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New Leaders Of Sunnis Make Gains In Influence
U.S.-Backed Fighters Find Empowering Role

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.

The U.S. commanders in Maderiyah knew little about Mahami -- only that he was a lawyer and a community leader. Most of his men were from the Islamic Army, an insurgent group that broke away from al-Qaeda in Iraq last year, Underwood said.

Mahami told the U.S. commanders that he needed more than weapons. He also wanted radio equipment and a car. He looked at Lynch, the U.S. regional commander, and asked him to blow up four nearby bridges to prevent al-Qaeda in Iraq from entering the village.

"We will be very happy to do it," Lynch replied.

'We Rely on Ourselves'

Riyadh Hadi is the field commander of the Lions of Adhamiyah, the Awakening force in a middle-class Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad. Tall with a long, goateed face, the 37-year-old Hadi said he commands 1,400 fighters, 700 of whom receive a $300 monthly salary from the U.S. military.

He described himself only as a metalworker and "a son of Adhamiyah" who rose up against al-Qaeda in Iraq after the group killed his brother. Residents and insurgents said he is a former Baathist who was a member of several militant groups, including the 1920 Revolution Brigades, which once had strong links to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"Our men know who the al-Qaeda are," he said with pride, referring to its members. "Our men can catch them before they can do anything."

Many leading Sunnis joined the insurgency after U.S. administrators dismantled Hussein's system in the wake of the 2003 invasion. Adhamiyah, in particular, turned into an insurgent stronghold, and by 2004, a sanctuary for al-Qaeda in Iraq. But last year, many insurgents turned against the jihadists, who many Sunnis felt had undermined the image of the Sunni resistance and imposed Islamic laws that were too restrictive.

The Lions emerged on the streets of Adhamiyah on Nov. 10. Their forces quickly engaged in two clashes against mostly Shiite policemen, who were stunned to see the Sunni fighters now taking over the enclave.

In the first clash, Hadi was taken into custody and beaten by police officers who declared their loyalty to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, Hadi recalled. "We are Sunnis," he said. "It was a direct challenge."

He spent 30 minutes in a cell before U.S. troops arrived and set him free. Brig. Gen. Hussein al-Dulaimi, an Adhamiyah police commander, described the clashes as "a misunderstanding."

One day last month, Hadi's men were stationed at nearly every intersection. They checked vehicles at the entrances to the neighborhood, which was protected by tall blast walls. Elsewhere the fighters were much less visible. "Under Saddam Hussein, there was no army in the streets. He used intelligence men, his Baathists, he was controlling everything, like what we are doing now," Hadi said.

The area was brimming with cars and shoppers. Laughing children played in a small amusement park with a creaking Ferris wheel that had recently reopened. Some women walked across a busy traffic circle without head scarves, past grim buildings disfigured by war.

"Al-Qaeda killed a girl over there for not wearing a hijab," said Ali Salim, 25, a resident, pointing at a baby-blue complex pocked by bullet holes and referring to the head covering worn by many Muslim women. "Now, there's a big difference."

"We rely on ourselves to protect our community," said one of Hadi's fighters, Abu Omar, 42, eyes twinkling through his oval glasses. "This is the best we Sunnis can hope for under this government."

Last week, Hadi's men attempted to stop Iraqi army troops from conducting house raids with U.S. troops, prompting a firefight.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq still poses a threat. On Monday, Riyadh al-Sammarai, an Awakening leader who backed Hadi's men, was killed in a suicide bomb attack, one of several recent attacks against Awakening forces.

Not all residents trust Hadi's men. Abu Youssef, a 47-year-old Sunni taxi driver, fled the enclave last year after al-Qaeda in Iraq accused him of spying. Today, he fears returning to Adhamiyah "because many al-Qaeda members have joined the Awakening. . . . I have no confidence because of their history."

"The Shiite militias were police in the morning and criminals in the night," added Abu Youssef. "What is the point of replacing the Shiite militias with Sunni militias?"

Scrawled on a wall, near graffiti that hailed the "Adhamiyah Heroes," was an ominous sign of a future battle: "Death to the Mahdi Army."

