BAGHDAD — The thin teenage boy rushed up to the patrol of American soldiers walking through Dora, a shrapnel-scarred neighborhood of the capital, and lifted his shirt to show them a mass of red welts across his back.
He said he was a member of a local Sunni “Awakening” group, paid by the American military to patrol the district, but he said it was another Awakening group that beat him. “They took me while I was working,” he said, “and broke my badge and said, ‘You are from Al Qaeda.’”
The soldiers were unsure of what to do. The Awakening groups in just their area of southern Baghdad could not seem to get along: they fought over turf and, it turned out in this case, one group had warned the other that its members should not pay rent to Shiite “dogs.”
The Awakening movement, a predominantly Sunni Arab force recruited to fight Sunni Islamic extremists like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, has become a great success story after its spread from Sunni tribes in Anbar Province to become an ad-hoc armed force of 65,000 to 80,000 across the country in less than a year. A linchpin of the American strategy to pacify Iraq, the movement has been widely credited with turning around the violence-scarred areas where the Sunni insurgency has been based.
But the beating that day was a stark example of how rivalries and sectarianism are still undermining the Americans’ plans. And in particular, the Awakening’s rapid expansion — the Americans say the force could reach 100,000 — is creating new concerns.
How, when thousands are joining each month, can spies and extremists be reliably weeded out? How can the men’s loyalty be maintained, given their tribal and sectarian ties, and in many cases their insurgent pasts? And crucially, how can the movement be sustained once the Americans turn over control to a Shiite-dominated government that has been wary, and sometimes hostile, toward the groups?
Despite the successes of the movement, including the members’ ability to provide valuable intelligence and give rebuilding efforts a new chance in war-shattered communities, the American military acknowledges that it is also a high-risk proposition. It is an experiment in counterinsurgency warfare that could contain the seeds of a civil war — in which, if the worst fears come true, the United States would have helped organize some of the Sunni forces arrayed against the central government on which so many American lives and dollars have been spent.
In interviews with Awakening groups in 10 locations — four interviewed during a week in Anbar, and six groups in and around Baghdad interviewed over several days — it was evident that the groups were improving security in their areas. But it is also clear that there is little loyalty, in either direction, between the Sunni groups and the Shiites who run the government.
The Americans are haunted by the possibility that Iraq could go the way of Afghanistan, where Americans initially bought the loyalty of tribal leaders only to have some of them gravitate back to the Taliban when the money stopped.
Col. Martin Stanton, chief of reconciliation and engagement for the Multinational Corps-Iraq, said the military had no illusions about the Awakening members’ former lives or the reasons for what appeared to be their change of heart.
“These weren’t people who were struck by a lightning bolt or saw a burning bush and came over to this side of the Lord,” Colonel Stanton said. “These were people who last year were being hammered from two different directions: by Al Qaeda and by us. It was probably a distasteful choice to make back then because, after all, they viewed us as invaders, and they probably still do, but it was a survival choice and they made it.”
Though the Americans obtain biometric data on every Awakening group member to try to screen out known insurgents, the government and many Shiite citizens say they fear that the movement has spread so quickly that it is impossible to keep track of who has signed up for it. And while government officials are somewhat willing to accept the tribal character of the Awakening groups in Anbar Province, they are leery of the new ones in and around Baghdad, which have more Baathists from the era of Saddam Hussein in their leadership and are active in more mixed neighborhoods.
“Many people believe this will end with tens of thousands of armed people, primarily Sunnis, and this will excite the Shiite militias to grow and in the end it will grow into a civil war,” said Safa Hussein, the deputy national security adviser and a point man on the Awakening program for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
Still, the government has made only the most halting steps toward rapprochement with the Awakening groups, even those who have been fighting insurgents for months in their neighborhoods.
And for the Americans who helped create and nurture the movement, the initial excitement has been tempered by the challenge of managing a huge, and growing, force where many of the men have shadowy pasts.
