By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010; 4:24 PM
BAGHDAD - Hundreds of police officers, formerly members of an American-backed Sunni paramilitary force, will be stripped of their ranks in the Sunni Arab province of Anbar, tribal leaders and Anbar police said Sunday.
The officers called the move by Iraq's Interior Ministry, which oversees police, a threat to security in Anbar, once a stronghold of Sunni insurgent violence. In 2006, a group called the Awakening, some of them former insurgents, rose up with tribal and U.S. backing to battle al-Qaeda in Iraq. The same strategy was mirrored across the country with American backing and funding, and what became the Sons of Iraq is credited with helping calm Sunni Arab areas.
In 2007, the U.S. military transformed many of the Awakening members in Anbar into police officers. Now many, such as these 410 men, are being stripped of their ranks, are being targeted by al-Qaeda in Iraq or think the Shiite-led government is trying to get rid of them.
"This committee in the Ministry of Interior is sectarian," said Ahmed Abu Risha, the head of the Awakening and a tribal leader in Anbar. "When you dismiss those who fought al-Qaeda in the streets, this is support for al-Qaeda. What I expect are dire consequences."
Tribal leaders and police officers in Anbar warned that the move could destabilize the province as a political deadlock continues more than six months after national parliamentary elections. They accused the Interior Ministry of demoting them and promoting unqualified outsiders in their stead.
On Saturday, dozens of the men gathered at Abu Risha's headquarters in Anbar province to protest the order from the Interior Ministry, issued last week. The order demanded that the men leave the force or stay on as beat officers. The move could further alienate a Sunni Arab community from a Shiite-led caretaker government as many Sunnis accuse Shiite leaders of trying to steal a Sunni and secular win after the March 7 election. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's bloc won with a razor-thin lead, but the Shiite leader's chances of obtaining the top position seem impossible. His constituency largely consisted of Sunni and secular voters.
The group of officers demanded that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rescind the order, calling it a "gift offered by the government on a gold platter" to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"I urge Maliki to resolve the dilemma and not to rush in implementing the decision, so there is no security vacuum," Abu Risha said in an interview.
The group said the decision appeared to be politically motivated, but it did not accuse any particular party.
Officials at the Interior Ministry said the decision was made because the men were not qualified to hold the ranks they had. Many of them were never given the ranks in the first place, said Adnan al Asadi, deputy minister at the Interior Ministry in charge of administration and staffing.
"They did not graduate from a police or military academy," Asadi said. "They have no education requirements and were not approved by the local government."
Asadi said a special committee was tasked with vetting police forces across the country. About 1,490 officers, including 95 from Anbar, were approved and were put into police courses. The cabinet and a series of ministries approved the decision before it was issued to the province, he said.
Maj. Raheem Zain, head of the media relations department for police in Anbar, will lose his rank and a part of his salary, he said.
He was a member of the Awakening, and during the bloody battles of 2006 and 2007 his brother, nephew and three cousins were killed. There are other men who lost more, he said.
"We sacrificed our blood and our families," he said. "I think they want to take the province back to square one. I'm afraid of what will happen if we leave. Even the citizens are afraid from this."
Mohammed Rashid, an assistant to Anbar's police chief, said that despite the lack of qualifications among the 410 men, the province needs them.
"If they insist to remove all these officers, we will suffer from a big shortage," he said. "We'll have to reduce our police stations, or the Ministry of Interior will need to replace them."
Anbar has just under 30,000 policemen.
"They are the sons of the tribes, and they fought al-Qaeda in Iraq," Rashid said. "They're heroes."
Special correspondents Uthman Mukhtar, in Ramadi, and Jinan Hussein, in Baghdad, contributed to this report.