BAQUBA — U.S. backed Sahwa forces threaten to destabilise U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces in Iraq’s volatile Diyala province.
The ‘Awakening Councils’, known locally as the Sahwa, have left their centres in cities and districts around the capital of Diyala province, located 40 km northeast of Baghdad.
After seeing better security and stability brought about by the Sahwa, most of whom are former resistance fighters, residents are concerned what their absence will now mean.
The Sahwa are protesting against kidnappings, rape, and killing of Sunnis by the Shia-controlled police in Baquba.
On the other hand, Shia politicians of Diyala, like those in Baghdad, have always shown their resentment against the fighters of the Sahwa. They often accuse the fighters of being “terrorists”.
Many residents see this as more of the sectarian view of the predominantly Shia government of Baghdad that does not want to share power with Sunni groups.
According to the U.S. military, 82 percent of the 80,000-strong Sahwa are Sunni.
“Police vehicles are used to kidnap Sunni people, and when asked, the police chief and government members say it is difficult to control the mistakes of all of the police and army,” Abu Saad, a member of a local Sahwa group in Baquba told IPS. “We have to put an end to the bad conduct of the police and army. They have done enough bad things to the people of this city. The suffering of this city is because of them.”
An employee who works in the provincial government office told IPS on condition of anonymity that corruption is compounding the problems between the Sahwa and government security forces.
“The politicians and leaders are more concerned about collecting and saving money rather than about the security and needs of the people,” he said. “There is a hidden race towards money, and this money is used for their personal needs and to support militias. This is why there is a Shia person on the top of every office.”
Locals have become increasingly resentful about the corruption and lack of government action to improve security and infrastructure in the city. “The members of the government in Diyala themselves do not want the city to be secure,” said a local trader, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They want to keep ruling the province one-sidedly. People do not trust them, and suspect their allegiance.”
The trader added, “Shia politicians of the Baghdad government want to keep their domination over Diyala, even though it is mostly Sunni.” In 2003 estimates showed that Diyala province was roughly 85 percent Sunni.
As a result of rallies against the provincial police chief, Major General Ghanim al-Qureyshi, who the Sahwa say is a part of the corruption and anti-Sunni behaviour of the government security apparatus, the fighters of the Awakening Councils have earned more support from residents.
“We are currently protecting Sunni people from the government police and army,” Sahwa member Abu Laith told IPS. “An Iraqi police Hummer entered the New Baquba district and kidnapped a Sunni person recently. Before it left the district, the fighters of the Sahwa blocked the way and freed the kidnapped person, and arrested the four persons who were dressed up as policemen.”
Laith, like most residents of Baquba, believes that most of the Iraqi police and army are members of various Shia militias.
“After a day, U.S. troops came and took the four policemen to prison,” Laith said. “When we asked (Diyala police chief) Qureyshi about them, he replied that he does not know. Of course we know he is lying.”
The Sahwa in Diyala refuse to cooperate with the government, but maintain ties with coalition forces. The U.S. forces are backing the Sahwa now more firmly than before.
This has brought a growing divide between the U.S. armed and funded Sahwa, and the U.S.-backed predominantly Shia government in Baghdad. Reconciliation seems remote within this seemingly contradictory strategy of the occupation forces, that many here call a “divide and rule” strategy.
U.S. backing of the Sahwa members, who are each paid at least 300 dollars per month, is provoking resentment among Shias.
“The commander of the Sahwa, Abu Hader, has been given huge authority, and his bodyguards are Americans,” a resident of the New Baquba district, speaking on condition of anonymity told IPS. “American snipers are posted over his house for his protection.”
People of the New Baquba district feel safe with Abu Hader, he said. “He cares for the displaced people by giving them money and food, he cares for widows who lost husbands during these last few years, and he gives to and hires the unemployed.”
In a move sure to enrage the government of U.S.-installed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has opposed the Sahwa from the beginning, many groups are forming their own battalions, and conducting their own training, independent of the government.
“A group of the Awakening Councils fighters travelled to Sulaymaniya province in the north for training to become officers for the newly-formed battalion,” Abu Ahmed, a member of the local Sahwa told IPS. “The Americans have finally replied to the cries and sufferings of Sunnis, who were unfairly treated through the period of occupation.”
(*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)