A New Force Called Sahwa Shows Its Muscle

BAQUBA — The Awakening Councils in Diyala province are stepping up their protests against the government in Baghdad.

The Awakening Councils, or the Sahwa as they are called, are a mostly Sunni Muslim force set up by the U.S. to draw in resistance fighters into their ranks, and then to help U.S. forces fight other anti-U.S. groups.

The Sahwa have been engaged in growing conflict with the largely Shia Muslim forces of the Iraqi government.

The new conflict was sparked off by the rape and murder of two Sunni women, allegedly by members of Shia militia that are backed by the government. The Sahwa in Diyala province, just north of Baghdad, have been demanding dismissal of police chief Major General Ghanim al-Qureyshi.

“We demand the resignation of Qureyshi because he is sectarian, and every crime against Sunnis has been committed in his knowledge,” Sahwa leader Abu Qutaiba told IPS. “We also want to put the issue of prisoners on the table of debate. Their cases should be reviewed by fair people. All prisoners were arrested on the basis of sectarian information.”

Qutaiba added, “Prisons are filled with Sunnis while Shias enjoy jobs, power and authority. We blame Americans for relying on false Shia information, which serves the sectarian appeal and Iranian agenda. We want the truth to see the sun.”

The government, far from rebuking the provincial police chief, has given him a promotion.

Following a demonstration led by Sahwa members Feb. 8, Qureyshi said people do not want to demonstrate. All that had happened was that some people carrying protest banners had joined others leaving a mosque in Tahreer district after prayers.

Following this, Sahwa members led another rally Saturday, hoisting banners that said ‘Today is Saturday’. Other protest rallies followed.

On Feb. 11, hundreds of Sahwa fighters demonstrated again in Baquba, 40 km northeast of Baghdad, demanding dismissal of Qureyshi, a Shia. The protesters threatened they would quit their jobs as neighbourhood guards if this was not done. Many have already left their posts in protest. Sahwa members are paid 300 dollars monthly by the U.S. government.

The demonstrations have drawn in people from all around Iraq’s volatile Diyala province. The streets have filled with people hoisting protest banners. The Sahwa here want to show they are a power that Baghdad cannot ignore.

A rally last Sunday led to armed clashes between Iraqi police and Sahwa members, in which three policemen were killed.

Abu Haider al-Katib, spokesman for the 1920s Revolution Brigades, the largest of the Sahwa components, told reporters that if their demands were not met, they would “take up arms” against the police “and U.S. troops if they support the police.”

“We want jobs, that have been denied to Sunnis,” Abu Haider, another Sahwa leader in the city told IPS. “Americans and the Prime Minister (Nouri al-Maliki) promised that members of the Sahwa would be included as permanent Iraqi security forces. People want us to be official forces because they trust our seriousness in protecting our province. We restored life to streets and made people feel safe again.”

So far only 10 percent of nearly 80,000 Sahwa members have been admitted into training for police and army jobs.

A member of a local Sahwa, referring to himself as Abu Noor, told IPS that their demands also included “an end to the licentious behaviour of the sectarian police.

“From the time the militants left the streets, the police have behaved badly. We want the police and army to respect people. We want all Iraqis to feel that they are of great value in their country.”

The police, he said, “do not show this bad behaviour in the Shia districts of Baquba like Khirnabat and Hwaider.”

The Sahwa are clearly gaining respect and power in areas like Baquba — a phenomenon which threatens the government, and its army and police forces.

“The majority of the new police and army are ignorant,” retired teacher Abu Yarub told IPS. “They do not know how to read and write. The Americans will see how big a disaster they put us in when they allowed Iranians to establish the new police and army. This province refuses to be ruled by Iranians or their fellows.”

(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)