesmen to fight with the ISIS in hopes that their collaboration will accomplish something they couldn’t do on their own—topple Maliki, who they call “a corrupt puppet of Iran [who] has amassed staggering personal wealth,” and for whom “people are not interested in fighting.”
The Sunnis are using ISIS like a crowbar to oust Maliki, Maguire says, and then they’ll turn on the invaders. Iraq as we know it will cease to exist, splitting into three new proto-states: Sunnistan in the west, Kurdistan in the north and an Iranian Shiite protectorate stretching from Baghdad east to the Arabian Sea and oil port of Basra. ISIS, in this optimistic scenario, will be pounded into oblivion.
"Iraq is righting itself" along tribal and ethnic lines, says Maguire, who now runs a Virginia-based oil consulting business with two other CIA veterans of the Iraq war. He says he’s advised Sunni tribal leaders to spiff up their image. “I just had a conversation last night about this with some Sunni guys from Anbar,” Maguire said by telephone Tuesday. “I told them, ‘You guys have to do something to change the perception of what you're doing. Your image is that of a guy in a black turban on YouTube. You can't have that. You got to get your message out, and you've got to put some smart Sunnis on TV wearing suits explaining what the hell's going on in Iraq.’"
What’s “going on,” he says, is that the Sunnis leaders are lying in wait, waiting for the right moment to spring their treacherous trap on ISIS, just like it did with Al-Qaeda in Iraq during the U.S. occupation. “There's no question that ISIS is a huge problem and a very dangerous tool, but it's a tool that Sunni officers know how to use and handle,” maintains Maguire, whose 23-year CIA career included several senior operational assignments in the Middle East. “They're using [ISIS] guys as disposable assets...and when they don't need them anymore, they'll invite them to return to Syria or wherever they came from, and if they don't, they will kill them.”
A number of signs point to Maliki’s imminent downfall, Maguire says: mass desertions from the Iraqi army, nervous regime officials looking to get cash out of the country and the lukewarm response of young Shia to calls from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to rally to the defense of the nation. “When al-Sistani gave his great call to arms for the Shia to rise up, they did not respond in great numbers,” says Maguire, contradicting the dramatic images of youths signing up to fight. “It just fizzled out.” Indeed, Sistani was back again last week calling for something far less, the formation of a new government that would unite the nation. On Tuesday, Maliki rejected that idea.
It may be too late for that. The major roads leading north and west out of Baghdad are under ISIS control, and the south may be closed off soon, too, Maguire says. “There is an increasing risk in the next day or two that ISIS will open the Haditha Dam,” a five-mile-wide structure on the Euphrates northwest of Baghdad. “If they open the dam, they can flood the area south of Baghdad as far as Karbala,” Shiite Islam’s the third holiest city.
“Remember, Ramadan starts on Saturday,” says Maguire. “Picture thousands of Shia pilgrims washing down the canals from the flood. If the Haditha Dam is opened, the roads to flee Baghdad from the south will be impassable, leaving the only way out to the east, to Iran.”
Maliki’s praetorian guard is starting to buckle, Maguire says. The prime minister senses it, and he "issued an order that no VIP travel is authorized, so he's strapped all the inner-circle Iraqis to the deck of his ship. I've been contacted by people in his inner circle asking for my help with getting money out of Baghdad,” Maguire adds. “His money guys are looking to get out. They're scared. They don't think this is going to hold, and they don't want to be the last guys in Baghdad with no money on the outside and no way out."
Maliki and his Iranian backers might be so desperate to rouse Shiites to fight that they’ll blow up one of the sect’s own holy sites and blame it on ISIS, Maguire and other intelligence sources say. "We are at a very dangerous period, because when al-Sistani gave his great call to arms for the Shia to rise up, they did not respond in great numbers, so they have to do something to scare the Shia into action,” Maguire says. “And I'm afraid that Maliki and Iran will create an incident, an atrocity of some sort, maybe blow up Shia shrines or have some atrocious event in Baghdad that will drive people into the streets.
