By Leila Fadel and Aziz Alwan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 17, 2010; 4:13 PM
BAGHDAD -- A Sunni fighter who had turned on al-Qaeda in Iraq was killed at his home outside Fallujah early Thursday in the latest of a string of attacks targeting members of a U.S.-backed Sunni militia group.
Mudhar Hamad al-Essawi, 42, his wife and his three young sons, including a baby, were slain as they slept, said Shaker al-Essawi, the mayor of the suburb of Fallujah, in Anbar province, where the attack occurred.
At least 47 members of the Awakening, or Sahwa, also known as the Sons of Iraq, and their family members have been killed across the country in the past 45 days, according to a Washington Post count.
Many, like Essawi, were former insurgents who had turned against the Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq. Most were being paid a salary by the U.S. military. At one point, there were more than 100,000 men on the U.S. payroll before the Iraqi government took over and promised to absorb most of them into the security forces or the civil service.
Awakening groups worry that as the U.S. military draws down, the government will fail to protect them and attacks by al-Qaeda in Iraq will increase.
"All Sahwa members are thinking of leaving the city or taking extra security procedures to protect themselves," Essawi said.
The U.S. military said in a statement Thursday that its data show that fewer members of the Sons of Iraq were killed in 2010 than in 2009, despite claims to the contrary by the militia's leaders. It said that the Iraqi government is committed to members of the Sons of Iraq and continues to pay them.
"In talking with Sons of Iraq leaders across the country, they understand their importance in protecting their fellow Iraqis against violent extremists and are committed to this fight," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Reynes, head of the Force Strategic Engagement Cell in Iraq, in an e-mailed statement.
In Anbar province alone, at least 21 men and their relatives have been killed since the beginning of May, said Capt. Mohammed Abdullah of the Anbar provincial police.
The Sunni fighters also say they are angry that al-Qaeda in Iraq is using the judicial system against them. Relatives of al-Qaeda fighters killed by Awakening members are now going to the courts, leaders in the Awakening said, adding that the Awakening fighters are denied immunity for killings they carried out against the extremist group.
"We feel very sorry because we see that the Americans and the Iraqi government abandoned the Sahwa," said Abu Kutaiba al-Shimmeri, a leader of the Awakening in Anbar province, using a nom de guerre because of threats on his life. "Al-Qaeda is attacking us, not just by the weapon, but also by issuing arrest warrants against us."
Shimmeri said the Awakening has seen an increase in attacks in the past six months as the United States and the Iraqi government escalated the release of detainees. By the end of the summer, the U.S. military will have handed over all detainee operations to the Iraqi government.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has suffered major blows since the March 7 parliamentary elections. Their top two leaders were killed and several other leaders detained. But they demonstrated their continuing strength Sunday, the day before Iraq's new parliament convened, in a coordinated attack that included suicide bombings, gun battles and a raid on Iraq's Central Bank. At least 25 people were killed.
On Thursday, the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda in Iraq front, asserted responsibility for the Central Bank attack in a posting on a militant Web site.
"The Bank was targeted because it is the artery that feeds the Satanic alliance with life, via oil money and the stolen wealth of Muslims," the statement said.
Awakening leaders warned that the U.S. military and the Iraqi government should not discount the group, saying that if it continues to attack their members, they will be less willing to fight it.
"We demand that the government respect our history and our sacrifice," said Raad al-Sabah, the head of the Awakening in Ramadi.
Special correspondent Uthman Mukhtar in Fallujah contributed to this report.