Past the minarets of Adhamiyah's Abu Hanifa mosque, Iraq's holiest Sunni shrine, the Bridge of the Imams arches over the Tigris River toward the Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiyah. There, the Mahdi Army, led by Shiite cleric Sadr, rules.

In a region awash in sectarian currents, many Awakening leaders are suspicious of Iran's growing power, convinced that it backs Shiite militias and its intentions are to control Iraq's government and undermine the Sunni world.

"If they don't cleanse Iraq from Iranian influence, at any moment we can be attacked," Hadi declared.

A half-hour later, he stared across the barricaded bridge toward Kadhimiyah.

"Of course, we will fight them if they choose to come over here," Hadi said. "Even children will fight the Mahdi Army. Even the Americans will join us."

Salah al-Obaidi, Sadr's chief spokesman in Najaf, said the government and U.S. military were "opening the doors for al-Qaeda followers and killers of Shiites" to reemerge as the Awakening movement. "It will lead Iraq into more trouble," Obaidi warned.

A Community 'Up for Grabs'

Suleiman, the Anbar tribal chief, and other Awakening leaders are trying to leverage their community's growing street power into political clout in Baghdad. Under U.S. pressure, the government has hired 23,000 Anbar fighters into the police force. But Suleiman is expecting a lot more in return.

"We're asking the Americans and Iraqi government, 'Where is the reconstruction?' " Suleiman said.

Last month, the Awakening's political arm recommended 15 people to fill ministerial positions left empty by the Tawafaq, the main Sunni political bloc, which pulled out of the government in August.

"We're at a period when the Sunni community is a bit up for grabs right now in terms of leadership," said a senior U.S. diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The tribal chiefs view the Tawafaq politicians as outsiders because many were in exile during Hussein's reign. The Tawafaq bloc is also widely believed to have insurgent links.

"The Tawafaq are not able to represent the needs of the people," said Hameed al-Haies, a burly Anbar tribal leader who survived three assassination attempts by al-Qaeda in Iraq. The latest left a bullet scar on his chest. "The people like us a lot. They think we are the spark that helped Iraq."

Tawafaq leader Adnan al-Dulaimi said that his group's members welcomed the Awakening's political involvement but added that the 2005 elections, in which Tawafaq won 44 parliamentary seats, were proof that the bloc had "wide support among the Sunni society."

"No side can say it alone represents all Sunnis," he said.

The Awakening movement itself is divided, along lines of tribe, territory, ideology and personality. Not all the Awakening forces report to Suleiman's group. The tribal leaders are wary of the former insurgents once aligned with al-Qaeda in Iraq or former Hussein loyalists.

One such person is Abu Abed, a 35-year-old former Hussein-era army sergeant and intelligence officer who controls Baghdad's Amiriyah neighborhood with his Knights of Mesopotamia force.

When asked about Abu Abed, Rasheed Jubair, a senior Anbar Awakening leader, said: "If he does something wrong, I will break his back. We don't accept anyone to go beyond the law."

Mutual Lack of Trust

The future of the Sunni community, perhaps of Iraq itself, will likely be shaped by men such as Hassan, the Awakening fighter in Maderiyah. For the past few months, he has tried to join the Iraqi security forces, but he has had no response. Neither have his comrades or Hadi's men.

"I do not trust this government," Hassan said. "It is based on religion, ethnicity, and they just do not want to share power with us."

The government is worried that the Sunni fighters could turn against it when U.S. troops pull out of Iraq. In public statements, government officials warned they would not permit the Awakening movement to become "a third force" alongside the police and army.

If he does not get a government job, Ahmed Nadji, a 20-year-old Awakening fighter, predicted this scenario: "We will quit. Al-Qaeda will come back again. Adhamiyah will go back to chaos again. The Iraqis who have returned from Syria will go back again. Everything will collapse again."

Yet that grim scenario is also why his community's newly empowered leaders are optimistic. "The government has no choice but to accept us," Suleiman said. "They have seen what we have done, how strong we are on the land. The political process cannot run without us."

Special correspondent Zaid Sabah in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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