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Iraq Report: January 10, 2008

Awakening Councils Face Political, Terrorist Pressure

By Kathleen Ridolfo

The Iraqi establishment is leery of the Sunni tribes' growing influence (file)

The so-called awakening councils that have been formed in Iraq to fight terrorists are finding themselves under increasing threat from rival political and security groups and terrorists keen on curbing their power.

Popular support for the councils, which have been formed in nine of the country's 18 governorates to defend the local population against insurgent attacks launched mainly by Al-Qaeda, remains strong. But, weak institutional support hinders the ability of the councils to integrate their mostly Sunni Arab security forces into the army and police.

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda in Iraq launched a campaign last month to crush the councils, which have obstructed the terrorist group's movements on the ground. At least 60 awakening council members have been assassinated since Al-Qaeda's campaign was announced on December 4.

Indeed, Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the majority of attacks on awakening councils since December. But the councils are not short on domestic enemies. Politicians, clerics, political party leaders, and appointed officials have tried to curb the councils as a rising power. Critics fear the councils, credited with helping stabilize the most volatile areas of Iraq, could eventually become rogue militias.

The U.S. military currently arms and pays the salaries of some 70,000 so-called concerned local citizen groups (CLCs), which are comprised of tribesmen loyal to awakening councils. The military has said that a portion of the CLCs, which are mostly comprised of Sunni Arabs, should be merged into the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi security forces. Shi'ite politicians have not greeted the proposal with enthusiasm, as they say that the CLC recruits could be former Ba'athists and terrorists in disguise.

Sunni Opposition Fears Tribes' Influence

Sunni Arab politicians from the Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq) are also opposed to the Sunni councils. The awakening councils, which are rooted in age-old tribal alliances that come with a built-in constituency, pose a major threat to Al-Tawafuq's viability. The six Al-Tawafuq ministers in the government have been boycotting it since August, though its 44 representatives in parliament remain at work.

In November, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki threatened to replace the ministers with representatives of the Al-Anbar Awakening Council, at which point Al-Tawafuq balked, claiming their representatives were elected and as such, could not be replaced. Al-Tawafuq also contended that awakening councils were not the true representatives of the Sunni Arab population.

Another Sunni foe, Harith al-Dari, the head of the Muslim Scholars Association, has claimed the awakening councils are traitors to the Iraqi nationalist cause, because of their alliance with the U.S. military and the Iraqi government. Moreover, it appears the awakening councils, particularly in western Al-Anbar Governorate, have damaged the ability of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, which is sponsored by the Muslim Scholars Association, to operate. A spokesman for the insurgent group recently told an Arab satellite news channel that the group has been damaged as much as Al-Qaeda by the establishment of awakening councils across Iraq.

...While Shi'a Fear Increased Sunni Role

The most vocal Shi'ite critics of the awakening councils are Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Fighters from the SIIC's former armed group, the Badr Corps, have filled the ranks of the police and army since 2003, and Al-Hakim fears any large-scale infiltration of Sunni Arabs to the security services will pose a threat to Shi'ite power in Iraq. Al-Sadr, who commands the loyalty of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia and has a long-standing rivalry with the al-Hakim family, also fears Sunni ascendancy, and has ironically argued that Iraq has no place for militias.

A number of Shi'ite clerics have also called into question the role of the awakening councils, on the grounds that the Sunni-led councils may be insurgents in disguise. Al-Najaf-based cleric Sheikh Sadr al-Din al-Qubbanji said in a Friday Prayer sermon on January 4 that awakening councils should be praised for their work as popular committees. But, he cautioned, "To turn awakening councils into militias and into an armed entity that is not under the control of the state and the law is dangerous.

A more moderate Shi'ite cleric, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, told followers: "The awakening of Al-Anbar [whose chieftains established the first awakening council] is unmatched by any other awakening. What some people said to the effect that some politicians are trying to confiscate the efforts made in Al-Anbar is very accurate. The awakening of Al-Anbar was an uprising by the sons of the tribes themselves, and from inside Al-Anbar away from any political interests."