“It’s the case with any franchise organization,” said Maj. Gen. John R. Allen, the deputy commander in Anbar Province. “Sooner or later you lose control over the standards.”
In the summer of 2005, the Abu Mahals needed help. A tribe of notorious smugglers by the Syrian border, they were being pushed out of their own area by a competing tribe that had struck a deal with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown extremist group that American intelligence officials say is led by foreigners.
Some of the tribe’s men had been insurgents, killers of American marines, but the border was an out-of-control no man’s land. So when the tribe proposed an alliance, the Americans decided to give it a try. Weapons and training flowed to the tribe, the extremists were pushed back on their heels — and the Awakening was born.
Nearly two years later, after several important tribes around Ramadi joined, the Awakening movement in Anbar has grown to adolescence, acting at once capable and delinquent.
New offices are opening all over the province, marking their presence with yellow satin flags, armed guards and sheiks aiming to start a national political party.
Legitimacy has come with formal employment. Sheiks who signed up early on gave the Americans names of people they wanted hired as police officers, and the provincial force now numbers 24,000, up from 5,200 in June 2006. That is still short of the Marines’ demand for 30,000, but the government has also agreed to a jobs program for 6,000 civil servants.
Attacks in the province, meanwhile, are at roughly a tenth of what they were last year, according to military figures. And in cities like Ramadi that were once largely beyond American control, construction clatter and the slosh of wet concrete has replaced the snap of gunfire.
But as the movement has spread east through Anbar, two responses have emerged: an intense pride in the hard-fought peace, and a sometimes violent scramble for rewards, credit and power.
The fall brought a major setback. In September, a suicide bomber killed Sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, also known as Abu Risha, the Awakening’s charismatic leader, only days after he had met with President Bush. And while his brother Ahmed has stepped forward, American commanders say he has yet to unify the groups under a nationalist banner.
With Abu Risha gone, “it’s not quite as clear it’s a patriotic movement,” General Allen said.
The Americans, meanwhile, are handing out hundreds of million of dollars in aid and reconstruction funds — $223 million to Ramadi and its surrounding areas alone since February. As a result, a dizzying number of sheiks have stepped forward in recent months claiming to be important leaders who fought Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and now deserve money, water plants, new schools and hundreds of jobs for their relatives.
Just to keep track, many American company commanders now travel with thick packets of pictures identifying what one marine described as Anbar’s competing teams: “fake sheiks, little sheiks and big sheiks.”
The Americans, having embraced tribalism to pacify the area, are now having to deal with its consequences. The tribes of Anbar are ancient and secular — many predate Islam — but old rivalries and suspicions have not been erased by steady salaries.
In Ramadi, the provincial capital, the American military set up the police stations to be run and staffed by members of the neighborhoods’ dominant tribe. Though unified against Islamic insurgents, two of the police stations were involved in a shootout with each other a few weeks ago. And loyalty to sheiks sometimes trumps loyalty to the law, allowing tribal leaders to commandeer members of the police or army to give them personal protection.
On one recent afternoon, Second Lt. Stephen Lind, a member of a Marine company patrolling south Ramadi, discovered a handful of armed Iraqi soldiers standing guard outside a sheik’s spacious home — defying a rule that bans the Iraqi Army from the city.
“What are you doing here?” Lieutenant Lind asked one of the men.
They had arrived a day after the sheik had an argument with the local police commander.
“The sheik told us to come,” the man said. As he spoke, a pickup truck filled with a half-dozen others drove out of the compound, and a glance inside showed several more, milling about, their red berets and weapons clearly visible.
Neither the Iraqis nor Lieutenant Lind expressed surprise. “He has a lot of power,” Lieutenant Lind said, walking back to a joint security station a few blocks away. “That’s how the city rolls right now.”
American commanders later sought to play down the significance of the sheik’s use of the army, noting that he was an assassination target, and that the troops stayed for only about 36 hours. Col. John Charlton, commander of the First Brigade Combat Team, Third Infantry Division, which oversees Ramadi and its surrounding area, also said there were plans to start moving policemen to new stations to dilute the tribal concentrations — a proposal that some local sheiks said they would be likely to resist.
