By Sudarsan Raghavan and Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 30, 2009
BAGHDAD, March 29 -- A new and potentially worrisome fight for power and control has broken out in Baghdad as the United States prepares to pull combat troops out of Iraq next year.
The struggle, which played out in fierce weekend clashes, pits two vital American allies against each other. On Sunday, Iraqi soldiers backed by U.S. combat helicopters and American troops swept into a central Baghdad neighborhood, arresting U.S.-backed Sunni fighters in an effort to clamp down on a two-day uprising that challenged the Iraqi government's authority and its efforts to pacify the capital.
But the fallout from the operation is already rippling far beyond the city's boundaries. Both the Iraqi security forces and the Sunni fighters, known as the Awakening, are cornerstones in the American strategy to bring stability. The Awakening, in particular, is widely viewed as a key reason violence has dramatically dropped across Iraq.
Many leaders of the Awakening, mostly former Sunni insurgents who joined hands with U.S. forces to fight the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, have long had a contentious relationship with Iraq's Shiite-led government. But the weekend battles have sparked fresh frustration and mistrust of both the U.S. military and Iraq's mostly Shiite security forces, according to interviews with Awakening leaders across the country.
"The situation is now very fragile, and no Awakening member would remain silent over this injustice," said Saad Abbas al-Luhaibi, leader of an Awakening group in Anbar province. The tensions raise concerns that uprisings could erupt in other Awakening-controlled areas -- or that many Awakening fighters could return to the insurgency, allowing al-Qaeda in Iraq to fill the vacuum in Sunni areas.
The clashes also opened a window onto the new military relationship emerging between the United States and Iraq, as well as the struggles Iraq's government will probably face as it takes more control over security.
The violence erupted Saturday minutes after Iraqi and U.S. troops arrested Adil Mashadani, the Awakening leader in Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood, on charges of committing sectarian crimes and terrorist acts.
The U.S. military said in a statement Sunday that Mashadani was suspected of extorting more than $160,000 from Fadhil residents, orchestrating roadside bomb attacks against Iraqi security forces and having ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq. Concerned about the impact on other Awakening groups, the military stressed that Mashadani was not arrested because of his role in the Awakening. Mashadani's deputies have denied the allegations.
In response to the arrest, Awakening fighters took to the streets and rooftops, engaging in fierce gun battles with U.S. and Iraqi troops. At least eight Iraqi soldiers were injured; an additional five were taken hostage but were released Sunday morning, Iraqi security officials said.
By Sunday, Iraqi security forces and American troops had surrounded the neighborhood. Snipers peered from the roofs of buildings as Apache and Blackhawk combat helicopters circled in the overcast sky. Some dropped leaflets urging residents to hand over weapons; the handbills also stressed that there was a legal warrant for Mashadani's arrest and that no residents were being targeted.
Some Iraqi soldiers viewed the operation as a test of their preparedness to take over security after U.S. troops leave, as well as the government's ability to exert authority.
"This shows that we don't need the Americans and that Awakening are not stronger than the government," Sgt. Wisam Jamil said as he stood on a street swarming with U.S. and Iraqi armored vehicles.
Iraqi soldiers conducted door-to-door searches in Fadhil with the help of informants, targeting Awakening fighters. At one entrance to the neighborhood, once an al-Qaeda in Iraq stronghold, men were dragged from their homes, blindfolded and placed into Humvees. An Iraqi intelligence official calmly crossed off names on a wanted list.
Suddenly, a barrage of gunfire erupted.
"They still think they are strong," Lt. Ahmed Salah declared.
Iraqi and American military officials insist that Mashadani's arrest is an isolated incident. Still, the clampdown in Fadhil has provided a spark for anger that has been building for months, particularly since the government took responsibility for paying the Awakening fighters.
In the Baghdad neighborhoods of Dora, Adhamiyah and Amiriyah, Awakening offices were closed. Nearly a dozen of their leaders had switched off their cellphones or declined to answer calls.
"We are being chased right now by the government," said Ihab Zubai, a spokesman for the Awakening in Amiriyah, in the west of the city. "We're moving from place to place."
Awakening fighters across Iraq had the same list of complaints: They had gone without their $300-a-month salary for two, sometimes three, months; the government was trying to marginalize them; and their leaders were being arrested on dubious charges.
"Not even God would accept this," said Raad Saadoun, a militiaman leaning on his Kalashnikov rifle at a checkpoint in Adhamiyah, in northern Baghdad.
At its height, the Awakening counted 100,000 fighters, who played a decisive role in bringing quiet to Baghdad, Anbar province and other regions. The government promised to bring a fifth of them into the security forces, but only a relative few have made the transition.
In Dora, in southern Baghdad, fighters said the number was minuscule. Of 125 militiamen in one area, three became policemen, said Alaa Abdullah, a 30-year-old fighter. Half simply quit.
"The Americans brought us here, organized us, then abandoned us," he said.
Abdullah, dressed in green camouflage, had tied a black scarf around his neck. "I am an Iraqi," it read.
But he acknowledged that patriotism would not feed the seven people in his family.
He and other fighters complained that they often found themselves trapped between a mistrustful government and a vengeful al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had deemed them traitors. Fighters said the government has arrested as many as 11 leaders in the past four months in Dora. Since January, three other commanders had been assassinated, ostensibly by al-Qaeda in Iraq, they said.
Some Awakening leaders said Mashadani, who was placed under arrest at a checkpoint, should have been taken into custody in a more dignified way. Others predicted more uprisings if Mashadani was not released.
"Targeting the Awakening leaders is a red line, and we shall not allow anyone to cross it," said Essa al-Rufai, an Awakening leader in the northern city of Balad.
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah, Qais Mizher and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Washington Post staff in Kirkuk, Fallujah and Tikrit contributed to this report.