New Leaders Of Sunnis Make Gains In Influence

This video clip shows Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the top U.S. commander for many areas south of Baghdad, walking through the village of Maderiyah with Sunni fighters of the U.S.-backed Awakening forces, who are wearing reflective belts. Video by Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington PostEditor: Margaret McElligott/
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

MADERIYAH, Iraq -- Saad Mahami wanted more firepower. He didn't trust the Iraqi government to give him support, so inside Patrol Base Whiskey, at the edge of this village south of Baghdad, he told U.S. commanders that his 71 Sunni fighters needed additional weapons to fight the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

As he listened to Mahami's demand, Capt. David Underwood reminded his superiors that Mahami's men -- all members of a U.S.-backed Sunni paramilitary movement called Sahwa, or "Awakening" -- were already buying arms with U.S. reward money for finding enemy ammunition dumps. "And as we confiscate weapons, we hand them to Saad Mahami," Underwood told Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the top commander in the region, during their meeting with the Iraqi.

The United States is empowering a new group of Sunni leaders, including onetime members of former president Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, intelligence services and army, who are challenging established Sunni politicians for their community's leadership. The phenomenon marks a sharp turnaround in U.S. policy and the fortunes of Iraq's Sunni minority.

The new leaders are decidedly against Iraq's U.S.-backed, Shiite-led government, which is wary of the Awakening movement's growing influence, viewing it as a potential threat when U.S. troops withdraw. The mistrust suggests how easily last year's security improvements could come undone in a still-brittle Iraq.

"We feel we are more in control," said Safah Hassan, 28, one of Mahami's fighters. "The Americans have encouraged us to stand up for our society. We never thought this would happen."

When Hussein was toppled, Sunnis felt their power waning, and their sense of dispossession hit bottom when Hussein was executed a year ago. Now the Awakening movement is given credit for helping to reduce violence, and the new Sunni role shows that they remain a linchpin of stability.

Initiated by tribes in Anbar province, the Awakening movement spread across Iraq last year, as growing numbers of Sunnis turned against the extreme tactics of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a mainly homegrown and predominantly Sunni group that U.S. officials say is led by foreign fighters. U.S. military commanders rapidly entered into risky alliances with tribal leaders and onetime members of other insurgent groups, which included men who had killed U.S. soldiers. Today, the Awakening forces -- also known in many areas as "concerned local citizens" -- number nearly 71,000 fighters, and have pushed al-Qaeda in Iraq out of areas it once controlled.

Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, who leads one of the largest Anbar tribes, described al-Qaeda in Iraq as a nail in the side of the U.S. military and Iraqi forces. "We broke that nail," Suleiman said. "What other way does the prime minister or the American president have? They have to accept the way we have drawn."

In interviews over the past month, several Awakening leaders and foot soldiers said they wanted to ensure their community's survival by bringing services and economic development to their areas. They are hardening their grip over Sunni enclaves throughout the country, weakening the central government's authority.

In Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood, signs proclaim the power of Adil Mashadani, known to be a former member of Hussein's Republican Guard and a onetime insurgent who controls Fadhil's Awakening Council.

In Babil province, Sabah al-Jenabi is now the mayor of the town of Jurf a-Sakr -- less than four months after he signed his first contract with the Americans. The Jenabis are a preeminent tribe that thrived under Hussein and later backed the insurgency.

So far, however, the new leaders have secured little more than guns, money and the support of U.S. military officers, but those gains help men such as Mahami keep their vows to protect their territories, not only from al-Qaeda in Iraq, but also from Shiite militias and Iraq's Shiite-dominated security forces.

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