Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat- When Sheikh Ahmed Taha al Samarrai, the imam and preacher of Imam Abu Hanifa al Nu’man mosque called on the people of al Azamiyah to form a small group to protect the area against the rampant violence caused by militias, no one envisaged that it would evolve into what is now known as the Al-Sahwa (Awakening) protection forces.
A predominantly Sunni bastion, al Azamiyah had been subjected to repeated bloody attacks at the hands of sectarian militias and the Al-Qaeda organization. But no one could have foreseen that this step would contribute significantly to the decrease in violence not only in al Azamiyah but throughout various regions of Iraq that were suffering the same fate of strife and bloodshed.
This call sparked the birth of the idea of the Al-Sahwa forces, which was adopted by the Americans who began to militarily train members of the Sunni clans that formed these councils so that these groups became part of the US strategy to achieve stability in Iraq.
No discussion in Iraq today is without reference to the Al-Sahwa forces; a force that came out of nothing and spread rapidly within the Sunni tribes in the Anbar province first and then others so that it has become a major armed force that is comprised of over 80,000 elements and all this in less than a year.
Despite the fact that no one can deny the leading role played by this force; its fate remains suspended amidst controversy between Iraqi and US officials with regards to the future of the Al-Sahwa groups’ role in light of the presence of organized forces, which are considered dangerous because they are popular forces. Moreover, the Al-Sahwa forces have become a target for attacks launched by fundamentalist forces.
Safaa al Din Hussein, deputy national security advisor in charge of the Al-Sahwa program recently told ‘The Washington Post’ that there was fear amidst many Iraqis by virtue of the emergence of thousands of armed men. He added that because they were primarily Sunni elements, it would prompt the Shia militias to expand which could lead to a civil war.
Meanwhile, fear is also present among the Americans that Iraq could follow the same course as Afghanistan when the US ‘bought’ the loyalty of the tribal leaders; however this loyalty shifted towards the Taliban after the warlords stopped receiving funds.
Approximately 80,000 Arab Sunnis, most of who were formerly armed insurgents who had fought against the US forces following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime have joined the Al-Sahwa program since the end of last year and allied themselves with the American forces with the intention of fighting Al-Qaeda.
The residents and shopkeepers of al Azamiyah, once an Al-Qaeda stronghold, have expressed their sincere gratitude for the efforts and results achieved by the Sahwa forces. However, this gratitude is not without trepidation and concern for what might happen if this force was not rewarded for its achievements in establishing security.
Abu Safaa, 38 years old, told AFP earlier this week, “We do not want to see them just working in the Ministry of Labor. Their place is in the army or police force especially after what they have accomplished.”
The US forces are paying every member a monthly salary of US $300 after signing a contract that states upon their role as neighborhood guardian forces. These groups are also known as concerned local citizens (CLCs). Under American pressure, the Iraqi government said that it would pay their salaries starting from mid-2008.
Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al Qadir al Mufriji stated last week that, “Two weeks ago, the Iraqi government allocated 150 billion Iraqi Dinars for the salaries of the Al-Sahwa councils in Baghdad and other provinces.”
Failure on behalf of the Americans or the Iraqi authorities to integrate these men into governmental posts in the future will lead to a loss of confidence in the government and it will give these elements a reason to rebel and they will be better equipped to do so, especially since they now have arms.
With regards to this, American Ambassador in Baghdad Ryan Crocker has said that the Al-Sahwa groups were never intended to be independent forces; however, he added that anything was likely since there were more challenges to be confronted in 2008.
“We always felt that they have to link up to the government of Iraq,” he said. “That has got to happen or nothing good is coming down the line.”
Furthermore, Crocker said that these forces had to be incorporated into the security forces “in a way that other elements of the population and government are comfortable with.”
He also pointed out that there was a plan to provide these men with approximately 20,000 jobs with security services and that the US forces were planning to allocate US $155 million to help make these jobs available and that the US forces were prepared to train them. The US ambassador stated that the Iraqi government had pledged to expend the same sum of money to support these groups along with the US forces.
Sadiq al Rikabi, political advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki told Asharq Al-Awsat that the state has a special committee that deals with the Al-Sahwa councils and confirmed the possibility of merging these groups into the Iraqi security forces.
“The issue of integrating or not integrating them [Al-Sahwa groups] into the armed forces is subject to various considerations, the first of which is the extent by which the Iraqi security forces need the Al-Sahwa elements,” al Rikabi said and added, “we do not want to recruit all Iraqis.”
He continued, “The second consideration is obtaining information on those who join the security forces, their criminal record and propensity to deviate from the ranks of the army and the police force. Finally, they must be dealt with as individuals not as armed groups.”
Al Rikabi stated, “The sons of the Al-Sahwa councils are the sons of Iraq and if they are not incorporated into the Iraqi security forces then they will be integrated into other (civil) ministries.” He added that, “this matter is presently being studied by the prime minister, the Iraqi government and all the other concerned parties.”
Prior to al Rakabi’s statement, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) Shia leader Abdul Aziz al Hakim had said in the speech he delivered on Eid ul-Adha that the clans, tribal elements and the popular regional councils in Iraq “that combat terrorism” are playing an honorable and patriotic role. However; he also pointed out “the necessity of these Al-Sahwa forces fighting alongside the Iraqi government to combat terrorists and criminals and that they were not a substitute for it [the security forces].”
