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Rift threatens U.S. antidote to Al Qaeda in Iraq

Growing divisions among pro-US Sunni tribal chiefs threatens to unravel American gains against Al Qaeda.

By Sam DagherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 13, 2008

Target: Sheikh Ali al-Hatem (l.), a leader in the Awakening Movement, escaped a twin car bombing in Baghdad Monday that killed 22 people.

Sam Dagher

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The tribal rebellion among Sunni Arabs against Al Qaeda in Anbar Province, which later spread to Baghdad and other parts of the country, is by all accounts the crown jewel of US achievements in Iraq over the past year.

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But now the Sahwa (Awakening) Movement is under growing assault on multiple fronts, threatening to undo many of the American military's recent security gains.

While Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) insurgents have been hitting it hard in a campaign of increasing attacks, the movement's leaders are also pushing for a greater voice in the government, a move that has tangled them within Baghdad's notoriously vicious political scene.

At least 147 members of militias within this movement, now called Sons of Iraq instead of Concerned Local Citizens (CLC) by the US, have been killed in attacks attributed to Al Qaeda since October, according to Iraq Body Count, a website that tracks Iraqi deaths in the war.

One of the Sahwa founders, Sheikh Ali al-Hatem, escaped Monday what he said was the sixth attempt on his life. The movement's driving force, Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, was killed in September.

In Baquba, north of Baghdad, sectarian pressure is hampering the movement. Hundreds of Sahwa militiamen protested Monday to demand that the provincial police chief, a Shiite, be fired for sanctioning alleged crimes against Sunnis within the province. The protesters threatened to quit their jobs as neighborhood guards, paid mainly by the US.

Iraq's Shiite-led government has also delayed drafting Sahwa members into the police and Army. Only 10 percent of the 77,000 Sahwa members have been accepted for training for police and Army jobs. Of those, 490 have completed training, according to a US-led coalition spokesman, Rear Adm. Greg Smith.

A political awakening

The greatest enemy of the relatively young Sahwa movement may be growing and bitter rivalries from within.

On Tuesday, Sheikh Abdul-Sattar's brother and successor, Sheikh Ahmed, huddled in Anbar Province's capital, Ramadi, with other chieftains poised to announce a new party, "Sahwat al-Iraq" (Iraq's Awakening). The party would take part in upcoming provincial elections, according to his deputy, Sheikh Abdul-Karim Yussif.