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.