Inside the Sunni Awakening in Iraq

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: Sam Collyns is producer of Secret Iraq, a new BBC documentary on the story of Iraq after the invasion of 2003. In one fascinating section, it tells the story of the Awakening Movement in Iraq, where Sunni Arabs turned against their former al-Qaeda allies and joined forces with the Americans. Sam, first of all, remind us briefly just how important the Awakening Movement was in turning the war around.

SAM COLLYNS: I think it's often overlooked. The surge is the thing that people hold on to and know all about and it played an important role. The extra American troops made a big difference. But the really critical factor in my view having been out in Iraq was the fact that some of the people that had been fighting against the Americans decided to team up with them and take on al-Qaeda. And because these people were so well connected, they were able to be extraordinarily effective very quickly.

WERMAN: And the reason the Sunnis awoke, shall we say, in part was because the US military, as you explain, had a point of not protecting the Iraqi population up until the time of the Awakening. You spoke with General Jack Keane, the vice-chair for the US Army Defense Staff for your documentary. Did he tell you why that was the policy?

COLLYNS: I think they were trying to find an exit strategy so the efforts on the part of the Americans really from the invasion onwards was to try and hand over power to the Iraqi security forces. He Iraqi army had been disbanded after the invasion so you we're starting from scratch. And it wasn't until late 2006 that Jack Keane, who was by then a retired general, persuaded the president that really they did need to adopt the new policy which involved not just extra troops, but those troops being deployed to do very different things on the ground, crucially to be protecting the Iraqi population which is certainly not what the Iraqis had felt they were doing up until that point.

WERMAN: And while Keane is urging for a new policy, meanwhile in Iraq the main man in the Awakening was an Iraqi Sunni named Sheikh Jabbar. He has some rather blunt comments for you about what led him to the Awakening.

COLLYNS: Sheikh Abdul-Jabbar and others like him were at the sharp end. They saw first hand what al-Qaeda was doing. I mean initially al-Qaeda, with support from Bin Laden and others overseas, initially they had joined forces with the Sunni nationalists in Iraq and they'd made one cause. But what became clear by 2006 was that when al-Qaeda declared an independent state of [SOUNDS LIKE] Anbar and started introducing their own law, it was a brutal, brutal time and Jabbar and his friends decided they would not put up with this anymore. It's to the credit of the American soldiers that some on the ground there had the wit about them to respond appropriately. And actually one of the most, I think, intriguing sequences in our series is an exchange between the American colonel on the ground describing meeting this guy Jabbar and clearly suspicion on both sides, but in the end they came together and the two forces working together were very effective.

WERMAN: Yeah, I mean that must have been an incredibly awkward moment, that meeting, because on one hand Jabbar tells you, before we were ready to kill Americans, we were killing Americans, but now suddenly these al-Qaeda in Iraq guys are killing Iraqis.

COLLYNS: And tough on both sides. I mean tough on the American soldiers telling their men on the ground that now they were going to fight alongside people, these insurgents, who until a week or two or month or two earlier were trying to kill them. So it took a great leap of faith I think on both sides, but that was what was so effective. Having said that, it's not the end of the story. And the people, Jabbar and his like, having given up the fight against the Americans, two or three years on are now looking around them and thinking well, have they really got out of this all that they want and if circumstances don't improve, might they not actually go back and find where those guns are stored away and get them out again.

WERMAN: Back to when the offensive against al-Qaeda in Iraq began by the Sunnis in the Awakening, I mean the Americans offered them guns, but also hard cash. How important was the money?

COLLYNS: I asked everyone we met how important was the money imagining that it probably played a pretty crucial role, and I think without exception all the Iraqis I spoke to said that it really had not been the prime motivating factor for them. In other words, it really had been the egregious behavior of al-Qaeda and the damage it was wreaking on the local population.

WERMAN: Now we know what happened to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and basically al-Qaeda left Iraq for all intents and purposes. How initially though did al-Qaeda respond to Sheikh Jabbar's revolt?

COLLYNS: They saw it as the threat that it was and Jabbar himself, and others like him, paid a high price. I mean Jabbar's own brother, thought he'd had a brother killed a year or so earlier, but when he started this movement another of his brothers was kidnapped and Jabbar went through this process, this harrowing ordeal, you can't imagine anything much worse, where he was told that if he released other al-Qaeda prisoners that he was holding and if he desisted from fighting than his brother would be released. And Jabbar stuck to his line and said he would not bargain with al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda killed his brother. So people paid a tough old price. I asked him, I said you must regret the death of a brother. Is that a price worth paying? And he didn't pause for a moment. He said absolutely and he'd do it again. And he felt that the threat posed by al-Qaeda to society broadly was so great, that he was prepared even to pay that sacrifice.

WERMAN: Sam, it occurs to me that the Awakening is something of an unplanned success story in Iraq and having spent a fair amount of time in Iraq looking into the evolution of the Awakening, post-US invasion, and what it did for the country, you must have some thoughts about how an Awakening might be fostered in Afghanistan right now.

COLLYNS: Well, I'm very conscious coming back from Iraq. If you hear the language people use, American soldiers, British soldiers, use, those that are in Afghanistan now, they clearly have learnt lessons. They talk about protecting the population, they talk about finding allies from within. So there's no question those same lessons are being learned and the people applying them are people that have gone through that Iraqi experience and clearly been colored by it. So I think there's no doubt that the influence of Iraq on Afghanistan is direct. Not to say that it's easy or in any shape or form is improving. I mean it's a long, long way to go still. But those same political and military battles are being fought now.

WERMAN: Sam Collyns, producer of the new BBC documentary Secret Iraq. Thank you very much.

COLLYNS: You're welcome.