Sahwa Forces Challenge Govt, and Win

BAQUBA — The conflict between Sahwa forces and the Iraqi government in Diyala has resulted in more power for the Sahwa.

Tensions rose in early February when men dressed in Iraqi security personnel uniforms kidnapped two women. Their naked bodies were found later.

Before and after that incident, Sahwa forces have accused the police chief of Diyala province Ghanim al-Qureyshi of allowing Shia militiamen and death squads to operate with impunity against Sunnis.

The Sahwa, referred to as Concerned Local Citizens, and Awakening Groups, by the U.S. military, were formed to battle al-Qaeda. Members are paid 300 dollars a month by occupation forces, and now number over 80,000 across Iraq. The Sunni-dominated groups form a counterweight to the government security apparatus, which has long been known to comprise primarily Shia militiamen.

After the case of the women, the Sahwa in Baquba, 40 km northeast of Baghdad, gave Qureyshi a deadline to apologise, and to arrest the men responsible.

“We hereby declare suspension of all co-operation with U.S. military, Iraqi security forces and the local government,” Abu Abdullah, spokesman for the Awakening Council in Diyala province announced after the deadline passed.

Shortly thereafter hundreds of members of the Awakening Council shut their offices and held three separate demonstrations in Baquba. The government in Baghdad promised to send a committee to investigate the incident, following which the Sahwa of Diyala resumed security duties in the city.

This did not last long, as the Sahwa accused government security forces of carrying out further attacks against Sunni people in and around Baquba. Sahwa forces then cut all ties with government and occupation forces, and left their security posts.

But after March 1, the provincial government seems to have agreed to many of the demands made by the Sahwa. This development shows the increasing power the Sunni group has against the Shia-dominated government.

A Sahwa member said they have been promised the resignation of Qureyshi, the nomination of four Sunni assistants to be available to the new police chief, employment of 5,000 members of the Sahwa as government security personnel, and for the government police to stay out of predominantly Sunni districts.

Sahwa members returned to their posts and security duties, and have held street parties featuring a popular music band, in a show of defiance to police chief Qureyshi.

Recent comments by Iraqi security officials underscore the wide gap between them and the Sahwa.

General Mahdi Subeih from the interior ministry told the Saudi-owned al-Hayat newspaper in London Mar. 3: “The growth of the security role of members of the Awakening Councils has made them a third security force in the country alongside the army and the police.”

Subeih said “the rebellion by some of the members of the Awakening Councils and the confrontations that erupted between them and the security forces reveal the depth of the chasm between the two sides.”

(*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)