Violence dominated much of western and central Iraq until the creation in 2006 of the al-Sahwa, or Awakening Councils, armed groups mainly comprised of thousands of local Sunni tribesmen living in regions that had became overwhelmed by al-Qaeda fighters.
The Councils’ fighters vowed to restore stability to the country following the calamitous security vacuum created in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2003 and eventually received US backing to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq since the end of 2006.
A 2008 Pentagon report assessing security and violence in Iraq indicated that there had been a 77 per cent decline in violence in Iraq compared with the same period in 2007.
US military planners have said that a US troop surge had led to the decrease in violence but also widely acknowledged the Awakening Councils as one of the lynch-pins of Washington’s security strategy prior to the June 30, 2009 withdrawal from major Iraqi urban centres.
In 2007, the US began to pay 95,000 Awakening fighters a monthly salary of $300.
Distrust and tension
Although they have been praised for their offensive against al-Qaeda, which led to a reduction of violence in Iraq, major political factions – Shias, Sunnis and Kurds – are wary of their political agenda.
The Kurds say Sunni tribesmen from the Councils are in conflict with Kurdish interests by challenging the present Sunni bloc for a share in political power in Iraq’s northern semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
Shia leaders are uneasy with what they perceive as US control over the Sunni-dominated militia who are not accountable to the Iraqi government. They claim that the al-Sahwa forces are infiltrated by former insurgents, Baathists and al-Qaeda fighters.
Sahwa leaders have reciprocal mistrust of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. They are eager to translate their influence and organisation on the ground into political power.
The US is alarmed that Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has been slow in integrating the Awakenings tribesmen into Iraqi security forces as this could lead to these fighters rejoining al-Qaeda.
Obstacles to integration
Absorbing the Awakening groups into the Iraqi security forces and into civilian jobs has become “a significant challenge” and “the slow pace of transition is a concern”, the Pentagon report warned.
|Awakening Council fighters have been credited with increasing security in Iraq [EPA]|
Bowing to US pressure in recognition of the Councils’ success in driving al-Qaeda fighters out of their previous strongholds, the Iraqi government began to pay some 54,000 Awakening fighters a monthly salary of $275.
Al-Maliki’s government also promised to offer all 95,000 of them security or administrative posts.
To date, however, just 20 per cent have been enrolled within the Iraqi security forces, while the remainder are still waiting to be offered jobs.
Many suspect that the government is simply not willing to increase the number of Sunni Iraqis appointed to the security forces and civil service.
The government’s failure to deliver on its employment promise has led to fears that the Iraqi authorities will never fully recognise them as legitimate peace-keepers – risking the relative security achieved so far.
The government says the groups had been infiltrated by al-Qaeda and former Baath party supporters, something the Awakening Councils strongly deny.
“Awakening groups are not Baathists and not al-Qaeda. We fought al-Qaeda from the beginning and anyone confirmed as being with them is our target for immediate arrest,” Abu Al-Farouq, leader of an Awakening group in the Samarra province in northern Baghdad, previously told Al Jazeera.
There are 3000 Awakening fighters in charge of security in Samarra. In 2006, an armed group blew up the Askari Shrine, a mosque revered by both Shia and Sunni Muslims. This led to sectarian warfare and brought Iraq dangerously close to a civil war.
In July 2009, thousands of Awakening fighters accused the Iraqi government of halting their monthly salaries.