Making a Lasting Peace with the Sunni Awakening Movement

Iraqi government representatives faced leaders of the Awakening tribal militia movement in Baghdad today to hear their complaints and answer with promises that they are not being abandoned. In the second such large public meeting meant to clear the air, sheiks and former officers from the old Iraqi army lined up at a microphone in the Rasheed Hotel to sound off. Their fighters aren’t getting paid what they’re owed, they claimed. They will be left unprotected and vulnerable to Al Qaeda when their forces are moved into the Iraqi security forces. And, some protested, many in their ranks have been arrested by government forces or are in hiding.

With American commanders as matchmakers, the arranged marriage between the Shiite-led Iraqi government and the largely Sunni Awakening movement is one of the country’s most tenuous and important pairings. It will take constant tending. American officers, who had encouraged a similar meeting last fall, lined the back of the hotel ballroom today. The 90,000-strong Awakening militias include many former insurgents who decided to turn and fight against Al Qaeda and with U.S. forces--who paid them salaries. The trick is to find enough of them jobs and a future--without dependence on the departing U.S. forces--to keep them from returning to insurgency. Last year they were put under the command and pay of an Iraqi government they trust little and has given mixed messages.

For starters, the Iraqi government continues to hold in jail about 17 Awakening (also called Sahwa or Sons of Iraq) leaders and arrested another just last night. U.S. Maj. Gen. J.D. Johnson, overseeing the program, says that’s out of a total of about 800 leaders. But each arrest casts a chill over the other leadership. The fear is that government forces are settling scores or view the militia commanders as rivals. The government says some of them have committed crimes, abusing their positions. Some have. But some have also been released after U.S. officers investigated and found the charges to be bogus. “Once we know about [an arrest], we start tracking it very closely,” Johnson said. His answer appeared to acknowledge another complication: Sometimes the Iraqis are making the arrests without U.S. knowledge.

There’s also a multitude of problems with the cumbersome management of the diverse local groups. It’s rarely clear if salaries are delayed by government opposition or simply problems in reconciling the many lists of fighters with payrolls. It almost doesn’t matter in the end. “The slightest bureaucratic error becomes interpreted as something greater than that,” Johnson said.

While Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has repeatedly promised to integrate the fighters into the government, their presence angers members of his own Shiite constituency who worry about coddling former Baathists or insurgents. About 13,000 have been brought into the Iraqi security forces so far, a slow pace endangered anew by a government budget crunch.

Some Awakening leaders see the end of their influence coming as their men fold into the government. Whether they were in it for the money, the power or out of patriotic duty, these tribal leaders and neighborhood elders are the ones who encouraged their followers to switch sides. The decision came with risks. “They should support us. We are targeted by Al Qaeda , by IED’s, by snipers,” pleaded Gen. Abdel Razaq, an avuncular, retired commander who leads a group of fighters in western Baghdad. “We support the government.”

Join the Discussion