The standoff, though, underscored the Awakening’s long-term challenge. The American military has empowered a group of unelected leaders and is now involved in the difficult task of integrating them into a democratic system new to them, to create bonds with a Shiite-led government they do not respect or acknowledge as legitimate.
The Marines have already begun to draw down troop numbers in the province. But with the clock ticking, it remains unclear what the Awakening will become and whether the tribes will stick together or segregate. Nor is it clear whether Iraq’s government will ever meet the tribes’ demands, which range from the simple (more electricity, water and jobs) to the extreme (a wildly disproportionate share of the seats in the Parliament).
In interviews with more than a dozen sheiks in the province, along with police officers, local leaders and imams, not one expressed any trust in the government of Prime Minister Maliki. “They are working only for the Shiites,” said Mahmoud Abed Shabeeb, who acknowledged that 130 members of his tribe were policemen, paid by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry in Baghdad. “Everyone knows that.”
Only a few months ago, the Sunni neighborhood of Fadhil was virtually a no man’s land, shelled relentlessly by Shiite militias, its walls gouged with shrapnel and its streets pooled with sewage because city workers were afraid to enter. Now the neighborhood seems to be waking after a long sleep. Several teahouses reopened in December after being shuttered for months, and old men sat outside on wooden boxes, apparently no longer afraid of neighborhood militants or attacks by outsiders.
The newfound confidence is attributable in large measure to the Fadhil Awakening Council, formed just four weeks ago. Wearing red-checked kaffiyehs and black leather jackets with guns jutting out underneath, the Awakening guards patrol the neighborhood with a casually menacing air.
They are led by Adel Mashadani, a burly former member of Saddam Hussein’s Special Republican Guard, unabashed about his former insurgent ties. He boasts that he turned the “National Iraqi Resistance Council of Iraq into the Fadhil Awakening Council.”
While Mr. Mashadani is ready to look past his former enmity to work with the Americans, he draws the line at any partnership with the central government. He characterizes Shiite officials as pawns of Iran and Shiite death squads, a common view among Sunni Arabs in both Baghdad and Anbar.
“We want to work for the Americans, not the government,” he said. “It is as clear as the sun: the Iranians have dominated the ministries, the whole government. These guys are a bunch of conspirators who belong to Iran.”
That mistrust is pervasive, and it clouds the future of the nascent Awakening movement in Baghdad and its surrounding province. It has grown like wildfire since June, with 43,000 guards in at least 17 neighborhoods as of Dec. 10, according to the American military. And interviews in four areas of Baghdad suggest that there is more deeply held antipathy there between the government and the Awakening groups than in Anbar.
The Baghdad groups are less bound by tribal affiliation than the Anbar groups, relying instead on neighborhood pride and trust born of shared disdain for the Iraqi government. Many of the Baghdad members were Baathists and served in the security forces under the Hussein government.
In turn, the Iraqi government worries that Shiites living in mixed neighborhoods could become victims if Awakening group members were to return to violence.
“Some have agendas beyond their neighborhoods and they try to use their positions in the Awakening to promote other agendas,” said Mr. Hussein, the deputy national security adviser.
American commanders say they believe they have been able to weed out most of those who were operatives for Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and they discount the Iraqi government’s worries about a conspiracy among Awakening groups.
“They look at the aggregate number here, 65,000, and they say, ‘Oh, that’s the size of an army corps, that’s 65,000 armed Sunnis just ready to leap on us,’” Colonel Stanton said. But, he added, they do not all work together that closely.
Neighborhoods with hard-liners, like Fadhil, leave the Iraqi government with questions, though, not least of all because the leaders there freely say that they meet with other Awakening leaders to share ideas. Some leaders in Anbar also say they are actively encouraging growth across the capital.
