Sunni Forces Losing Patience With U.S.

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 28, 2008

BAGHDAD, Feb. 27 -- U.S.-backed Sunni volunteer forces, which have played a vital role in reducing violence in Iraq, are increasingly frustrated with the American military and the Iraqi government over what they see as a lack of recognition of their growing political clout and insufficient U.S. support.

Since Feb. 8, thousands of fighters in restive Diyala province have left their posts in order to pressure the government and its American backers to replace the province's Shiite police chief. On Wednesday, their leaders warned that they would disband completely if their demands were not met. In Babil province, south of Baghdad, fighters have refused to man their checkpoints after U.S. soldiers killed several comrades in mid-February in circumstances that remain in dispute.

Some force leaders and ground commanders also reject a U.S.-initiated plan that they say offers too few Sunni fighters the opportunity to join Iraq's army and police, and warn that low salaries and late payments are pushing experienced members to quit.

The predominantly Sunni Awakening forces, referred to by the U.S. military as the Sons of Iraq or Concerned Local Citizens, are made up mostly of former insurgents who have turned against extremists because of their harsh tactics and interpretation of Islam. The U.S. military pays many fighters roughly $10 a day to guard and patrol their areas. Thousands more unpaid volunteers have joined out of tribal and regional fealties.

U.S. efforts to manage this fast-growing movement of about 80,000 armed men are still largely effective, but in some key areas the control is fraying. The tensions are the most serious since the Awakening was launched in Anbar province in late 2006, according to Iraqi officials, U.S. commanders and 20 Awakening leaders across Iraq. Some U.S. military officials say they are growing concerned that the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq has infiltrated Awakening forces in some areas.

"Now, there is no cooperation with the Americans," said Haider Mustafa al-Kaisy, an Awakening commander in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, an insurgent stronghold that U.S. and Iraqi forces are still struggling to control. "We have stopped fighting al-Qaeda."

U.S. military officials and commanders say they are seeking to defuse the rising tensions before hard-won U.S. gains are jeopardized. "Despite some of the frustrations, the frictions and the attacks on the Sons of Iraq, they are continuing to volunteer. As an interim solution, it seems to be working well," said Col. Bill Buckner, a senior U.S. military spokesman. "It's clear Iraq remains a fragile security environment. We want to address many of their concerns as best as we can, so that they continue to be part of the solution to the security situation in Iraq."

Growing Threats

Awakening leaders say threats against their fighters are rising. Attacks against Awakening members went from 26 in October to 100 in January, according to a U.S. military official, who added that February's numbers are on track to be nearly as high as January's.

But the growing threats have not been matched with added resources. Rafah Kassim, 37, an Awakening leader in the oil-producing city of Baiji, lost two fighters in mid-February when gunmen ambushed their car. Speaking at their funeral, Kassim said he did not expect the Shiite-led Iraqi government, which fears the Awakening movement could one day turn against it, to embrace his fighters. He had applied six times to join the Iraqi army and police, he said, but was never accepted. He said he expected his new ally, the U.S. military, to back his struggle. Instead, he said, U.S. commanders have limited his force to 40 fighters when he needs at least 100 to protect his area of 2.7 square miles.

"They should make me stronger. They should not weaken me," said Kassim, a former commander in the Islamic Army, an insurgent group. "We need weapons. We need vehicles. We do not even have gas for the few cars we have. When we joined, the Americans promised to provide all necessities. Now we know those were only words."

In the past two months, he said, 20 of his fighters have quit. Many felt their monthly salary was no longer worth the risk of fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq. His men also have not received their salaries in two months, he said. "We'll all be patient for another two months. If nothing changes, then we'll suspend and quit," Kassim said. "Then we'll go back to fighting the Americans."

'Why Am I Standing There?'

Inadvertent U.S. killings of Awakening fighters -- five such incidents have occurred in the past three weeks -- are adding to the frustrations. In the southern town of Jurf al-Sakr, U.S. soldiers killed three fighters Feb. 15. U.S. commanders said that the men had fired upon the soldiers first and that the troops acted in self-defense.

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