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.
THE COMPLETE STORY:
RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.