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.
Col. Saadi al-Dulaimy, commander of an Iraqi army battalion west of Baghdad, said many Awakening fighters are former members of al-Qaeda in Iraq with blood on their hands and complicity in killings of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. "Today they claim they are part of the Awakening just to escape punishment," he said.
Sheik Adnan al-Zobaie, leader of an Awakening group called "Hunters of the Foreign Fighters," based in Smelat, west of Baghdad, is hiding with 59 of his fighters near a U.S. military base in Anbar to evade arrest warrants issued against them.
"They accuse me of operating with one of the insurgent groups, which I don't deny, but now I am fighting al-Qaeda and what I did before should be forgiven," Zobaie said. "Why do they want to put me in prison with the al-Qaeda members I already captured? I can't understand that."
In a telephone interview from a hideout in a remote area of Anbar province, Abu Mustafa al-Lehebi, a leader of a brigade of the Abu Ghraib Awakening, said: "We have only the U.S. Army to protect us, but we are afraid that they will let us down when they hand over the security profile to Iraqis in Anbar.
"The government stabbed us in the back and lied to us," he said. "Now we are caught between the hammer of al-Qaeda and the anvil of the government."
During the handover ceremony in Anbar, U.S. and Iraqi officials praised the role of the Awakening in creating conditions that allowed the province to become the 11th of 18 to be transferred to Iraqi control.
U.S. and Iraqi officials embraced after a parade in downtown Ramadi, the provincial capital, which was a haven for al-Qaeda in Iraq. "Today, Anbar is no longer lost to al-Qaeda -- it is al-Qaeda that lost Anbar," President Bush said in a statement.
The ceremony was scheduled for June but was postponed at the last minute over what the military called concerns over a dust storm. The real reason for the delay of more than two months was widely perceived to be a suicide bombing that killed at least 28 people, including three U.S. Marines.
The U.S. forces in Anbar, which have declined to 26,000 from 37,500 earlier this year, will now "leave the cities and remain in an overwatch position prepared to support" Iraqi security forces, the military said in a statement. The decrease of U.S. troops has come as the Iraqi police strength jumped from 11,000 early last year to 24,000 today, and the Iraqi army nearly tripled, from 8,300 to 24,000 over the same period, according to the U.S. military.
Maj. Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. forces in Anbar, said in an interview last month that although al-Qaeda in Iraq had not been fully defeated, the United States was close to completing its job in the province. "We're in the last 10 yards of this thing," he said. "And the last 10 yards means economic development and jobs."
Kelly said his primary work now is helping Anbar's people get desperately needed services such as water, electricity and sewage disposal. He said officials in Baghdad need to do much more to improve Anbar's quality of life and provide jobs.
"I just wish it could be a lot faster," he said. "We could declare victory and walk away from this thing tomorrow if the economy picked up significantly."
Washington Post staff in Anbar and Diyala provinces contributed to this report.