Saturday, April 4, 2009

US airstrike in Iraq threatens peace among militia

From The Times
April 4, 2009
by Deborah Haynes in Baghdad
A mutiny in the ranks of a key Iraqi militia credited with helping US forces to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq is threatening to plunge the country back into bloody sectarian violence.
The rebellion by some members of the Awakening Councils, a Sunni Arab paramilitary force of more than 90,000 men, could unravel the improvements in security since 2007. If left unchecked it threatens to push the country back to the brink of civil war, pitting Sunnis against the Shias.
A US airstrike on Thursday night targeted a group of Awakening Council men north of Baghdad who were suspected of planting a roadside bomb. One person was killed and two others were wounded and arrested.
The attack came days after some of the worst fighting in Baghdad in two years. Local Awakening guards clashed with the Iraqi Army after their leader was arrested on criminal and terrorism charges. Iraqi soldiers moved into the Fadhil district on Sunday and ordered fighters to surrender.
The crackdown alarmed other Awakening units, who fear that they are being treated unfairly by the Government for sectarian reasons. Scores of guards, many of whom fought as insurgents before switching sides, have been arrested in the past fortnight.
Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia Prime Minister, said that the operation in Fadhil came after months of investigation. “The issue was not for political or media purposes,” Mr al-Maliki said.
The offensive sent a message “to those who are following the same path taken by the gang in Fadhil that their fate will be the same”, he said.
The renewed violence will be greeted with alarm by the US military, which is drawing down its forces because of the reduction in violence.
One leader in the restive province of Diyala said that the Government did not trust the Awakening movement because it was made up of Sunni Arabs. “We fought al-Qaeda so how could it be that my guys are terrorists?” said the man, who goes by the nickname of Abu Iraq (father of Iraq). “I do not trust my Government.”
The Awakening Councils were a key part of the strategy developed by General David Petraeus, whose surge of US forces two years ago was credited with pulling Iraq out of its descent into civil war and defeating al-Qaeda.
Awakening Councils were conceived in 2006. The sheikhs had supported or approved of the insurgency but had become repulsed by the indiscriminate killings by groups such as al-Qaeda. They agreed to recruit thousands of fighters to turn against the extremists in return for a salary. The initiative spread across the country. Insurgents who once received cash for planting bombs against the coalition forces took up guns under the payroll of US officers to protect their neighbourhood in one of the most significant turning points in the war.
Many members of the Government opposed the creation of this mainly Sunni Arab armed force and remain concerned that the Awakening Councils have been infiltrated by al-Qaeda and other militant groups.
Responsibility for the Awakening Councils was handed over gradually to the Iraqi authorities. A fifth of the men were supposed to be absorbed into the Iraqi security forces, with the rest given help to find civilian jobs. Little progress has been made in recruiting any of the guards however.
Officials insist they are committed to working with the guards but a drop in the price of oil has restricted plans.
Abu Iraq, who commands about 1,000 men, said that almost 500 had been laid off without the prospect of employment and there was no sign that the 530 still with jobs would be accepted into the security forces soon. “The danger is that the violence starts again in our neighbourhood. There are many guys with no jobs,” he said.
Many Awakening Council members complain that they have not received a salary for up to three months.
Sons of Iraq
- The Awakening Councils, also known as the Sons of Iraq, were formed in 2006 after Sunni tribesmen rose against al-Qaeda
- The US Army paid monthly salaries to the estimated 90,000 Sons of Iraq until last year
- Iraq is dragging its feet on a pledge to take a fifth of its members into the security forces

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