"The Shia have got to do something to wake people up,” Maguire explains. “People are just not motivated. The desertions from the army are so bad that Maliki doesn't even know what units he has that are still operationally viable."
Other experts say Maguire’s prediction that pro-West Sunni tribal leaders want—and can—muscle ISIS aside after they take down Maliki is far too rosy. “That's what they are telling everyone,” Ken Pollack, a former CIA and White House National Security Council expert on Iraq, told Newsweek. “I have heard it from multiple sources. I think it accurately reflects their suspicion/antipathy to ISIS and the other militant groups,” Pollack added by email. “But there is a huge question regarding whether they can (1) take Baghdad, (2) get rid of Maliki, and (3) beat ISIS, even if they can do 1 and 2.
“ISIS and the other Sunni militant groups are actually a lot more dangerous than [Al-Qaeda in Iraq] was in 2007, and back then, the tribes needed a huge amount of U.S. combat power—like 50,000 ground combat troops—to get rid of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. We will not be providing the same level of combat power, no matter what happens” this time, Pollack added.
Pollack doesn’t doubt the Sunni tribes would like to turn on the ISIS, whose extreme brand of Islam doesn’t go down well with the country’s secular, liquor-loving Sunnis. “But I think it would be foolish,” Pollack said, “to assume that they can defeat the radicals as easily as they claim.”
Malcolm Nance, a former Navy and CIA counterterrorism operative, says Iraq’s Sunnis “have just committed suicide.” He tells Newsweek he had been planning to write a piece called “The Sunni Tribes Drink Antifreeze.”
“The Awakening could never happen again the way it did in 2007–2009,” says Nance, referring to the wartime U.S. operation that turned Sunnis insurgents away from fighting the Americans and onto attacking Al-Qaeda in Iraq. “At that time, the Sunnis were the heart of the insurgency. They had 25,000 active combatants and as many as 88,000 part-time and support insurgents. When they came over to the Awakening councils, they brought with them a lot of manpower and weapons and could push Al-Qaeda in Iraq out. Now that [Al-Qaeda] has [evolved into] the more combat-experienced ISIS and has many more foreign jihadis than it did in its peak of 2006, it is the insurgency. Everyone else is just a witness.
“ISIS...” adds Nance, “will…exact a painful level of control over the Sunni population that will make them regret the very moment they fooled themselves into believing Maliki was worse than Saddam. I was there last year for a month and all I kept hearing was that Maliki was a tyrant. They overestimate every political difficulty, but this time the Sunnis have signed their own death warrants.”
Former State Department officer Peter Van Buren calls Maguire’s scenario a "surge fantasy."
“Without much of a plan otherwise, it is not surprising for someone [from the] CIA to fall back on the narrative that, just [as with] Al-Qaeda, the tribes will kick ISIS out,” says Van Buren, who wrote a lacerating memoir of his time in Iraq, We Meant Well. “What else do they have to hope for?”
Such criticisms, Maguire counters, don’t “take into account the evolution of events since 2007. The battle space has changed completely in six-plus years. A new generation of Sunni leaders has emerged [who] have been treated like rubbish and been punished for six-plus years. That is a factor that changes their commitment.” Just recently in Rutba, he points out, along a highway 90 miles east of the Jordanian border, the Sunnis “killed about 30 ISIS guys, because they came in there with a sharia proclamation.”
Life by the Quran won’t sit well in a region that has “one of the highest consumptions of beer a year in Iraq,” Maguire says. The highway through the area “is like the Teamster redneck trucker corridor of Iraq.”
“When they make the decision that they have had enough of radical Islam,” Maguire argues, “they'll just jettison them. It'll be a horrible fight, but the outcome is not in doubt. The Sunni tribes will come out on top. It’s their country. They have something to fight for.”
Jeff Stein writes SpyTalk from Washington. He can be reached via spytalk(at)hushmail.com.