Government Wants To 'Protect' Councils

The argument that insurgents may infiltrate the security services as council members in disguise has been advanced through a series of articles in Shi'ite newspapers that claim the awakening councils were infiltrated by members of the Ba'ath Party and Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Prime Minister al-Maliki told the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on January 5 that intelligence suggests such infiltration. He denied his administration is trying to obstruct the councils from being merged into the Iraqi security services, and said the councils have played a significant role in defeating Al-Qaeda in Iraq. "It is a deliberate misunderstanding to claim that the government is against the awakening councils. The government is in favor of the awakening councils, but it wants to protect them from infiltration," he said.

"We, as a government, have intelligence information: the Ba'ath Party has ordered its members to join the awakening councils, and Al-Qaeda has ordered its members to infiltrate the awakening councils," he claimed. Al-Maliki said the government's scrutiny of awakening council members "is for their protection from infiltration."

Al-Maliki said the infiltration "has been proved, and even those who denied that such infiltration existed are now convinced by the evidence and indications. Under the title of the 'Awakening' they started to kill policemen, commit crimes, kidnap citizens, and stir up sectarian problems. Here, we ought to distinguish between the members of the real 'Awakening,' which we support and stand by and which we will incorporate in the army and the police, and those who exploit this title, and act under the umbrella of the 'Awakening' to practice the same criminal deeds stemming from the policies of the Ba'ath Party or Al-Qaeda."

Mustafa al-Juburi, the commander of the southern Baghdad awakening forces, responded to the allegation by telling Al-Arabiyah television on January 5 that the government's evidence is weak and unsubstantiated.

Two weeks earlier, Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Jasim al-Ubaydi said at a December 22 press conference that there is a danger the awakening councils will become "a third security entity in Iraq." In response, Al-Anbar Awakening Council member Ali al-Hatim told Al-Arabiyah television the same day that the tribes are governed by their sense of honor and commitment to the state. "There is no need for [al-Ubaydi] to fear us or to use words like 'we will not allow,' for we are tribes, and our weapons are in our hands, and if we see the people of Iraq being wronged or harmed, then we will come to their rescue," al-Hatim said. "We previously announced...that we [formed awakening councils] out of chivalry and came only to help. You cannot turn me into a militia or order me to do something that I feel is wrong.... I am a supporter of the state and the law, and I do not aspire to become a third force like the defense minister said."

Meanwhile, the pro-Ba'athist Sunni website "Quds Press" and the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party's website (the party is a member of the Al-Tawafuq bloc) published reports this week, citing unidentified intelligence sources, that Iran's Qods Force has formed special brigades to assassinate awakening council members. The source said the brigades are comprised of rogue Al-Mahdi Army militiamen.

For Sunnis who have been struggling to work their way into the post-Hussein political system, the news is distressing. The perceived lack of government support, particularly from the prime minister, for the integration of Sunnis into the security services, coupled with delays in al-Maliki's proclaimed national reconciliation initiative, only reinforces Sunni claims that there is no place for them in the Shi'ite-led government.

Should the government continue down this path, the security gains of the past year are at risk of being lost to renewed sectarian violence once the U.S. military pulls out of Iraq and ends its support of the awakening councils.

Bin Laden Appeals To Muslims To Support Al-Qaeda

By Kathleen Ridolfo

Osama bin Laden has called on Iraqis to unite under Al-Qaeda

In a 56-minute audio statement released on the Internet on December 29, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden issued his most vocal criticism to date of Iraqi nationalist insurgent groups.

Bin Laden said the failure of Sunni Arab insurgents to align with Al-Qaeda in Iraq is hurting the global jihadist effort and will ultimately impede the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq. He also criticized Sunni Arab tribal leaders in Iraq who have joined the fight against Al-Qaeda, saying they were weak-hearted and misled, and he took aim at Shi'ite leaders, including Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr, saying they are quislings of the United States and Iran.

