Future Of Awakening Councils In Limbo
Awakening councils are coalitions of mostly Sunni tribes that have been established in eight governorates in an effort to root out terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Some of the groups involved in the awakening movement had previously fought in the insurgency against U.S. troops.
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.
In Al-Basrah Aftermath, Iran's And Al-Sadr's Gain Is Al-Maliki's Loss
The intense response by al-Sadr's followers across southern Iraq and Baghdad seemed to catch the government off-guard. As the violence and instability spread, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government faced what appeared to be a widespread insurrection. At that point, a military option did not seem feasible.
On March 30, after nearly a week of fighting, al-Sadr issued a nine-point statement calling on his followers not to attack government forces. He urged the government to stop its random raids on Sadrists, called for an amnesty for fighters in the Al-Mahdi Army, and the release of all imprisoned members of the Sadrist movement who have not been convicted of any crimes.
Iran Plays Both Sides
Several days after al-Sadr's cease-fire call, it emerged that Iran helped broker the truce that ended the bloodshed that left nearly 500 dead and 900 wounded. In the aftermath of the Al-Basrah conflict, Iran clearly emerged as the big winner.
Several sources indicated as early as March 28 that a representative of al-Maliki's Al-Da'wah Party, Ali Adib, and Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), traveled to the Iranian city of Qom to meet with Iranian officials.
According to McClatchy Newspapers, the aim of the trip was twofold: to press al-Sadr to restrain his militia and to call on Iran's Qods Force to stop supplying weapons to Shi'ite fighters in Iraq. It was also revealed that the two men went to Iran without consulting with the prime minister.
Haidar al-Abadi, a member of Al-Da'wah, said that the delegation was from the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance, which is dominated by Al-Da'wah and the ISCI, "and the prime minister was only informed. It was a political maneuver by us."
The role of Iran in brokering the truce clearly demonstrates the Islamic republic's influence in Iraq, particularly in the Shi'ite community. Based on what was discussed in Qom, Iran was playing both sides of the fence, as peace brokers and instigators of the violence.
Al-Sadr Remains Strong
While the military confrontation ended essentially in a stalemate, al-Sadr came away with a political victory. His militia remains intact and he has demonstrated that it can withstand a major assault by the Iraqi military.
The aftermath of the clashes also showed that al-Sadr still has control over his militia. There had been much speculation that al-Sadr had lost control of the Al-Mahdi Army and that some breakaway factions were not heeding his authority. The Al-Basrah clashes and subsequent cease-fire demonstrated that he was still in charge.
While his militia were clearly not a passive actor in the Al-Basrah violence, their armed struggle was framed in the context of self-defense. The Iraqi security forces were seen as the aggressors in launching the military campaign, which many Sadrists described as politically motivated.
As it became clear during the Al-Basrah operation that the Al-Mahdi Army was the main target, al-Sadr continued to adhere to the truce he declared for the militia. The truce was instituted in August 2007 after his forces clashed with police in the holy city of Al-Najaf. There were concerns recently that the increased pressure on the Al-Mahdi Army might push al-Sadr to end the truce.
Maintaining the truce gave the appearance that al-Sadr was willing to place Iraq's benefits above his own political ambitions, which he stressed in the nine-point statement that led to the current cease-fire. In it, he supported Iraq's unity by calling for an "end to armed appearances in Al-Basrah and all other provinces."
Considering his bravado when his militia took on the U.S. military twice in 2004, al-Sadr's actions during the latest confrontation suggested his growing maturity as a political leader.
Huge Blow To Al-Maliki
For al-Maliki, the results of the "Battle for Al-Basrah" were certainly humiliating, given that he personally oversaw the military campaign. Al-Maliki hoped to erase the perception that he is a weak and ineffectual leader, particularly in dealing with al-Sadr and his militia. However, soon after the operation began, it was apparent that al-Maliki greatly overestimated the abilities of his forces and underestimated the tenacity of al-Sadr's militia.
Al-Maliki had vowed to crush the Shi'ite militias, armed gangs, and criminals that effectively controlled the city for three years. He initially gave all armed elements in Al-Basrah 72 hours to disarm, but after this was ignored, the deadline was extended to 10 days, coupled with an offer of cash in exchange for weapons.
In an operation that was planned to be completed quickly, Iraqi security forces were met with strong resistance from al-Sadr's militia, despite U.S. air support. Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Jasim admitted on March 28 that the government had been "surprised" by the militia's resistance and the government's battle plan and tactics had to be altered.
More troubling for al-Maliki, "Al-Azzam" reported on March 31 that several thousand police officers had refused to fight the militia and two Iraqi Army regiments reportedly defected to the Sadrists. If numerous acts of insubordination and desertion indeed took place during the operation, this would indicate the low level of morale among the security forces.
In the end, al-Maliki declared the operation a "success." However, his words may ring hollow since he failed to disarm and crush al-Sadr's militia, and this may have weakened him politically in the eyes of his ruling Shi'ite alliance.
