The last time the Al Qaeda franchise raised its head in Iraq, its brutal tactics convinced many fellow Sunnis to take them on.
Back then, fresh-faced Abu Omar was a local leader of the US-backed "Sons of Iraq," trying to put a lid on Sunni militancy.
But today, as Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) advance across the country, he sits at home in a dark blue polo shirt playing with his children, unable to stop a storm that he says is threatening to engulf Iraq again.
ISIS is one problem. The group has posted videos it claims show it massacring Shiite Iraqi Army troops, while promising "justice" and basic services on its turf.
But the stunning ISIS advance is riding what some top Sunni politicians – echoed by local players like Abu Omar – say is a much wider “revolution” against the unabashedly Shiite-first policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And this raises the specter of a return to sectarian bloodshed in Iraq.
“If no solution is found very soon, no one will be able to stop ISIS; they are getting very strong with tanks and equipment and manpower,” says Abu Omar, who asked that only this nickname be used.
He reckons that 60 to 70 percent of Iraq’s Sunnis “welcome that revolution” and have been “brainwashed” about the true violent nature of a group they support. “I am expecting worse than 2006-2007, if there is not a quick solution,” he says, adding that ISIS and other Sunni extremist cells are already in Baghdad.
“Rivers of blood will be in the street. The killing we will not be in the air [as rumors], but live," he warns.
A bloody history
Iraq has seen violent spasms for decades, and during 2006-2007 the United Nations estimated that the killing finally leveled off at 3,000 dead a month, with death squads cleansing Baghdad’s mixed neighborhoods of either Shiite or Sunni or Christian Arabs. Bodies were dumped on streets each morning, clearly tortured, sometimes with drills.
Mr. Maliki appeared on television Tuesday night with some Sunni leaders and politicians, in a show of Shiite-Sunni unity. And today he said of the Iraqi armed forces, which disintegrated during the ISIS onslaught: “We have now started our counteroffensive, regaining the initiative and striking back.”
During news reports, the pro-Maliki TV channel AFAQ lingers on images of bodies killed in the crisis, as patriotic songs speak of martyrdom and encourage Shiite volunteers: “My flag is still high,” goes one song, that also plays on the radio. “I am alive, but my funeral tent is [already] set up.”
Yet the Sunni Iraqis who were most effective against Sunni militants years ago are out of this fight, since ISIS will kill anyone they perceive as against them, says Abu Omar. He has lost relatives who were active in the original Sunni Awakening – known here by the Arabic term “Sahwa” – and still receives threats.
But the Awakening’s biggest blow came from Maliki himself, its leaders say. When US forces organized and paid the Sunni network, “Al Qaeda in Iraq became very, very weak,” says an older man who gave the name Abu Salwan, wearing the headdress and dishdasha traditional among Iraqi Sunnis.
But Maliki never trusted the armed Sunnis, and failed to pay them after the Americans handed the portfolio to the Iraqi government in 2010. “Within two to three months, the war against Sahwa started: they began assassinating and killing [members] in Sunni areas, and the government arrested Sahwa leaders,” says Abu Salwan.
That left the Sunni Awakening caught between pro-Maliki forces, and the Sunni Islamists they had sought to contain.
Of the 92,000 Awakening members, the government had promised to integrate 20 percent into the regular security force, find jobs for others, pay salaries, and of course keep them safe. None of those promises were kept. “When the Americans left, [government forces] killed who they chose to kill, stopped others, and then ignored the Sahwa,” says Abu Omar.
These Sunnis say signs of sectarianism in the capital make them afraid, with bearded and armed Shiite militiamen now manning checkpoints alongside Iraqi Army and police units, for example, and more frequent sightings of cars without license plates.
After ISIS threatened to attack Shiite holy shrines and called Maliki a “fool” who would be dealt with, Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called last Friday for Iraqis to arm in order to protect the nation and sacred shrines.
So the large numbers of Sunnis who they say support ISIS taking ground – and more moderate Sunni “revolutionaries” taking political control of those areas – may indicate lack of awareness of ISIS’ violent methods, say Awakening leaders.
Abu Omar says his relatives in areas captured by ISIS are “wrong” to be “happy because ISIS told them they will remove injustice.” They instead compiled computer databases of every one who has worked for the government, “and they won’t stop killing them,” he predicts.
Relatives in Mosul “never saw [ISIS] killing people,” just organizing services to help, says Abu Omar. “This is a good thing, to win people’s loyalty, to show the people of Mosul the nice face, and with this loyalty they will brainwash people to get some fighters with them.”
It is no surprise to Awakening leaders that Iraq’s Sunnis – a substantial minority that dominated, often harshly, during the reign of Saddam Hussein – are today ready to embrace a “revolution” against Maliki’s rule, no matter who carries it out.