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.
Within hours, more than 1,000 fighters walked away from their posts. Sabah al-Janabi, who heads the Awakening in the area, publicly criticized the U.S. military, alleging it had killed 19 of his men in the past 45 days, which U.S. commanders deny.
"Now, I have fighters who refuse to go back to their positions," said Fadhil Youssef, another Awakening leader in the area. "They are saying, 'I am standing on road, securing my neighborhood, and Americans come and kill me. So why am I standing there?' "
In the village of Zaab, west of the northern city of Kirkuk, police officials and witnesses said U.S. forces on Feb. 14 killed six relatives of an Awakening leader, Issa Muhsin al-Jubouri, and detained him and others. In an interview last week, after his release, he said U.S. soldiers had "raised their weapons in my face and shouted at me, 'Confess or I will shoot you.'
"They beat me and cursed me and made me face the wall, saying to me, 'You have exploited the Awakening to support the terrorists,' " Jubouri said. "I kept saying, 'You are mistaken, because I and my family have been victims of terrorists.' "
U.S. military officials confirmed that six people, including two women, were killed, among them several Awakening members, and that a dozen were detained. But the officials said U.S. troops were targeting al-Qaeda in Iraq and acted in self-defense after being fired upon. When asked about Jubouri's allegations, Maj. Brad Leighton, a U.S. military spokesman, replied: "It's combat. I would not expect our guys to be gentle when conducting an operation on a place where we suspect there are terrorists."
The incidents illustrate a vexing problem for the American military: The Awakening movement has grown so fast that it has become difficult for U.S. commanders to monitor the fighters and their loyalties.
"It's clear there are extremist groups that have penetrated the Concerned Local Citizens, that there may be in fact al-Qaeda amongst the Concerned Local Citizens," said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, a senior military spokesman.
Jubouri said his 800 fighters had taken huge risks to ally with the U.S. military and faced allegations that they are "agents for the Americans."
"If there is no apology, or no compensation, or failure to produce the informers before us, we will carry arms against the Americans," Jubouri said.Demands in Diyala
Nowhere are the tensions more serious than in Diyala, one of the major battlegrounds in the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Awakening groups, also known here as Popular Committees, are demanding the resignation of the Shiite provincial police chief, Maj. Gen. Ghanem al-Qureishi. They accuse him of running death squads and torturing Sunnis, allegations that Qureishi denied in an interview. The Awakening leaders are also seeking recognition as an official force.
On Wednesday, they vowed to dissolve the committees if their demands were not met. "In the last 10 months, we haven't received any kind of assistance or help from Americans or Iraqi government," said Abu Talib, a top Awakening leader. "On the contrary, the police started to hunt us down."
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani said that Qureishi was highly valued and that such "good men" would be protected. "An accusation does not mean the crime actually took place," Bolani said.
The U.S. military acknowledges that it is caught in the middle of a political struggle. "Yes, they are frustrated," said Lt. Col. Ricardo Love, commander of the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, who works in Baqubah, the provincial capital. "They think we can make the government of Iraq do anything. We tell them we don't control the government. But they think we are the mighty power."
"The position of Americans is hesitation," said Abu Imad al-Zuhaidi, another Awakening official in Baqubah. "They don't have any independent opinion, despite the fact they know it is the Awakening who restored order."
U.S. commanders said the Awakening's strike has not affected security, but Love and others are concerned about fighters who may be tempted, or forced, to rejoin the insurgency.
"AQI and JAM will take advantage of the situation," he said, using military abbreviations for al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Mahdi Army, the country's largest Shiite militia, which is loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
In Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, concern is mounting over a U.S. proposal that calls for about 20 percent of the volunteer forces to be integrated into the nation's army and police. The rest would be provided with civilian jobs and vocational training.
"The Sunnis were always the leaders of the country. Is it reasonable that they are turned into service workers and garbage collectors?" said Khalid Jiyad Abed, an Awakening leader in the city of Latifiyah and an engineer. "We had not anticipated this from the American forces. Of course we will not accept that," Abed added.
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who for the past 14 months was the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, said only 20 to 30 percent of the Awakening fighters could pass physical and written exams to enter Iraq's security forces.
"Overall, you will never satisfy everybody," Odierno said, adding that 10,000 fighters had been accepted so far.
But Awakening leaders view the plan as an attempt by the Iraqi government to marginalize them.
"This is a big failure -- either they take us all in or this is not going to work," said Brig. Gen. Shija al-Adhami, who heads the Awakening force in Baghdad's Ghazaliya neighborhood.
Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said recruiting too many Awakening fighters would allow al-Qaeda in Iraq to infiltrate the security forces, in much the same way Shiite militias have. But Sunni leaders warn that without the Awakening's help in securing the country, Iraq's future will be grim.
"You need these people," said Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni. "What sort of risk are you going to take if this 100 percent is stripped to 20? We cannot afford to lose all this success, which is paid by the blood of the people."
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah, Saad al-Izzi and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and Washington Post staff in Diyala province, Anbar province, Najaf, Tikrit, Baiji, Kirkuk and Mosul contributed to this report.