One of Iraq's most powerful Shiite politicians urged the government there on Friday to curb the expanding influence of the country's so-called "Awakening Councils," largely Sunni groups who have been financed by the United States to fight Al Qaeda and other militants in the country.
The emergence of the councils earlier this year has been instrumental in curbing attacks on US troops in places like Anbar Province. But the Associated Press points to signs of growing unease among Iraq's majority Shiite leaders over the arms and training being given to tribal Sunnis, who generally view Shiites with contempt.
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, told worshippers gathered near his office in southwest Baghdad that the so-called awakening groups, many of whom once fought against U.S. forces but have since turned their guns on extremists, must side with the government. "I stress the necessity of having the awakening councils be on the side of the government in chasing terrorists and criminals, but not be a substitute for it," al-Hakim said. "Weapons should be within the hands of the government only."
He went on to say that the groups should be active in areas where there is still much fighting — such as volatile Diyala province — but that they should stand down in areas where Sunnis and Shiites live side by side, fearing the Sunni factions will stir up sectarian strife.
Iraq's Shiite-led government has been deeply suspicious of the tribal militias, fearing that they could turn against Iraqi security forces in the future.
The United States has been pushing the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government to integrate the awakening groups into the Army or police. That's something the Iraqis have been reluctant to do so far, worried that their guns might end up turned on them.
But the Americans have been arguing that the young Sunnis are taking major risks and that rewarding them would be a step toward national reconciliation. The danger to them was brought home on Thursday, when 13 members of a US-organized group in Baquba were killed, along with a US soldier, by a suicide bombing.
U.S. forces said the suicide bomber struck a foot patrol near a building where a city council meeting was to be held, killing one soldier and wounding 10. Iraqi police said the building was also being used to recruit volunteers for neighborhood patrols, 13 of whom were killed and 10 wounded.
U.S. forces are paying mostly Sunni Arab men to join neighborhood patrols to fight Sunni al Qaeda militants, a tactic Washington says has helped curb violence.
But the patrols have been increasingly targeted, especially in provinces like Diyala where U.S. commanders say al Qaeda has regrouped after being pushed out of other parts of Iraq.
While such incidents make it appear that mainstream Shiites and Sunnis have a common enemy in Iraq, a new report from the US Institute of Peace, written by Rend Rahim Francke, who is Iraqi, argues that while security has improved dramatically in Iraq in recent months, there are few signs that is enabling sectarian reconciliation.
Ms. Francke says that, absent major improvements in Sunni-Shiite relations, the progress could prove temporary. She also points out that some of the improvement is due to the "sectarian cleansing" of neighborhoods, particularly in Baghdad.
The gravest problem in Iraq now concerns the power relations between the Sunni and Shia political groups….
A complicating factor for national dialogue among the Sunnis and Shia is the growing importance of the Sunni tribes in Anbar, Diyala and south of Baghdad…. Although the government welcomes their efforts at fighting Al Qaeda, Shia parties in the government perceive them as groups that at best have had strong links to the insurgency and may have been part of Saddam Hussein's Baathist apparatus…
At a visceral level Shia leaders affiliated with religious parties find it hard disassociate Sunni from Baath…. Therefore, the Shia fear the return of the Sunnis....
Sunni concerns are the other side of the same coin. The Sunnis have an existential fear of Shia domination and cannot accept the reality they are no longer the ruling elite.
The New York Times reports that while improved security has boosted the numbers of Iraqi refugees seeking to return to their homes, managing the returns has proved difficult and dangerous, particularly for many Sunni Arabs.
Tens of thousands of returning refugees face similar uncertainties throughout Iraq, where the government's inability to manage the uneven reverse exodus has left the most vulnerable in an uneasy, potentially explosive limbo.
The government's widely publicized plan to run free buses from Damascus, Syria, to Baghdad was suspended after just two runs. Thousands of Sunni refugees get no aid because they fear registering with the Shiite-led government....
The American military has expressed deep concerns about the Iraqi government's ability to feed and house its returnees, or manage people who wish to reclaim their homes. It is widely feared that property disputes or efforts to return to newly homogenized neighborhoods could set off fresh waves of sectarian attacks.
Pat Lang, former head of the Middle East desk at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, warns on his blog, Sic Semper Tyrannis 2007, that while the US decision to work with Sunni tribal groups was sound, that doesn't guarantee long-term success.
Many problems remain in Iraq. The central government remains the monstrous engine of ethno-religious factional politics that the Coalition Provisional Authority created....
At present the US has accepted as temporary allies many of those who fought against us before the "Anbar Awakening." That is as it should be. We should continue that policy in other parts of the country.
What we should not think is that our former enemies have become reconciled to a permanent US military garrison in their country. To think that would be a terrible mistake....
Bottom Line? Those who fight beside us now will fight us again if we decide to occupy their country permanently.