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Disbanding Iraqi militias may spark violence
By Zainab Mineeia and
Ali Gharib
Updated Sep 30, 2008 - 12:13:00 PM

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WASHINGTON (IPS) - Amid reports that the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has launched a campaign to disband the so-called Awakening Movement, or Sahwa, concerns among analysts and policy makers here is growing that such an effort could result in a resumption of sectarian violence, if not civil war.
An Iraqi youth weeps as he embraces his relative outside the morgue of a hospital in Baghdad, early Oct. 10, 2006. A car bomb exploded recently in a busy market killing nine people and wounding 27 in a mixed area of Baghdad, security and medical sources said, amid ongoing sectarian violence. Photo: WISSAM AL-OKAILI/AFP/Getty Images

Only a fraction of the estimated 100,000 members of the mainly Sunni Sahwa, or "Sons of Iraq", has been absorbed into the Iraqi security forces. The slow pace fans fears that many of the unintegrated fighters may resume their fight against the Shi'a-led central government.

Most Sahwa members are former Sunni insurgents who broke with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and aligned themselves with U.S. forces, bringing about notable improvements to the security situation in Iraq. Many fear that they could again reverse loyalties and, in turn, reverse security gains.

"It was the rallying of the Sunni Arabs to the common cause against the AQI fanatics that was principally responsible for the security improvement in the country," wrote ret. Col. Pat Lang, formerly of U.S. military intelligence and Army Special Forces, on his blog. "Men who once fought us and the Shi'a dominated government can return to fighting us if disappointed."

That disappointment could come as the al-Maliki government continues to drag its feet on integration and, more ominously, makes moves hinting that he is making a push to completely demobilize and disband the groups.

The Sahwa, as an organized force, have never had the backing of the Iraqi government. Their allegiance was strictly with the U.S., and was based on a mutual dislike for AQI and direct support, including 300 dollars monthly per man from U.S. forces.

Roughly half of the Sahwa members are from Anbar province. The U.S. plans to hand over control of the province -- including control of the Sahwa groups -- to the central Iraqi government on Oct. 1. The transfer could disrupt payments to Sahwa members, which will certainly contribute to their feeling of marginalization rather than integration.

The fate of the Sahwa groups relates to both an intra-Sunni power struggle, and the role that it plays in the increasingly unpredictable relationship between U.S. forces and the government of al-Maliki.

Recent reports have alluded to a degree of "hubris" from al-Maliki and his inner circle as a result of several bold actions he has taken recently, including offensives in Basra and Sadr City, and taking a strong stand against the original version of a controversial security agreement between al-Maliki's government and the U.S.

That "hubris", suggest some, has led to the al-Maliki effort to disband the Sahwa despite their close ties to occupying U.S. forces and their support that could turn back in favor of insurgents.

"The Maliki government really wants to disband them and does not want to incorporate them into the Iraqi security forces. The U.S. security forces and the [George W.] Bush administration want Maliki to bring in at least 50,000 of them into the [Iraqi] security forces," University of Michigan professor Juan Cole told IPS. "So there is a conflict, between Maliki on the one hand and the Americans on the other, about the future of the Sahwa movement."

Cole also points to the intra-Sunni power struggle as another important factor.

While many Sunnis boycotted the 2005 elections, the Iraqi Islamic Party participated and, likewise, became part of the Iraqi Accord Front -- the Sunni bloc in parliament and the only Sunni voice in mainstream politics. Al-Maliki has supported the Islamic Party as such, and his apparent disdain for Sahwa could spring from this political allegiance.

Suspicious of Maliki's bias towards the Islamic Party, the Sahwa fears it will not be granted a fair chance in the coming elections. The provincial elections were supposed to take place this October, but were delayed indefinitely.

According to Sotaliraq.com, an Iraqi news source, the secretary of Sahwa has accused the Islamic Party of opening several fake Sahwa offices in Anbar and Baghdad as part of an attempt to discredit them. The Islamic Party has denied accusation.

Clashes have taken place between Sahwa members and the Islamic Party in Anbar province. The Islamic Party reported attacks on its headquarters -- allegedly part of a message to vacate their positions of power, which the Sahwa considers illegitimate.

Whether or not al-Maliki intends to have the Islamic Party be the sole legitimate Sunni political voice, the disdain of much of the Shia-dominated central government for the Sahwa has become clear.

"The state cannot accept the Awakening," Jalaladeen al-Sagheer, a leading Shia member of al-Maliki's coalition, was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "Their days are numbered."

In a move that drew the ire of the Sahwa, the government issued arrest warrants for some 650 high-ranking Sahwa members, some of whom have already been taken into custody. The arrests and fears of more have caused some Sahwa members to leave their homes and go underground.

Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University and author of the well-regarded Abu Aardvark blog, wrote that the recent arrests appear "to be a concerted campaign by the Maliki government to crack down on the Awakenings movement -- with what appears to be grudging American acceptance."

In a post yesterday, Lynch wrote that the latest signs out of Baghdad with regard to the handover were troubling.

A statement Monday from al-Maliki said that he will pay Sahwa members and integrate 20 percent of them into the Iraqi security forces, but statements from a government spokesman Sunday disputed the number of Sahwa members.

The spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said that the government thinks there are only 50,000 Sahwa members despite U.S. officials' insistence that they have done a head count and iris scans and arrived at a figure of nearly 100,000 Sahwa members. In addition, Dabbagh said that some may be purged.

"That sounds to me like a recipe for about 85,000 extremely unhappy [Sahwa members], and that's if things go as planned," wrote Lynch. "We'll see how this plays out. But judging by past experience of how these guys have been vetted and generally treated by the Iraqi government, I am not optimistic."

"This should be another nail in the coffin of the popular idea that improving security will lead the Iraqi government to make political accommodations with its rivals," wrote Lynch in a previous post, noting that U.S. pressure on Maliki to integrate has yielded little progress.

If much of the Sahwa's fickle loyalty to the U.S. is reversed and its members return to the insurgency, it will dismantle one of the relative, but central, successes of the post-2006 U.S. counter-insurgency strategy -- the falling levels of violence in Baghdad and other Sunni areas.

If the stated purpose of the counter-insurgency strategy, known collectively as the surge, was to create the space for political reconciliation, the latest squabbling between the Shia government and the Sunni Sahwa movement reveals that it may yet be too early to declare the strategy a success.

Related links:

U.S.-backed operation feeds Iraq's sectarian tensions (FCN, 09-16-2008)

Iraq reconstruction failures stoke anti-U.S. sentiment (FCN, 02-15-2008)

Iraq war deaths 'top 650,000' (FCN, 10-31-2006)

Bush Administration; War Criminals (FCN Video, 02-2007) 


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