The Growing Storm

A member of the Awakening Group in Faduat Arab neighborhood in Baghdad. (Photo: Getty Images)

Last weekend, the Iraqi government arrested an Awakening Group leader of a Baghdad neighborhood, then moved into the area. With the help of US occupation forces, they disarmed the militiamen under his control, but only after fighting broke out between US-backed Iraqi government security forces and the US-formed Sunni Awakening Group militia. This disturbing event is the realization of what most Iraqis have long feared – that the relative calm in Iraq today would eventually be broken when fighting erupts between these two entities.

The US policy that has led to this recent violence has been long in the making, as it has only been a matter of time before the tenuous truce between the groups came unglued. For it has been a truce built on a deeply corrupt US policy of backing the predominantly Shia Iraqi government forces while paying the Sunni resistance not to fight both government and occupation forces.

Most of us remember all too well the praise from the Bush administration lavished on the Awakening Groups, a Sunni militia comprised of former resistance fighters and al-Qaeda members (according to the US military), each member paid $300 per month of US taxpayer money. They grew in strength to 100,000 men.

US aid to the Councils was cut off last October on the understanding that the members would be absorbed into Iraqi government forces. To date, less than a third have been given government jobs.

Two months ago I visited the al-Dora area of Baghdad, a sprawling area controlled by Awakening forces. One of their commanders told me he was concerned about the fact that most of his men were not being given government jobs. “They are lacking pay, and most of them are becoming more angry by the day, since they have had more broken promises than they can handle,” he explained as we drank tea, “Many of my men have not been paid since October. This cannot continue.”

Meanwhile, the US-backed Iraqi government led by US-appointed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to target the leadership of the Awakening Groups. Maliki perceives the Awakening groups as both a political and military threat, and since October has been targeting their leadership in parts of Baghdad, as well as in Iraq’s volatile Diyala Province.

In the wake of the spasm of violence in Baghdad last weekend, The Washington Post reported “As Apache helicopter gunships cruised above Baghdad’s Fadhil neighborhood, former Sunni insurgents fought from rooftops and street corners against American and Iraqi forces, according to witnesses, the Iraqi military and police. At least 15 people were wounded in the gunfights, which lasted several hours. By nightfall, the street fighters had taken five Iraqi soldiers hostage. The battles, the most ferocious in nearly a year in Baghdad, erupted minutes after the arrest of Adil Mashadani, the leader of the Fadhil Awakening Council, which is composed mostly of former Sunni insurgents who allied themselves with the US military in exchange for monthly salaries that are now paid by Iraq’s government.”

Of course, the reason given to justify government’s detention of the Awakening leader of the area, the incident that triggered the bloodshed, were “terrorist acts” by the group, according to Iraq’s chief military spokesman, Gen. Qassim Atta. Predictably, the Awakening group spokesman for the area, Abu Mirna, told the Post, “We will fight them till the end if they don’t release him.”

It was convenient policy to have set up the Awakening groups to temporarily quell overall violence in Iraq. Resistance fighters rushed to join the ranks for the paycheck, as well as US military protection from Shia militias, which now largely comprise the government security apparatus. Now, however, clearly the US has lost some of their interest in continuing to support the Awakening groups, and the Maliki government is ratcheting up its efforts to dismantle them. Predictably, members of the Awakening are fighting back – for without a paycheck, and with yet another broken promise by the occupation forces to spur them on, why should they sit back and allow themselves to be detained, killed or further betrayed?

However, let us not martyr the Awakening Groups. Most of the leadership of the Awakening Groups are thugs, as are many of the members. Within weeks of the formation of the groups back in 2006, Iraqis living in areas that began to come under the control of Awakening groups began complaining of the brutality of the fighters in their area. Extortion and bribery became rampant, and many Iraqis view Awakening forces as collaborators with the occupiers of their country.

For example, I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with the president of the Fallujah Awakening Council, Sheikh Aifan Sadun, who, like other Awakening leaders, has hundreds of security personnel under his control. It was just before the January 30 elections in Iraq, and he was vying for political power against a rival Sunni group in the city – the Iraqi Islamic Party. Sheikh Aifan, who spoke with me while driving his $420,000 custom-built heavily armored BMW through the city that was destroyed by two US sieges in 2004, was accusing his rivals of rigging the upcoming elections.

He told me he would use “any means necessary” to fight them if they stole the elections. It was and is all about power for these Awakening leaders. And money. Shiekh Aifan, like most of the Awakening leaders, quickly got into the “construction business” when the US military stopped direct payments to them last October. Now those payments come in the form of “construction contracts.” Sheikh Aifan himself has been awarded “contracts” worth $250 million – keep that in mind during this tax season, because it is your money that is paying for things like his own private militia, his BMW and his mansion on the outskirts of Fallujah.

In nearby Ramadi, the capital city of Al-Anbar, Sheikh Ahmad Abo Risha is president of the Awakening Council for the entire province. Just before the election, he, like Sheikh Aifan, was making moves to ensure he maintained his grip on power. His rival in the elections was Sheikh Hamid Al-Hayis, also an Awakening Council leader in the city, and from the same tribe. Abo Risha did not have kind words for Al-Hayis. “Al-Hayis has relations with government people and oil contracts, and he gets money from this by using his position which we helped him acquire,” Abo Risha told me at the Awakening Council of Ramadi headquarters. “I’m from a long line of sheikhs, but Al-Hayis has only been a sheikh since 2006 when we started the Awakening,” Abo Risha said. If Al-Hayis were to win the elections, “there will be a revolution.”

When I asked Abo Risha about the Islamic Party, which Sheikh Aifan was accusing of trying to steal the elections, he told me if the Islamic Party took the elections by fraud, “It will be like Darfur.”

None of these threats came to pass, as both men were victorious over their rivals. But their bellicose rhetoric is indicative of the kind of people they are, and the lengths they are willing to go to in order to maintain and/or seize power.

Despite the corruption and inherent infighting with the Awakening Group leaders, most of them, and the tens of thousands of men under their control, will certainly fight when attacked or provoked, as evidenced by this past weekend in Baghdad.

Broadening the frame of reference, keep in mind that government detentions, killings and threats towards Awakening Group leaders and members are ongoing in neighborhoods of Baghdad, as well as across Diyala province. We should expect violence in the areas of Baghdad they control as the Iraqi government continues to make moves towards taking them out in advance of the national elections scheduled for later this year. Thus, keep your eyes on the following areas of Baghdad in the coming weeks and months: Adhamiyah, Amiriyah, Gazaliyah and al-Dora, to name just a few. More broadly, also watch Baquba and surrounding areas where Awakening Groups are largely in control.

And keep Al-Anbar in mind. The province, which is one-third the geographic area of Iraq, is largely controlled by Awakening groups. This is the area where the fiercest resistance to the occupation has occurred, and if US occupation forces or the US-backed Iraqi government begins to move on men like Sheikh Aifan or Abo Risha, it will bring predictable results.

As Awakening Group member Abu Ayad, 58, told the Post, “We will all become suicide bombers” if his leader, Mashadani, is not released by the Iraqi government.