Bin Laden's address primarily serves as an attempt to justify Al-Qaeda in Iraq's activities and present the organization as the only legitimate jihadist group on the ground in Iraq. Much of the statement is dedicated to supporting the contention that all other jihadist groups should unite under the Al-Qaeda umbrella. The failure of nationalist insurgent groups to do so, he argues, has severely damaged Al-Qaeda's ability to fight U.S. and Iraqi forces and counter Shi'ite expansionism.

The statement comes on the heels of a December 22 46-minute audio statement by Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq -- which is more widely known in Iraq by the name Islamic State of Iraq -- which argued that nationalist insurgents and the Iraqi people are practicing a false Islam. The loss of the "true" tenets of Islam, he contended, has placed Muslims on the same side as infidels (a reference to the United States). Moreover, al-Baghdadi argued, Iraqi insurgents have given precedence to nationalism and pan-Arabism rather than to their religion.

Both bin Laden and al-Baghdadi are aware that the majority of nationalist insurgent groups in Iraq, though they espouse the establishment of an Islamic state in their rhetoric, do not in reality want to live under an Islamic state as defined by Al-Qaeda. Moreover, both men realize that the significance placed on the nationalist struggle by these groups over the greater jihadist struggle, coupled with the increasingly vocal criticism of Al-Qaeda by these groups, has contributed as much to the success of the surge as have coalition military operations.

The al-Baghdadi statement also called on Iraqis to attack the so-called awakening councils. The councils, which are mostly Sunni-led and now operate in eight Iraqi governorates, have pledged to fight Al-Qaeda alongside U.S. and Iraqi forces. Describing the awakening councils as apostates, al-Baghdadi said they have become agents of the cross and knights against the mujahedin, and as such should be slaughtered like animals. He advised Muslims not to miss "this great honor." Bin Laden's statement also reiterated the call to target awakening council members through terrorist attacks.

The decision of nationalist insurgent groups to openly take up arms against Al-Qaeda in recent months in reaction to Al-Qaeda's targeting of both civilians and nationalist insurgent leaders has dealt a major blow to Al-Qaeda's ability to maintain support on the ground. For bin Laden and his supporters in Iraq, losing the ideological battle is perhaps more destructive than losing operational capability, for the latter can be rebuilt far more easily than the former.

Bin Laden's statement however, comes a bit late. For more than two years, insurgent groups in Iraq and their supporters on the Internet have appealed to the Al-Qaeda leader to weigh in on the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The failure of bin Laden to take a definitive position on ISI and its activities has damaged the group's credibility. The fact that the group was never viewed by Iraqis as an indigenous movement also impeded its ability to gain broad support from the population. For bin Laden to weigh in only now, when ISI is on the defensive and according to some reports, largely defeated, constitutes a severe miscalculation on the part of Al-Qaeda's leadership.

Defending Islamic State Of Iraq

In his December 29 statement, bin Laden praised the performance of the ISI, saying its leader, al-Baghdadi, upheld his principles by refusing to fall under the patronage of neighboring states as "some groups and parties have done." The reference is aimed at Sunni Arab nationalist insurgent groups who have allegedly received financial and material support from abroad. The decision to take such support, bin Laden contended, compromised the independence of these groups.

Bin Laden excused the behavior of the ISI, which has routinely targeted nationalist insurgents for assassination, pillaged, plundered, and killed civilians in massive market bombings and other attacks, saying the group's leadership cannot be held responsible for incorrect decisions taken by local cell leaders. He blamed the security situation for the breakdown in leadership, as the movement of leaders was restricted for months in some cases. In what appeared to be his only operational instruction to ISI, bin Laden advised the group to be disciplined in its targeting of the enemy so as to incur as few civilian casualties as possible.

The Al-Qaeda leader further contended that "all neighboring countries without exception are targeting" the ISI. Bin Laden also accused Saudi Arabia of launching a media campaign to smear the image of ISI. Several Saudi clerics in recent months have questioned ISI's tactics, and said it is not a legitimate organization.