Al Hakim also called for “a balance between the Al-Sahwa groups, especially in the areas with mixed populations and that they only be present in the conflict areas.” He also called for the government to be the sole armed party and for “everyone to deal with this matter on the basis of national interest.”
Iraq Defense Minister, Abd al Qadir al-Mufriji, has also expressed concerns over the Al-Sahwa forces transforming into a “third force” along with the army and the police force and he likewise warned against incorporating the Sahwa groups into the Iraqi security forces.
Meanwhile, Jasim, a Sunni who is not affiliated to any political party firmly rejected the idea of forming a third force and said that he was equally against politicizing the CLCs. However; Iraqi Interior Minister, Jawad al Bulani has confirmed that the government is planning to incorporate 20 percent of these forces into Iraqi security forces and stated that the others will be offered vocational training and civilian jobs.
Recently, Al-Qaeda has been focusing its attacks and especially targeting the Al-Sahwa forces. Last Tuesday, a suicide bomber drove through a checkpoint in the northern city of Baiji where elements of the Al-Sahwa forces and Iraqi army were stationed. The blast killed 25 people and injured 80 others, some of whom were civilians.
On the same day, another suicide bomber intercepted the path of a funeral procession held for deceased members of the Al-Sahwa groups and detonated his belt. Four were killed and over 20 were injured. But the Al-Sahwa forces have become accustomed to such attacks, which happen on a daily basis, especially in the conflict areas where Al-Qaeda is active.
Abu Azzam, the official in charge of the Al-Sahwa groups in Abu Ghraib and al Amiriya told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Al-Sahwa councils emerged as a response to a need in the Iraqi street to regulate security in the conflict hotbeds where Al-Qaeda is active.
He told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Al-Sahwa councils have played a major role in stabilizing security in record time and managed to hold the reins of areas such as al Amiriya, al Ghazaliya, al Azamiyah and al Khadra where the security forces had failed to do so.
Regarding the inception of the Al-Sahwa forces, Abu Azzam said, “the idea is an old one; however its implementation came later after the Anbar tribes succeeded in ousting Al-Qaeda and securing the external roads.”
He confirmed that “Al-Sahwa elements have played a significant role in restoring stability in the state.” With regards to the groups transforming into armed factions, Abu Azzam said that “it will not happen” and that these groups “had been formed in accordance with agreements with the American party and they [these groups] have been created to protect the region from sectarian and ethnic clashes.” Moreover, he stressed that, “the fundamental idea behind creating [these groups] is to eliminate militias and armed groups from the regions and to provide security for the people.”
Sources have disclosed to Asharq Al-Awsat that the Al-Sahwa council formations have expanded to become 180 councils throughout Iraq and that the US budget cost is US $32 million.
US military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith has stated that the biggest success is the Iraqi rejection of the presence of Al-Qaeda throughout the country, which forced its formations to leave the major cities and retreat to the mountainous areas of Diyala, Tikrit and Mosul.
The admiral defended the eligibility of these elements joining the security forces in contrast with the Iraqi leadership and government arguing that background checks must be completed to ensure that they are not affiliated to terrorist groups and are not Baathist loyalists. Meanwhile, Admiral Smith affirmed that the coalition forces deal with the Al-Sahwa forces as groups that seek to restore stability in Iraq and do not consider their background and sectarian affiliations.
However, there is concern that these forces, which are being formed north, south, east and west of Iraq might gradually emerge as a powerful local force that could impose its control over small areas and isolate other clans. In fact; the real fear is that such a force would impose its authority and justify it by describing it as a “legitimate local authority” that derives its legitimacy from its “heroic achievements”.
Despite the prevalence of these councils throughout the Iraqi provinces, there are still some cities that have no Al-Sahwa forces present, such as Mosul. The governor of Mosul, Duraid Kashmula told Asharq Al-Awsat, “There are no Al-Sahwa councils in the city and if you can find any, they are not representative of the official clan sheikhs of Mosul who are affiliated to the city’s local councils, especially since the tribal elders and youth are integrated into the ranks of the security forces whether the army or the police.”
Kashmula stressed that the security situation was under control in Mosul, particularly after the reduction of terrorist activities, but said, “Despite that; the city requires further efforts and support from the security forces to protect it against the terrorist operations that Al-Qaeda carries out.”
In terms of Al-Qaeda’s presence, “Al-Qaeda and other armed groups all headed towards Mosul after fleeing other Iraqi cities, especially Anbar and Diyala,” but added that “there were security plans to curb the violence of these terrorist groups.”
It is noteworthy that the Sunni tribes in west Iraq are more eager to form Al-Sahwa councils in comparison with the Shia tribes in the south. It may also be generally noted that the former are more willing to cooperate with the Americans and the government shoulder-to-shoulder than the Shia tribes who are more conservative and less willing to engage in projects of this kind.
This may be confirmed by the Missan clans of al Amarah and those of Basra that only a few days ago unanimously demanded from America the establishment of “Shia Sahwa Councils” like those of al Ramadi.
Thus, it must be undoubtedly acknowledged that the Al-Sahwa councils have created a new reality in Iraq. These groups have become a military and political force that may be, or rather, should be developed in potential so that in time it may become a key player in the power dynamics of the state.