BAGHDAD — Ahmed froze as he opened the small white envelope left on his doorstep in the Iraqi town of Latifiyah. Shaking, he looked around before reading the words scrawled on the envelope. Inside was a bullet.
“The message was clear: I must leave or I will be slaughtered,” said Ahmed, who immediately fled with his family and now lives with relatives in another town.
Ahmed, who did not want his full name disclosed, was targeted for belonging to a government-backed Sunni Muslim militia formed at the height of Iraq’s sectarian conflict in late 2006, when Sunni tribesmen joined forces with U.S. troops and rebelled against al-Qaeda in what came to be known as the “Sahwa” (Awakening).
But the tide is turning back toward al-Qaeda and other Islamist insurgent groups whose onslaught against the Shiite-led government and its allies has killed more than 6,000 people this year in an ominous echo of the bloodshed that peaked in 2006-2007.
Security officials blame the surge in violence partly on a lack of cooperation from Sahwa fighters, who feel they were not rewarded as promised for taking on al-Qaeda during the U.S. occupation and have been left to face the backlash from the militants alone.
“Since 2006, we have fought al-Qaeda and arrested so many of those criminals, but today we are going back to square one,” said Sheik Aref al-Jumaili, a tribal leader from a town in Anbar province, Iraq’s Sunni heartland.
“We cannot fight them now. They will kill us and get revenge because we fought them with American support. Today this government is not able to protect or support us.”
In its heyday, the Sahwa movement mustered about 103,000 men, but the number has declined to no more than 38,000 since the U.S. military relinquished security control in Iraq in 2010, said Amir al-Khuzaie, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s reconciliation adviser.
Some Sahwa members were hired as civil servants, integrated into the ministries of defense and interior.
“Sahwa [fighters] have left a big gap after they abandoned their positions and stopped securing their areas,” said a senior military officer serving in the Sunni town of Shirqat, about 190 miles north of Baghdad.
“They know exactly the areas where al-Qaeda and other militants are operating, how to abort their attacks, chase and hunt them,” the officer said.
In Sunni communities, the Sahwa once provided intelligence in areas where the nation’s armed forces, staffed mostly by the majority Shiites, face mistrust — if not outright hostility.
But Sahwa fighters now face the ire of fellow Sunnis, as resentment builds toward the Shiite-led government that came to power after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003.
Sunnis took to the streets in December in protest against Maliki, a Shiite, seeing his pursuit of Sunni politicians on terrorism charges as part of a pattern of oppression.
A deadly raid by security forces on a protest camp in April touched off a violent backlash by Sunni militants who view Shiites as nonbelievers and Sahwa fighters as “Sunni apostates” who deserve to die for betraying God and their sect.
“We will kill them in a brutal way and throw their corpses to the dogs,” read a recent statement posted on the Internet and signed by al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq.
Security officials said Sahwa fighters and their families have come under frequent attack in the past six months, but there were no details on how many were killed.
In northern Iraq, where insurgents have a foothold, al-Qaeda gave the Sahwa an ultimatum — which expired last week on the first day of the Muslim Eid al-Adha festival — to repent and swear allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq or face death.
Al-Qaeda’s Iraq wing has told Sahwa fighters to hand over their weapons and uniforms and to record videos pledging allegiance to the militant group, Sahwa leaders and Iraqi security officials said.
A senior military intelligence officer said the aim was to force former Sahwa members to fight alongside al-Qaeda or face the prospect of the videos being sent to the security forces.
“We do not trust al-Qaeda, but our fear [of it] forced us not to cooperate with the government,” said Ahmed, adding that he would rather spend time in jail than join the militants. “Al-Qaeda, for me, is like a nuclear bomb. It is a source of death.”
Al-Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq has been nourished by the civil war in neighboring Syria, which has drawn Sunni Islamists from across the region and beyond into battle against President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Al-Qaeda’s Syrian and Iraqi wings merged this year to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), which has asserted responsibility for attacks on both sides of the border.
Facing this invigorated Sunni insurgency, Iraqi security officials said Maliki had decided to revive the Sahwa project. In Syria, some concerned by al-Qaeda’s growing clout are looking to replicate the Sahwa model there.
However, one Sunni politician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Maliki had undermined the Sahwa by encouraging divisions among Sunni tribal leaders in an effort to control them.
“It’s a great way to create a strife among them and push them from afar to fight each other,” he said.