Likewise, bin Laden criticized Sunni Arab awakening councils, political parties, and "groups of dissention" led by Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, saying they "betrayed the faith and the Ummah," a reference to the Islamic community. "I believe that all these ferocious campaigns against mujahedin [belonging to] the Islamic State of Iraq are staged because these mujahedin are deeply committed to righteousness and to the Prophet [Muhammad's] teachings," Bin Laden contended. ISI leader al-Baghdadi "and his brothers are not the kind who would bargain their faith and accept half-solutions, or who would meet their enemies halfway," he added, implying that nationalist groups and Sunni politicians and tribesmen have traded their principles for deals with the U.S. and Iraqi governments.

In his address, bin Laden weighed in on a long-standing dispute between ISI and Sunni nationalist insurgent groups over whether the ISI's declaration of an Islamic state in 2006 came too soon, and caused harm to the jihadist efforts of homegrown insurgents. Addressing nationalist insurgents, he argued that those insurgents who refused to join the ISI have neglected their duties as Muslims. "A Muslim that delays the establishment of an Islamic state is more sinful than he who quits his group or abandons Islam, because by doing so he would let hundreds of millions of Muslims live under the tyrant and pagan regimes," bin Laden argued. "Unless Muslims are brought together under one group and imam, the religion of God will not be applied, paths will not be safe, and seditions will not be repressed."

Bin Laden praised ISI's attempts to unify insurgent groups in Iraq under the ISI banner, and said those groups that refused to join ISI ignored a "sacred duty." Declaring that God prohibits Muslims from taking unilateral positions, he challenged the refusal of nationalist groups to join ISI based on the premise that ISI's leadership was foreign and therefore not loyal to the goals of nationalist insurgents.

According to bin Laden, ISI's current leadership came highly recommended by deceased Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi and others. "Refraining from pledging allegiance to one of the [leaders of ISI] after their recommendation by trusted, fair persons based on the pretext of not knowing [their credentials] leads to great evils, one of the gravest of which is obstructing the establishment of the great Muslim nation," bin Laden maintained.

Iraqis 'Deceived' By Americans

Throughout his address, bin Laden warned Muslims in Iraq that they were misled because of their inability to distinguish between truth and falsehood. The premise seeks to persuade -- rather than directly challenge -- Muslims to "correct" their path, forego worldly goods and principles, and take up God's path, as championed by ISI. Doing so would require a change in political and religious leadership, because Iraqi political and religious leaders, he maintained, are corrupt and driven by a desire for power, rather than a desire to serve God.

Addressing the formation of awakening councils by tribal leaders, bin Laden said the tribes were deceived by U.S. political and media efforts, which tempted the tribes into dissention by buying tribal allegiance. He praised the "many free and proud tribes" that "refused to form" awakening councils "and sell out their religion and honor."

Bin Laden claimed Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah, the first head of the Al-Anbar Awakening Council who was assassinated by ISI in September, brought disgrace to himself and his tribe by aligning with the Americans. "They sold out their religion in return for a mortal [monetary] world. Despite this, they have not enjoyed themselves in this world after the lions of Islam [ISI] killed them as a punishment [for their behavior] and a deterrence" to others that would follow in their footsteps.

Regarding U.S. and Iraqi efforts to form a national-unity government, bin Laden said Muslims should understand the true nature of such a government, which puts earthly values ahead of godly values. "The national-unity government means that all groups of people agree to glorify the homeland more than glorifying anything holy to them," he contended. "Thus, all sides meet in the middle and accept half-solutions. This means the Ba'athists and the other parties should give up some of their principles and the Muslims should give up some of their religion...the Muslim should accept the rule of manmade laws and these manmade laws should share the Islamic Shari'a [law] in enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong."

According to bin Laden, such behavior takes one out of his religion and puts him in hell forever. Sunni Arab leaders who are men of religion, such as Vice President al-Hashimi should not have been misled by such matters, he said. Moreover, Arab states and their Sunni religious leaders lent support to the U.S.-Iraqi national-unity project, thereby "pulling the rug out from under the feet of the mujahedin."

