What future for the Sahwas?
As US forces prepare to withdraw from Iraq, members of the country's Sunni tribal militias are considering their future, writes Salah Hemeid
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Iraqi soldiers secure the site of a car bomb in Baghdad. Iraqi officials say a car bomb has exploded in a shopping area killing three people
Iraq's Shia-led government on Saturday imposed a weapons ban on thousands of members of the Sunni tribal militias, the so-called Awakening Councils or Sahwas, that have helped US-led forces to fight Al-Qaeda and its allies in Iraq. The Defence Ministry's decision to disarm the Awakening Councils in the eastern Diyala province immediately drew criticism from leaders in Iraq's other Sunni- populated provinces who fear the move could herald a crackdown on the groups.
Leaders of the Sahwas controlling around 10,000 personnel in Diyala warned that they would stop cooperating with government security forces if their weapon permits and special badges were withdrawn. In other provinces, members of the Sahwas warned that they would not obey if they were ordered to disarm.
The government's hardline attitude towards the Sahwas came two days after the army had arrested Youssef Al-Hayalan, leader of the Sahwa in Buhruz, a district of Diyala province, who Iraqi authorities accuse of having contacts with Al-Qaeda.
The Sahwas, also known as the Sons of Iraq, were set up in 2006 as part of the surge forged by General David Petraeus, the US top commander in Iraq at the time, as a counter-insurgency strategy to defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Desperate to reverse American failures to end the Sunni insurgency in the country, Petraeus resorted to offers of cash as a way of luring insurgent groups to fight Al-Qaeda.
American officials continue to claim that cooperation with the Sunni militiamen, many of them former insurgents, has been a key factor in helping curb the violence in the country and pave the way for the US troop drawdown in Iraq planned to start this summer.
Under an agreement with General Petraeus, Iraqi leaders promised to give government jobs to some 90,000 Sahwa members, though thus far only about 42,000 of the fighters have been integrated into government ministries.
In recent weeks, members of the Sahwas have also been the targets of a campaign of assassinations and bombings in which more than 100 people have died. Many observers believe that Al-Qaeda is behind the campaign, as part of an attempt to intimidate the Sahwas and force them to disarm ahead of the US withdrawal.
The dispute over the future of the Sahwas comes amid rising tensions over the failure of the various Iraqi political parties to form a new government three months after an inconclusive election, with soaring violence having been triggered by the political vacuum.
On Sunday, gunmen killed two candidates from the Sunni-backed Iraqiya List that won the majority of the seats in the March parliamentary elections. Iraqiya spokeswoman Maysoun Damlouji said the killings were part of series of assassinations that had targeted bloc members.
Also on Sunday, several people including police officers were killed and others wounded in a string of blasts including suicide attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere. A day later, 13 people died in a series of attacks in Baghdad and other cities that targeted police and Sahwa fighters as part of an apparent campaign of intimidation.
The campaign is a serious challenge for Iraq's police and military forces as US troops prepare to withdraw by the end of August. Members of Iraq's security forces have been top targets for insurgents, especially after US troops pulled out of Iraq's cities a year ago.
US officials have refrained from commenting directly on the crisis involving the Awakening Councils, preferring to give a generally positive assessment of the situation in the country, even though many observers are treating it with scepticism. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Sunday that a string of setbacks for Al-Qaeda had left the group devastated.
Mullen said that this would make it more likely that the Iraqi government would be able to handle what remains of Al-Qaeda's capability to launch strikes after US troops leave the country.
On Monday, General Ray Odierno, currently the top American commander in Iraq, said that the decimation of Al-Qaeda's leadership was the reason behind reports that insurgency casualties in Iraq had fallen to their lowest level since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.
Nevertheless, the Sahwas crisis comes at a sensitive time, with political leaders still jostling for control three months after the indecisive parliamentary elections.
While a Sunni-backed coalition led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi won a narrow victory, this has since been locked in a dispute with a Shia bloc led by the present Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki over who should have the right to form the next government.
Allawi's Sunni supporters have warned of the possibility of violence, or even civil war, if they are prevented from forming a government, and they have even spoken of the possibility of abandoning national politics altogether and setting up a government in exile.
The fear that it will be months before Iraqi leaders can agree on a new government has added to the sense of instability in the country, leading Iraqi and US officials to worry that insurgents and members of extremist groups will take advantage of the political stalemate to stage attacks aimed at re-igniting sectarian violence.
For this reason, the decision to disarm the Sahwas looks like a political miscalculation, even if it has long been believed that the fate of the thousands of Sahwa fighters in the country will be a major problem facing the Iraqi government and the US once American troops begin pulling out of the country.
The Sahwa fighters had been asked to stay with their neighbourhood security patrols during the March parliamentary elections and until a new government was formed. While the government has now ordered the disarming of the Sahwas in the Diyala province, it is not yet clear if it will take similar steps against those in the country's other provinces.
It also has not said if it will try to absorb the fighters into the country's regular security forces. Casting off thousands of armed Sunni fighters when they are no longer needed could make them ready recruits for insurgent groups, while absorbing them into the armed forces at a time when there is a volatile situation in the country and no national consensus has been reached on the size of the army and police force could be a recipe for further trouble.
The question now is whether members of the Awakening Councils will turn against the government if they feel that they have been abandoned.
Some of the groups that joined the awakening movement formerly belonged to the anti-government Sunni insurgency. This means that for nearly four years they have been taking the government's money, arms and ammunition, while possibly also biding their time before moving once again against the Shia-dominated government when US forces leave the country.
By escalating attacks on the Awakening Councils, Al-Qaeda may be trying to capitalise on government attempts to disarm the Sunni militias. In the country's currently desperate political situation, intimidation may be the only recruiting method insurgent groups need to lure the fighters back.
Aware of the dangers involved, the government has warned the Councils against any return to violence.
"Some people are trying to provoke the Awakening Councils and incite their members towards retaliation, which will reflect badly on the whole security situation," said Zuhair Al-Chalabi, the official in charge of the Awakening Councils at the Cabinet office.