The revelation that members of his own Shi'ite alliance, including from his own Al-Da'wah Party, went to Iran against his wishes to broker a truce further undercuts his authority and ultimately his credibility.
Thorn In Washington's Side
U.S. support for the Al-Basrah operation has become considerably more muted since it was first launched. On March 30, CIA Director Michael Hayden told NBC News that he had no prior knowledge that the Iraqi government planned to launch such a campaign. In fact, he even indicated that U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and U.S. commander in Iraq General David Petraeus were also left in the dark about the operation.
This could be a sign of tacit disapproval of al-Maliki's handling of the operation as well as the administration distancing itself from it in order to offset any potential embarrassment before Crocker and Petraeus testify before Congress next week.
The failure of the operation also makes clear that the Iraqi military is far from prepared to take over responsibility for security. This does not bode well for the United States, since it is an indication that troop reductions maybe further delayed.
Al-Sadr's performance again shows that the young cleric is a major political force in Iraq who cannot be ignored. Many saw the Al-Basrah campaign as a means of weakening al-Sadr before the provincial elections now set for the fall. Now it seems that he may be a long-term political player and the United States may have to work with him, whether it likes it or not.
Finally, in terms of Iran, the United States can't be too pleased that Tehran was where Iraqi Shi'ite leaders turned to in a crisis -- yet another stark indication of the growing Iranian influence in Iraq.
Al-Qaeda Killing Field Found Near Farming Village
The first victim, whose head had been placed at his feet, was found on March 26 by a local village head and a U.S. Army officer who had been given the orchard's location by a man who said he had been kidnapped by Al-Qaeda last August and taken to a "jail" there, but managed to escape before execution.
"Smell that?" Captain Vince Morris, of Iron Company, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, asked when he approached the orchard on that exploratory visit. No one answered. No one needed to. The gagging stench of rotting flesh was unmistakable. And it was much too strong for the contents of just one grave.
At least 51 additional clumps of remains were uncovered in two, two-hour digs by volunteers from surrounding villages later in the week. The oldest remains were in separate, shallow graves. The freshest remains -- the skeletons still had muscle and flesh holding the bones together -- were in several mass graves, the bodies heaped upon each other.
Most were unearthed with their wrists tied behind their backs and with a bullet hole in the skull. Some were covered with a piece of cloth when dumped into the hole; others were not. And then there was the body that was wrapped in plastic.
"The ones in plastic are really bad," a U.S. soldier says. "They're just bags of mush."
Zahamm is a village located about 5 kilometers north of the town of Himbus in Diyala Governorate's "bread basket." When Al-Qaeda declared Diyala Governorate the seat of its so-called Islamic State of Iraq caliphate, the Himbus area became the terrorist group's main training, weapons-storage, and transit area.
No Music, No Smoking
"When they first came into the area they said they were mujahedin fighting the occupation forces. But later they started forcing people from their homes and taking money. People who worked for the Iraq Army or the Iraqi police were punished," says Sheikh Abbas Husayn Khalaf, the leader of Taiyah village.
"They imposed their rules: no music, no smoking, the women had to wear the veil, and there were no wedding celebrations. No one was allowed out after 5 p.m. Some people were shot in front of the people in the street, others were kidnapped, killed, and put in the mass graves."
Sheikh Abbas, sentenced to death by Al-Qaeda for "stirring up people" against them, fled north and hid with relatives, returning to Taiyah only infrequently and surreptitiously. Fourteen people from his village were snatched by Al-Qaeda, he said, including a cousin -- the brother of the man who led soldiers to the killing field.
Last week's excavation sessions only lasted about two hours each. "They're beat. Just look at their faces," Captain Morris, who had helped organize the search and was present to document the finds, says of the volunteers. "I don't think they'll do this much longer today."
His hunch, voiced early in the digging, proved true. The eyes of the volunteers were a mixture of fatigue and trauma -- the horror of Al-Qaeda's rule had revisited them in a particularly brutal fashion. And discarded clothing found nearby -- including children's clothing -- held the promise of things to come.
Only one portion of the orchard -- Al-Qaeda acquired it by killing its Shi'ite owner -- had been excavated, and there were two more orchards nearby that needed to be searched as well.
"If you find them [Al-Qaeda], kill them. Kill all of them," says Karinhi Marzi al-Shumari, an elderly woman from the village of Al-Haruniyah who was watching the disinterment.
The elderly woman said her son, Muhammad Jaber, 42, was taken away by Al-Qaeda last July when he repeatedly refused to join the group.
As she slapped herself, wailed aloud, and raised her hands skyward, other women scoured the field and picked up scattered bits of paper, trying to find information as to what happened to their loved ones.
Those unearthed so far have had proper burials. Villagers cut bed sheets to make shrouds and took the remains by truck to a cemetery.