He further argued that Arab states lent their support to the Iraqi government because they feared Iranian-backed Shi'ite expansionism. He maintained that although Sunnis in Iraq were dealt "fierce shocks" by Shi'ite-led security forces and militias, who he claimed hold "ambitions to expand their crimes outside Iraq," Arab states could have countered Shi'ite expansionism through other means, such as facilitating the travel of jihadists to Iraq.

Bin Laden likened Vice President al-Hashimi to Afghan leaders who sold out their Islamic principles for the sake of monetary and political gain. "The Islamic Party and some [Sunni] groups support America against Muslims," he argued. "This is a clear infidelity and an open apostasy." Bin Laden advised members of al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party to "disavow their leaders and correct the course of their parties and groups." If this is not possible, he said, then they should leave those groups and join the "honest mujahedin" fighting under the ISI banner.

Bin Laden appealed to the greater Islamic community for support, telling Muslims: "Wake up and take lessons because the issue [of jihad] is enormous and grave.... The heat of the battle is increasing and very little separates you from what has been plotted against you." He pledged that while today's jihad is being carried out in Iraq, tomorrow it will be in Damascus, Amman, and Riyadh.

He begged Muslims to support the mujahedin financially, very cleverly suggesting that the deeds of just one person could be enough to save the Al-Qaeda movement. "Your brothers need little money for the ammunition and weapons by which they fight for God's sake -- amounts that one merchant among you can afford that will lead to defeating the head of global infidelity."

Finally, bin Laden outlined Al-Qaeda's priorities for jihad. "The support of the true mujahedin, particularly in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Islamic Maghreb, and Somalia is the main project for the entire Ummah and its first line of defense against all its enemies." He ended his diatribe by saying that if Muslims are to preserve their security, social values, sustenance, and economic survival, they must support the mujahedin, "so that [their] oil and wealth will be preserved as well as [their] money, which is being robbed because of its unjust linkage to the dollar."

Falling On Deaf Ears

While Iraqi officials did not appear to comment publicly on bin Laden's statement, the responses of a number of nationalist insurgent leaders interviewed by the mainstream Arab press were overwhelmingly negative, with many saying they weren't persuaded by bin Laden's rhetoric.

In an interview published by the London-based "Quds Press" on January 3, the spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Resistance Front (Jami), Sayf al-Din Mahmud, said that bin Laden changes his position every time he addresses Iraq. "Once he attacks, once he advises, and once he admits the fatal mistakes that Al-Qaeda in Iraq has made," Mahmud said. He further argued that bin Laden's logic was off. "If the position of Al-Qaeda on the [nationalist] forces that joined the political process is to reject them, how can Al-Qaeda be justified in its war against resistance groups that refused to join the so-called Islamic State of Iraq?"

Mahmud also questioned why bin Laden did not raise the issue of the Iranian presence in Iraq, which Mahmud contends "has been a firm factor in ripping Iraq apart." "Was Iran forgotten by mistake or what?" he asked. He contended that he knows of no nationalist groups that have pledged allegiance to ISI, and asked why bin Laden would make such a demand, when Al-Qaeda militants follow several leaderships -- including al-Baghdadi and Mullah Muhammad Omar. Mahmud argued that Al-Qaeda should work to put its organization under a single leadership before demanding the same of all other jihadist groups.

Abd al-Rahman al-Qaysi, the spokesman of the Mujahedin Army in Iraq, chose not to counter Al-Qaeda directly, telling Al-Jazeera television on December 30: "We believe that attaching the name Al-Qaeda to all jihadist factions in Iraq is not in [Al-Qaeda's] interest because this will rally the enemies inside and outside Iraq against these factions."

Abu Ahmad al-Baghdadi, the media spokesman for another wing of the Mujahedin Army, told Al-Jazeera the same-day that bin Laden was asking for something no one could fulfill. "Al-Qaeda in Iraq has become a hand that destroys the Sunnis. Many Sunnis have been killed by them. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a source of corruption...they always direct their weapons at innocent civilians." He further contended that Al-Qaeda has become a "tool in Iran's hands." He added that he sees no problem in making a truce with the Americans, "because the Prophet [Muhammad] made a truce" with non-Muslims.