BAQUBA — A massive military operation in Diyala province has underscored the military and political gains by the Sahwa militia, despite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s earlier attempts to thwart them. Maliki has now apparently come around to involving the Sahwa rather than opposing them.
The Sahwa are the ‘Awakening Forces’ created and paid by the U.S. military to co-opt militants and to fight al-Qaeda, but which have become a force of their own parallel to the military and the police.
They are a mostly Sunni militia of about 90,000 comprising mostly former anti-occupation resistance fighters and even al-Qaeda members. Each member is paid 300 dollars monthly.
The Sahwa have long been at odds with the regular Iraqi forces, but they came out in strength this time following a promise of 3,000 jobs for their members in the national police.
The move came after Maliki, who leads a Shia dominated government, dropped his long opposition to absorption of Sahwa members in government forces.
“Tomorrow you will take your role with us in our operation to attack al-Qaeda militants,” General Ali Gaidan, commander of the ground forces, said at a meeting of Sahwa leaders with Maliki at a camp near Kanan district, 12 km northeast of Baquba on Aug. 2.
Maliki came round reportedly after Sahwa leaders told Gaidan they have a list of militants, with evidence on them, that government forces know nothing about.
Named ‘Good Tiding’, the military operation was launched Jul. 29 in the volatile Diyala province north-east of Baghdad and on the border with Iran to hunt down al-Qaeda fighters and supporters. Both Iraqi military and Sahwa forces were drawn into the operation. The capital city of the province, Baquba, 50 km northeast of Baghdad, was placed under curfew for two days to let security forces search the area. A night curfew was maintained as the operation continues.
Ministry of interior spokesman Abdul-Kareem Khalaf says operation plans were leaked to allow militants to escape. “We intentionally allowed them (the militants) to flee in order to create a gap between their leaders and followers from the chaos,” Khalaf told reporters.
Khalaf referred to a practice of intentionally giving militants time to flee in the hope that lower-ranking fighters will flee, creating a schism between regular fighters and their leadership.
“When they get back again, they will find no ground for them to work, as we will have changed the area with this operation,” a major-general from the criminal investigation unit in Baquba told IPS on condition of anonymity.
The police, the army, the criminal investigation unit from the interior ministry, a group of judges, the traffic police, and interior ministry commandos were all roped into the operation. In what was clearly at least partly a publicity manoeuvre, staff from the water, electricity, and health departments were also recruited. Ministers and local politicians made appearances, giving the operation an almost ceremonial feel.
Through the operation, which continues with low levels of home searches, the forces have besieged the province. Checkpoints have been set up in the streets. Vehicle movement is restricted.
“When a person is arrested, he has to be produced before a committee of judges at al-Jawal, an Iraqi army camp near Baquba,” said an army general, on condition of anonymity. The general added that the trails were for “terrorist suspects”.
The Sahwa have been given a strong role in the operation. They were deployed in large numbers, contrary to expectations.
The coming together of these disparate forces was unexpectedly welcomed. “We expected to see cruelty by the forces,” Amir Ali, a local trader, told IPS. “We found them very polite and well-mannered. They politely asked us to get in the house. We are greatly surprised and very impressed.”
According to witnesses, people offered the forces meals and water, and some even invited them to shower in their house.
According to Iraqi officials, about 100 policemen and 165 civilians have been arrested so far since the launch of the operation. The operation is particularly targeting suspected al-Qaeda members working within the police force.
The Sahwa, at least in Diyala province, now enjoy a presence within the government security apparatus, a goal they have long sought.
(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported extensively from Iraq and the Middle East).