A year before the surge of 30,000 American troops moved into Baghdad, the Awakening Councils had emerged in Anbar Province - once considered the most dangerous area in Iraq for American and Iraqi soldiers. Sunni tribal leaders with American backing joined together to fight Al Queda in Mesopotamia. Their numbers grew to 23,000 and their success against the insurgents changed Anbar into one of the safest provinces in Iraq.
Most of the group's members were paid an average salary of $300 a month by the American military.
The Councils increased across Iraq to nearly 80,000, mostly Sunni volunteers. The United States has wanted them to be absorbed into the official Iraqi security forces, but this has been resisted by the Shiite controlled government. The goal of the Awakening Councils is essentially the same as that of the Iraqi police and army-to eliminate the insurgents and restore stability to the country. In Baghdad, there were about 43,000 Sunni Council members in l7 neighborhoods as of December 10, 2007. Tribal affiliation is not the key factor as it is in Anbar Province. Rather they are held together more by mutual antipathy toward the central Iraqi Shiite government whom they see controlled by Iran. In addition, many members are former Baathists, members of the security forces under the Saddam regime.
On December 22, 2007, the Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq expressed concerns about the Awakening Councils, "We appreciate the role of the Awakening Councils, tribes and popular committees in tracking down terrorists and criminals. But at the same time, we emphasize that these awakenings must be an arm of the Iraq government and not a substitute for it."
By August of 2008, the Shiite dominated government in Iraq began arresting senior members of the Awakening Councils. The Iraqi military is aiming at arresting 650 leaders to weaken the movement. Sheik Jalaladeen al-Sagheer, a leading Shiite member of Parliament said, "The state cannot accept the Awakening. Their days are numbered." It appears that the Iraqi government's aim is to dismantle the American backed Councils entirely.
Senior American commanders are alarmed by the arrests. They contend that the actions of the Awakening Councils against al- Queda have saved hundreds of lives of American soldiers. They fear renewed violence by insurgents if the Councils are no longer allowed to operate. Brigadier General David Perkins, the senior military spokesman in Iraq, said, "If it is not handled properly, we could have a security issue. You don't want to give anybody a reason to turn back to al Queda." He knows that many Council members had previously been allied with Al Queda in Mesopotamia. When they formed the Awakening Councils, they made a l80 degree turn aimed at becoming part of the Iraqi security forces. Since most have been prevented from joining, they exist in a state of limbo supported by American finances. They are becoming increasingly bitter as they see the government has not made good on promises to recruit tens of thousands into the Iraqi security forces. General Perkins said only 5200 Council members have been recruited to date into a force of 100,000.
Abu Marouf, a Council leader, expressed the bitterness of members. "Some people from the government encouraged us to fight against Al Queda, but it seems that now that Al Queda is finished, they don't want us anymore." Marouf found his name on a list of 650 leaders that an Iraqi army brigade was using to round up Awakening Council members. He spoke of his men who had "sacrificed and fought against Al Queda, and now the government wants to catch them and arrest them." The collision course of the Sunni Awakening Councils and the Shiite government appears to be imminent. Brigadier Nassir al- Hiti, commander of the Iraqi Army's Muthanna Brigade, said of the Awakening leaders on his list for arrest, "These people are like cancer and we must remove them."
It is true that Awakening Council Sunni members were at one time insurgents, blowing up American truck convoys and shooting American troops. Their transformation into becoming opponents of Al Queda is an example of the tenuous nature of allegiance of tribal groups over centuries. American officers give them credit for the significant drop in American casualties in Anbar and Baghdad in the year before the surge went into effect. Colonel Kurt Pinkerton, the former American battalion commander who over saw the Awakening program west of Abu Ghraib said it was instrumental in cutting down the violence. He said, "I don't think that area would have been calmed without those guys," citing Abu Marouf as one of the Sunni leaders in the successful effort.
Brigadier General Nassir is adamant in his drive to arrest Sunni leaders of the Awakening. He says his orders come from Baghdad's Operations Center and that reconciliation is impossible. He states that he would rather give up his position than work with former insurgents. "They committed crimes and attacked the Iraqi Army, and there is no way to rehabilitate them."
In contrast to the dire statements from General Nassir, the Awakening Councils continue to have strong support from the American Military. General Perkins has reported that American and Iraqi officials have tentatively agreed to the transfer of 58,000 American-paid militia guards this year onto the Iraqi payrolls. This would be under the command of the Baghdad Operations Center, which reports directly to Prime Minister al-Maliki. He did caution that this transfer will only occur if certain critical issues are resolved. The militia men must be vetted individually and the jobs and training programs must be sorted out. He also projected that once the Iraqi government took full control, that the program could be eliminated. "We don't want this to be a dead-end, kick them to the curb sort of thing."
General Perkins may have an accurate, albeit unpromising, projection of the future of the Councils once the American military leaves Iraq. The history of Shiite versus Sunni rivalry and bloodshed goes back for centuries. It would seem unrealistic to assume that Sunnis will be accepted into Iraqi security forces on any basis of equal service after American troops depart from Iraq. Abu Azzam, a Sunni Council leader, has met with aides to Prime Minister Maliki to discuss possible reconciliation. He described the discussions as "not going well. For now, everything is stopped." He has organized a political slate for the coming provincial elections. He also believes that former insurgents will not return to violence if they are refused entry into the Iraqi security forces. Yet, he concedes that "Part of the Awakening members will fight the government if they are not recruited into the security forces."
This latest program of arresting Sunni Awakening Council members bodes ill for any coming together of Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq. It is one part of the uncertain political climate in the country. The original key benchmarks set for bringing the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds together have not been met. There is no oil law sharing the income among the three groups. There have been no provincial elections. Prime Minister Maliki wants a timeline for withdrawal of American troops. President Bush talks of a "horizon." What lies over that horizon for the people of Iraq once we do bring
the troops home does not look promising.
Joyce S. Anderson's articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other national publications. She is the author of "Courage in High Heels," "Flaw in The Tapestry," "When Winter Comes" and "The Mermaids Singing." She can be reached at JSAWrite@aol.com.