The movement began in the western Al-Anbar Governorate in 2006 when several Sunni tribes, fed up with Al-Qaeda in Iraq's tactics of indiscriminate bombings and killings, formed a loose coalition called the Al-Anbar Awakening Council. Within a year, Al-Qaeda had been driven out of the governorate.
The formation of awakening councils to combat Al-Qaeda has proven to be one of the most effective counterinsurgency campaigns by the U.S. military in Iraq. The fighters are entirely on the U.S. payroll and often work closely with U.S. and Iraqi forces. Last year, U.S. President George W. Bush singled out the formation of the Al-Anbar Awakening Council as the main reason the governorate was now essentially free of an Al-Qaeda presence.
During the recent reconciliation conference held in Baghdad on March 18-19, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki heaped praise on the awakening movement, saying they had defended "Iraq against terrorism."
However, members of the various awakening movements have voiced displeasure over how they have been treated by the U.S. military and the Iraqi government.
Frustration At U.S. Treatment
The pan-Arabic newspaper "Al-Hayat" reported on March 22 that an awakening movement in the town of Al-Taji, to the north of Baghdad in the Salah Al-Din Governorate, threatened to cease all activity until they were paid. Colonel Sa'ad Aziz Sulayman, the leader of the awakening council in Al-Taji, complained that his fighters have not been paid their salaries, approximately $300-$700 each, for nearly two months.
A similar report appeared in "The Guardian" on March 24 saying leaders of several awakening councils in central Iraq threatened to go on strike because the United States had not paid them regularly. The British daily said thousands of fighters would go on strike unless their salaries of $10 per day resumed.
Abu Abd al-Aziz, the head of the council in Abu Ghurayb, said nearly 500 of his fighters have quit, and he accused U.S. forces of using the awakening councils and later abandoning them. "The Americans got what they wanted. We purged Al-Qaeda for them and now people are saying why should we have any more deaths for the Americans," he said. "They have given us nothing."
Moreover, there been several recent incidents where U.S. military operations have ended up killing and wounding awakening-council fighters. The most recent incident occurred on March 22 when a U.S. air strike near the central town of Samarra killed six members of a local awakening council who were manning a checkpoint.
Abu Furuq, a leader of the awakening council in Samarra, expressed his dismay at the attack, and noted that the fighters were wearing reflective vests, clearly identifying them as members of the awakening council.
Losing Patience With Government
Many in the awakening movement have also expressed their frustration with the Iraqi government and its slowness in integrating the fighters into the security forces. While al-Maliki has repeatedly praised the movement, he only begrudgingly agreed in December 2007 to incorporate some of the Sunni fighters into the police and army.
The Shi'a-led government has kept a wary eye on fighters from the awakening movement, some of whom were previously part of the insurgency. The vetting process has been extremely slow, some would say deliberately so.
In what will certainly anger members of the awakening movement, "Al-Azzam" reported on April 1 that Prime Minister al-Maliki honored the militias aligned with the two top Shi'ite parties in the United Iraqi Alliance, the Al-Da'wah Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). They were lauded for fighting alongside Iraqi forces against Muqtada al-Sadr's militia in Al-Basrah, and approximately 10,000 fighters from the two militias were absorbed into the security forces.
From the perspective of the Sunni-dominated awakening movement, there is clearly a sectarian motivation involved. The Shi'ite fighters seemed to have been granted instant entrance into the army and police, while the Sunni fighters, who have expelled Al-Qaeda from several governorates, continue to be forced to wait.
Furthermore, seeing Shi'a being given preferential treatment only underscores the sense of collective marginalization felt by the Sunni Arab community. Such actions will certainly not assuage Sunni fears that they have no place in the new Iraq.
Potentially Huge Problem
One of the major problems facing both the Iraqi government and the United States is what to do with the approximately 80,000 fighters that comprise the awakening movement. The government said it would eventually absorb only 25 percent of them into the security forces. The remaining 75 percent likely face a bleak future of unemployment.
This would be a disastrous scenario that would eerily parallel the disbanding of the Iraqi Army by the Coalition Provisional Authority, arguably one of the biggest U.S. miscalculations in Iraq. The dissolution of the army left thousands of unemployed, alienated, and armed men with no hopes for the future and holding a huge grudge. They along, with the disbanded Ba'athists, formed the backbone of an extremely tenacious and deadly insurgency.
Likewise, casting off thousands of armed Sunni fighters once they are no longer needed could leave them ready recruits for insurgent groups. It should not be forgotten that some of the groups that joined the awakening movement formerly belonged to the anti-U.S. insurgency. Therefore, in desperate circumstances where unemployment is high and opportunities few, a cash offer may be the only recruiting method insurgent groups need to lure the fighters back.