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An armed Sahwa Council member stops cars yesterday at a checkpoint in a central Baghdad neighbourhood.
An armed Sahwa Council member stops cars yesterday at a checkpoint in a central Baghdad neighbourhood.

Sahwa fighters warn Iraqi government

Sunni fighters who turned their guns on al Qa'eda say Iraqi government must continue to support them or risk a return to chaos.

Baghdad // Sunni fighters who once battled US troops in Baghdad, before turning their guns on al Qa'eda, have warned the Iraqi government it must continue to support them or risk a return to chaos. The US military yesterday transferred control of the capital's 54,000-strong Sahwa Council militia network to the Iraqi authorities. Sahwa, which means "awakening" in Arabic, refers to the decision by Sunni tribes to actively oppose Sunni Islamic extremists who were attacking both US soldiers and the Shiite-led Iraqi government.

This played a key role in ending a sectarian civil war that, by 2007, was raging in the Iraqi capital. In conjunction with a ceasefire by the largest Shiite militia, it also helped significantly reduce levels of violence. However, it was always an uneasy, fragile truce; Sahwa members remain deeply suspicious of the Shiite-dominated government, fearing it is under Iranian control, and are simultaneously opposed to the US occupation with which they are co-operating. Many Sahwa fighters, also known as "Sons of Iraq", were insurgents.

But, with Iraq in a dire situation and with Sunnis outnumbered and outgunned by the newly resurgent Shiites, the tribes made a tactical shift: side with the US forces, at least temporarily, to shore up their own position and prevent the dissolution of their fractured country. At the same time, the Iraqi government remains suspicious of the Sahwa, certain that many are al Qa'eda sympathisers and criminals.

For more than a year, the US paid US$300 (Dh1,100) a month to about 100,000 Sahwa members nationwide. The plan was always to eventually hand control over to the Baghdad authorities and that, finally, has started to happen. However, the US military and the Sahwa themselves are concerned that the Iraqi government may simply disband the councils and push the former insurgents back into the role of active insurgents. In essence it would be a repeat of a former devastating mistake, when America disbanded the Iraqi army in 2003, leaving thousands of trained soldiers without jobs and a score to settle against the US military.

"We want the government to accept all of our members into the ranks of the army, police and we want permanent incomes and permanent work contracts," said Sheikh Abu Ahmed al Sudani, head of a Sahwa council in the al Borr area of north Baghdad. "We need this to make sure that social stability is maintained in Iraq. It is certainly not in the best interests of the government or of Iraq to abandon us."

The Iraqi authorities have not yet clearly stated what they will do with the Sahwa members, other than that an unknown number are to be taken into the official security forces. It is highly unlikely that all Sahwa fighters will be offered salaried posts. Sheikh Saeed Jassim Hameed al Mashhadani, head of a Sahwa Council in the Tarmiea area of north-western Baghdad, said they should not be treated with suspicion.

"Some of our people have been arrested, but they were not guilty of any wrongdoing, and we know that was the result of foreign interference in an bid to disrupt the conditions in Iraq." His reference to "foreign interference" reflects the belief of many Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shiites, that the government is unduly under the influence of neighbouring Iran. Iranian-trained militia forces have a prominent role in the security services.

"Some Shiite political parties say the Sahwa are a Sunni militias, but this is wrong," Sheikh Mashhadani said. "It is us who freed many Iraqi cities from al Qa'eda control and we have given our share of martyrs for Iraq, including my son who died for the Sahwa." He also rejected the suggestion that Sahwa members may have been previous supporters of Islamic fundamentalists, or still secretly backed al Qa'eda-type groups.

"That's a mistake. I have just 50 people in my Sahwa area and we pushed al Qa'eda out; we fought the terrorists, we liberated part of the city. My men are heroes for doing that." Others in the Sahwa movement are more willing to accept that not all of their number should be taken in by the army and police because they have dubious loyalty to the state. "Not all of the Sahwa are clean and some of them were working for other agendas, not for the benefit of Iraq," Sheikh Abdul Mohammad, a Sahwa fighter in Taji, to the west of Baghdad. "Some have been fighting on both sides at the same time so the Iraqi government is right in some of the arrests it has made."

Yet he stressed that authorities needed to take care in ensuring that reconciliation with the Sunni tribes was made through a careful handling of the Sahwa. "It is important that they do not deny the role the Sahwa has played in fighting al Qa'eda and improving the security in Iraq. And if the government wants to remain strong it needs to work with the Sahwa. It is they who still have the real control on the ground.

"If we are treated properly we can stand with the government and Iraq will be strong, can stabilise and prosper. If not the country will fall again. The future is not in our hands it is in the government's." Outside Baghdad, Sahwa councils are still on the US payroll and there remains huge disquiet about the prospects of their being transferred to Iraqi government authority. In the notorious Diyala province, one Sahwa leader said government security forces contained too many people who took orders from Iran - again a reference to distrust many Sunnis have for the Shiite dominated security forces.

"We will not join our Sahwa with the police or the army now, the time is not right," said Zuhair Abdul-Jabbar, a leading sheikh of the Janabi tribe in a rural area known as Aldugmeh. "The security services have too many elements which are loyal to Iran. We need to see those cleaned out, and then the Sahwa can think about being integrated." nlatif@thenational.ae

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