A Little Too Tense to be Truce

BAQUBA — As violence continues in Baghdad and southern Iraq, it seems quiet on the surface in Baquba, the volatile city 40km north of Baghdad. But few believe truce between the U.S.-backed Awakening Groups and the government security forces can last.

The Awakening Groups, known locally as the Sahwa, 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.

In Baquba and elsewhere in Diyala province the Sahwa are deployed around residential areas and streets. But the checkpoints are manned by Iraqi police and army.

“Our task is to provide protection to the people and to cooperate with the security forces in a way that does not cross with them,” local Sahwa member Abu Hamza told IPS.

In late February, the Sahwa accused government security forces of carrying out further attacks against Sunni people in and around Baquba. Sahwa forces cut ties with government and occupation forces, and abandoned security posts.

But last month the provincial government agreed to many of the demands made by the Sahwa, an indication of the increasing power of the Sunni group against the Shia-dominated government.

In a new development, Sahwa groups are being set up comprising Shia men. “They are not necessarily fighters but notable members of the tribes,” Sahwa member Harith al-Ansari told IPS.

Ansari said the new Sahwa in Baquba are being created by local government, as in the western al-Anbar province. This development further complicates the relations between local people and the national government in Baghdad.

A meeting was held two weeks ago at the house of tribal sheikh Dra’a al-Fayadh, 30 km south of Baghdad to work out ways of incorporating Shia men into Diyala’s Sahwa. Fayadh has ties with the U.S. military.

The meeting was attended by governor of Diyala, Raad Hameed Mulla Jawad, U.S. military officers, and leaders of tribes from districts and towns around Baquba.

Money was a key issue. “A week ago, a number of popular committees in Qatoon district and al-Mualimeen quarter, one kilometre from Baqouba, decided to quit because the coalition forces were late in giving them their salaries,” Abu Hajir, a fighter in a local popular committee told IPS. “When they received the salary four days ago, they returned.”

Despite progress in local collaboration between Sahwa and government forces, unresolved demands remain on a national level for Sahwa members to be incorporated into government security forces.

“We want to be included in the forces as the Shia are,” a local Sahwa member told IPS on condition of anonymity. “We want to put an end to unemployment for the Sunnis, and to take part in the running of our city.”

Tension between the Sahwa and Iraqi army and police continues in Sunni towns around Baquba such as Tahreer and Buhriz. “Members of the police can’t give up their sectarian bias and their allegiance to Iran,” a local trader told IPS.

Some want the delicate balance of power to continue between government forces on one side and the Sahwa on the other. “We all hope to have a law that governs all people, because we’ve seen the injustice of the government in this province,” Abu Ethar from an Awakening Group unit in Baquba told IPS.

(*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)