Uncertainty After Anbar Handover

Sunni leader Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, left, with Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, during the Anbar handover ceremony in Ramadi.
Sunni leader Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, left, with Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, during the Anbar handover ceremony in Ramadi. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Associated Press)
By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

BAGHDAD, Sept. 1 -- The U.S. military on Monday handed the Iraqi government control of security in Anbar province, the former Sunni insurgency stronghold that is now one of the safest areas in the country.

President Bush and military officials hailed the transfer as a sign of the growing strength of the Iraqi security forces. The United States plans to draw down the 26,000 American troops in Anbar so it can deploy more to Afghanistan, where violence is cresting as security improves in Iraq.

But as Iraqis celebrated the milestone, uncertainty lingered about the future of a linchpin in the effort to secure Anbar and the rest of Iraq: the Awakening movement, a 100,000-person group of former Sunni insurgents who now cooperate with U.S. troops.

The Shiite-led government has recently stepped up a campaign to arrest leaders of the Awakening and dismantle parts of the program, whose members receive $300 a month from the U.S. military. Many fighters have abandoned their posts and fled their homes to avoid detention, stoking fears that some will rejoin the insurgency.

Aides to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki contend that many Awakening members are al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters in disguise. Shiite leaders are also suspicious of armed Sunnis outside their control patrolling the streets. But under heavy U.S. pressure, Maliki has agreed to move at least a fifth into the security forces and train the rest for civilian jobs.

The U.S. military said Monday that the Iraqi government will take charge of 54,000 of the fighters on Oct. 1. Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll, a U.S. military spokesman, said the Iraqis are "assuming payment responsibility and command and control" of the men, who will then be moved into the Iraqi army, Iraqi police or vocational training.

Awakening leaders and U.S. officials said they are pleased with the news but worry how the government will implement the transition. It is unclear how long the Iraqis plan to keep the fighters on the government payroll and how many of them will find jobs. Ali al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government spokesman, did not return calls seeking comment.

"There are some assurances, but they have been vague," said a U.S. military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter. "This is a positive development, but we have very real concerns."

"We are afraid that half of the Awakening will be left alone in the streets," said Kaleefa Ahmed, a leader of the movement in Anbar province, of the transition plan announced Monday. "If that happens, we will return to square one, with some of our men returning to the insurgency."

The portion integrated into the security forces is likely to be about 20 percent, according to Sami al-Askari, a Shiite lawmaker close to Maliki. "We don't need to have all of them join the army," he said. "It would create a mess."

Awakening leaders are already on the run in many provinces. Iraqi army officials said they had arrest warrants for more than 650 Awakening leaders in western Baghdad's Abu Ghraib district. As the men fled to evade capture, residents said that violence has spiked and members of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq have come back.

"We demand the return of our Awakening brothers. If there are some criminals among them, it is unfair to punish the good ones," said Mohammed Riyadh, 53, a vendor on the main street of Abu Ghraib.

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