Iraq Takes Aim at U.S.-Tied Sunni Groups’ Leaders
By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
Published: August 21, 2008
BAGHDAD — The Shiite-dominated government in Iraq is driving out many leaders of Sunni citizen patrols, the groups of former insurgents who joined the American payroll and have been a major pillar in the decline in violence around the nation.
In restive Diyala Province, United States and Iraqi military officials say there were orders to arrest hundreds of members of what is known as the Awakening movement as part of large security operations by the Iraqi military. At least five senior members have been arrested there in recent weeks, leaders of the groups say.
West of Baghdad, former insurgent leaders contend that the Iraqi military is going after 650 Awakening members, many of whom have fled the once-violent area they had kept safe. While the crackdown appears to be focused on a relatively small number of leaders whom the Iraqi government considers the most dangerous, there are influential voices to dismantle the American backed movement entirely.
“The state cannot accept the Awakening,” said Sheik Jalaladeen al-Sagheer, a leading Shiite member of Parliament. “Their days are numbered.”
The government’s rising hostility toward the Awakening Councils amounts to a bet that its military, feeling increasingly strong, can provide security in former guerrilla strongholds without the support of these former Sunni fighters who once waged devastating attacks on United States and Iraqi targets. It also is occurring as Awakening members are eager to translate their influence and organization on the ground into political power.
But it is causing a rift with the American military, which contends that any significant diminution of the Awakening could result in renewed violence, jeopardizing the substantial security gains in the past year. United States commanders say that the practice, however unconventional, of paying the guerrillas has saved the lives of hundreds of American soldiers.
“If it is not handled properly, we could have a security issue,” said Brig. Gen. David Perkins, the senior military spokesman in Iraq. “You don’t want to give anybody a reason to turn back to Al Qaeda.” Many Sunni insurgents had previously been allied with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and other extremist groups.
Even before the new pressure from the government, many Awakening members were growing frustrated — and at an especially delicate time. United States and Iraqi negotiators have just completed a draft security agreement that next year, Iraqi officials say, would substantially pull American forces back from cities and towns to be replaced by Iraqi security forces.
Awakening members complain, with rising bitterness, that the government has been slow to make good on its promises to recruit tens of thousands of its members into those security forces. General Perkins said only 5,200 members had been recruited in a force of about 100,000.
“Some people from the government encouraged us to fight against Al Qaeda, but it seems that now that Al Qaeda is finished they don’t want us anymore,” said Abu Marouf, who, according to American officials, was a powerful guerrilla leader in the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade west of Baghdad. “So how can you say I am not betrayed?”
After he said he discovered his name on lists of 650 names that an Iraqi Army brigade was using to arrest Awakening members west of Baghdad, Abu Marouf fled south of Falluja. His men, he said, “sacrificed and fought against Al Qaeda, and now the government wants to catch them and arrest them.”
The Shiite-dominated government has never been pleased with the continuing American plan to finance and organize Sunni insurgents into militia guards, charging that they will stop fighting only as long as it serves their interests.
“These people are like cancer, and we must remove them,” said Brig. Gen. Nassir al-Hiti, commander of the Iraqi Army’s 5,000-strong Muthanna Brigade, which patrols west of Baghdad, said of the Awakening leaders on his list for arrest.
The Awakening began in western Anbar Province in 2006 as the violence in Iraq peaked and Sunni tribal leaders began feeling pressure from all sides, and then spread around the country as a means of Sunni self-preservation.
The United States military focused its operations on Sunni insurgent groups, cooperating meantime with the Shiite-led government. The bodies of dozens of Sunnis surfaced on streets every morning, the victims of Shiite death squads. And many Sunnis themselves grew disgusted with the large number of civilian casualties in near-daily suicide bombings.
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