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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
Sheikh Ahmed has already forged an alliance in Anbar with Iraq's top Sunni party, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, and was named as a possible minister within Mr. Hashemi's Sunni bloc should it return to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. It has boycotted the government since August.
Notably absent from Tuesday's meeting was Sheikh Hatem, who regards himself as the rightful chief of Sahwa. He has assailed Hashemi for trying to hijack the movement to serve what he calls the IIP's corrupt goals in Anbar. He has even accused the party of maintaining links to Al Qaeda. IIP officials deny those charges.
"More dangerous than Al Qaeda are the political parties that continue to support Al Qaeda.… Al Qaeda is a convenient scapegoat for a lot of things.… It's open war against our enemies and our response will be swift," Hatem said Monday, hours after a truck bomber rammed into the parking lot of his Baghdad office, killing six of his guards and wounding 20. Minutes later a second car bomb exploded nearby. The combined death toll was 22.
Sheikh Hatem's way
A week before the bombings at Hatem's compound, soldiers and policemen guarded the building on a leafy street in Jadriyah district of Baghdad. The sheikh arrived in a shiny new white SUV as part of a teeming convoy. He descended from the driver's seat clutching a holster belt holding his pistol.