The Storm Widens

A member of Sahwa asks a driver for documents while keeping watch over a neighborhood in downtown Baghdad. (Photo: Getty Images)
A member of Sahwa asks a driver for documents while keeping watch over a neighborhood in downtown Baghdad. (Photo: Getty Images)

One week after Iraqi government forces arrested an Awakening Group (commonly referred to as Sons of Iraq, al-Sahwa) leader, Adil al-Mashhadani, head of a patrol unit in central Baghdad’s Fadhil neighborhood in Baghdad, sparking gun battles that raged for hours between US-backed Iraqi forces and US-allied Sunni militiamen that killed three people, militiamen have once again been detained, widening concerns that sectarian violence may once more engulf Baghdad. There are 50,000 Sahwa fighters in Baghdad alone.

While the Sahwa leader, who had been detained with 32 of his fighters, was eventually released by the Iraqi government, tensions grew in the wake of his detention as threats made by both sides increased. Thus far, only 11 of the 32 others have been released.

Just days after the aforementioned detention, Iraqi forces arrested two more Sahwa guards in the al-Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, which is controlled by their forces. In an article for Truthout last week, I voiced my concerns of these government attacks against Sahwa forces spreading. I am surprised at the rapidity at which this is occurring now, as this trend, if it continues, appears almost certain to spark a dramatic flare of sectarian violence in the capital city.

The Sahwa fighters, who once numbered 100,000 across Iraq according to the US military, were backed and paid by US forces until the Shiite-led Iraqi government took over the program last October, a process that was completed this week. Payment to Sahwa leaders by the US military, however, has shifted from overt payments to payment in the form of “construction contracts” to key leaders.

That the treatment of the Sahwa forces by the Iraqi government is largely seen as a barometer for the process of reconciliation does not bode well for these recent events. Most of the Sahwa fighters are former resistance fighters, who feared they would be arrested for their previous attacks against the Iraqi government. For example, Mashhadani was arrested, according to Iraqi government officials, for running a bomb-making factory among other reasons.

Further complicating matters, in separate incidents last week, US forces opened fire on a group of fighters they said could belong to a Sahwa unit, killing one, after allegedly spotting them planting a bomb. In addition, last Friday, Iraqi police arrested Hussam Alwan, a Sahwa leader in the town of Muqtadiya, 50 miles northeast of Baghdad.

On Sunday, April 5, two houses were blown up in the Abu Ghraib district of west Baghdad, one of which belonged to a leader of the local Sahwa group. A man was killed and two women wounded, municipal officials said. Assuming this trend continues, the leadership of the Sahwa groups under attack and the fighters under their control are left with two choices: sit by and wait to be arrested or assassinated, or begin to fight back. Thus far, we are seeing the latter, and there is little reason to suspect this wonít increase if the government continues with its policy.

As the threat of a resurgence of sectarian violence grows, black funeral banners hang across Baghdad, ominous reminders that there is no normal life in the war-ravaged country. The Los Angeles Times reports , “At a time when the Iraqi government and US military speak of lower death tolls, black banners drape the mosque walls and traffic circles of Baghdad, telling a different story of a world beyond statistics, where killings still ripple through society. These disposable funeral banners, randomly read by drivers who pass on the word about the drive-by shootings, bombings and assassinations they document, remind ordinary Iraqis that nothing is as it seems, that the embers of the recent civil war still burn.”

Meanwhile, violence continues across the country. A brief tally of the last several days gives an idea of the situation in Iraq:

  • Sunday, April 5: nine Iraqis killed, 30 wounded
  • Saturday, April 4: one US marine, two Iraqis killed; eight Iraqis wounded
  • Friday, April 3: one US soldier, five Iraqis killed; 17 Iraqis wounded
  • Thursday, April 2: nine Iraqis killed, 22 wounded
  • Wednesday, April 1: one US soldier, 15 Iraqis killed; 25 Iraqis wounded
  • At the height of the sectarian violence that ravaged Iraq between early 2006 and mid-2007, some days found 300 Iraqis being killed. Right now, Iraq is teetering on the brink of returning to that level of bloodletting.