Iraq disbands Sunni militia that helped defeat insurgents
- Iraq disbands Sunni militia that helped defeat insurgents
• Gamble may renew sectarian tensions
• Jobs offered in army and police amid cash fears
Martin Chulov in Baghdad The Guardian, Thursday 2 April 2009
Iraq took a security gamble yesterday when it disbanded the Sunni militias that helped turn the tide against al-Qaida in Mesopotamia and other insurgent groups.
One hundred thousand members of the Awakening Councils will now be given jobs at the interior ministry, but many fear the plan will renew sectarian tension and spark disaffection among those not given security roles.
There are also fears that rapidly falling revenues from an oil-dependent economy will leave the government unable to honour its commitment to create such a large number of new positions.
Widespread salary delays for the past three months have heightened suspicions of a budget shortfall.
Relations between the central government and the Awakening Councils had deteriorated ahead of the move, and reached a low over the weekend when 250 members battled with government forces in central Baghdad after soldiers tried to arrest a militia leader alleged to be a member of the military wing of the outlawed Ba'ath party .
The three-day street battle in the Fahdil suburb stemmed from a belief among members that disbanding the militias was an attempt to settle old scores by a regime with strong sectarian undertones.
The Awakening Councils, also known as the Sons of Iraq, are almost exclusively Sunni Muslims, while the government is led by a Shia Islamic bloc.
Encouraged by the US military, who believed the militias played a major role in turning the tide against al-Qaida in Mesopotamia in mid-1997, the Awakening groups have been viewed with suspicion by Iraqi security officials, who believe the militias have been infilitrated by insurgents . They also fear that the militia's ranks are being re-energised by the release of former suspected militants from the American detention system, which is steadily freeing large numbers of men now deemed unlikely to be prosecuted under Iraqi law.
Late last year, most Sons of Iraq members received letters from the government advising that 30% of them would be soon absorbed into the ranks of the army or police.
The letter said the rest would be withdrawn from the streets and given jobs in the evolving Iraqi civil service.
In a war-ravaged street in the Baghdad suburb of Adamiyeh, long one of the city's most lethal battlefronts, militiaman Mohammed Fahmi said he would soon be out of work. Wearing a special forces uniform from the days of Saddam Hussein's army, he displayed a letter sent to him, which suggests his role will be wound up imminently.
Mithal was one of the tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers sacked by the Coalition Provisional Authority after the 2003 invasion. He now fears a new form of de-Ba'athification and a resurgence of the drastic consequences that followed last time.
"What else am I going to do?" he asks. "I can't say for certain what will happen with the other 70%, but I am told that the government will stop paying our salaries soon.
"If that happens, we will not have an income and then we will begin to wonder what is in it for us. We were the ones who brought calm to Iraq and we should be looked after."
For now, Fahmi and the other Awakening Council members are receiving, on average, $300 each month.
Their salaries were until November paid by the United States military. Now they come from Iraq's national coffers.
In Anbar province, west of Baghdad, from where the Awakening started in mid-2007, the Sons of Iraq national leader, Ahmed Abu Risha, acknowledges that the risks are severe if the government mishandles the integration process.
"This will cause problems because the government wants to decrease the role of the Awakening Council and absorb them into the political process," he says in the garden of an opulent compound in Ramadi.
"They are trying to divide us into many parts to diminish our role. There will be a reaction to this but we don't yet know what it will be.
"I don't think that the people who made sacrifices for the country will move against the country, but maybe they will.
"What the Awakening Council achieved made them welcome in Iraqi society."
Members of the Anbar Awakening are seen as favoured sons who helped stop al-Qaida's nationwide advance, and as such, all are guaranteed positions in the security forces.
Not so in other frontline areas, such as Abu Ghraib, Dora and Ghazaliyeh in Baghdad, where al-Qaida maintains a toehold.
The interior minister, Jawad al-Bolani, said the government was confident that security would hold and jobs would be found for all the militiamen.
He said in an interview: "It is hard for me to imagine that the very people who were responsible for the resurgent nationalism in Iraq could turn against what they have helped create."
Sons of Iraq
The Sons of Iraq movement began in 2007 after Sunni tribesmen in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, rose against al-Qaida militants. The renegades were embraced by US General David Petraeus in the midst of a troop surge aimed at breaking the insurgency. Both factors converged to dampen violence, especially in Anbar, which is close to one-third of Iraq's area. Many former insurgents were allowed to wipe the slate clean in return for keeping al-Qaida at bay. The movement grew to 100,000 members. The US Army paid monthly salaries until November.
• This article was amended on Friday 3 April 2009. We said that the Awakening Councils movement had begun in 1997 and played a major role in turning the tide against al-Qaida in Mesopotamia the same year. We should have said 2007. This has been corrected.