In southern Baghdad, where the Awakening started several months earlier, American troops are pouring money and resources into neglected, battle-scarred Sunni neighborhoods like Dora.
The First Squadron of the Fourth Cavalry has been based in Dora since May, establishing Awakening groups — which are often called sahwas, after the Arabic word for awakening — and embarking on a frenzy of rebuilding. The squadron has spent $4.3 million during that time, much of it on electricity projects and trash removal, and it plans to spend $2.1 million more.
Lt. Col. James Crider, the squadron’s commander, helped organize the Awakening groups in eastern Dora, now employing 300 guards, the vast majority Sunnis. The Americans manage them closely, breaking them into three groups that monitor the area’s three subdivisions. The soldiers also run patrols 24 hours a day, to head off violence, oversee the rebuilding and monitor the Awakening groups.
It is clear that, for now at least, the American military has won the groups’ allegiance. American troop deaths in Baghdad Province have plummeted to 14 this November, from 59 last December, and have been occurring at an even lower rate this month.
In Dora, the squadron was last attacked on Sept. 9, when a soldier was killed by a grenade. (In the four and a half months before that, the squadron lost eight men.) The last killing of an Iraqi in the neighborhood was on Oct. 18.
A contractor hired by the American military is rebuilding sewage pipes on one of Dora’s main shopping streets, and young women roll strollers into a newly refurbished health clinic.
But it is far from clear whether that peace will last when the Americans begin transferring authority to the Iraqis. Clashes have already broken out in some places between the groups and Iraqi security forces, with two policemen killed last week near the northern city of Baiji.
Saleh Kashgul Saleh, a former colonel in Mr. Hussein’s feared Mukhabarat intelligence service and one of the leaders of the Awakening in Dora, suggested that some of the men in the movement would return to the insurgency if the government did not accept them into the security forces.
“We have a lot of unemployment, and anyone, if he doesn’t have a job, takes even a job where he does bad things to provide for his family,” Mr. Saleh said. “They need to hurry about this.”
The government also needs to demonstrate some interest in improving basic living conditions in Sunni-dominated areas, otherwise people will lose faith that the government cares about them, he said.
“We ask the government for help, for electricity, for any services, but they do not even meet with us,” he said. “The only government that has cleaned anything in our area is Captain Cook, he is our government.” He was referring to Capt. Nicholas Cook, the commander of the American cavalry troop that patrols his subdivision of Dora.
Colonel Crider said he had even had trouble getting Iraqi government officials to visit Dora to assess its needs.
Shiites, however, see the Awakening groups as wolves in sheep’s clothing. “It’s my personal belief that before they were ‘the Awakening’ they were Al Qaeda,” said Moad Muaed Qassim Mohammed, a young police captain for the national police unit that patrols Dora. The national police has been widely criticized for cruelty to Sunnis.
“I have pictures of some of them. They were wanted men,” he said. “I deal with Colonel Crider. I trust him and I don’t trust anyone else. I don’t think the Awakening men should join the Iraqi police. It would be no better than putting Al Qaeda informants into the police.”
The Iraqi government and the American military appear to be on different timetables. While government officials have agreed in principle to add thousands to the security forces, their opposition to the movement has recently grown more vocal. On Saturday, Iraq’s Defense and Interior Ministries held a joint news conference at which they declared that Iraq would not tolerate the groups’ becoming a “third force” alongside the army and the police.
Despite the government’s promises, hardly any Awakening members outside Anbar have actually been moved off the American payroll and into Iraqi government jobs.
Of the 43,000 new Awakening members in Baghdad Province, for example, only about 1,700, in the suburban community of Abu Ghraib, have gotten jobs in the Iraqi police.
Many of the rest have applied for police jobs but for now are financed entirely by the Americans. The Awakening members are paid about $300 a month — considerably less than the salaries of police officers or soldiers.
Meanwhile, the American military is planning to begin withdrawing units this summer.
“Once we get past the summer, we’re not going to have enough people on the ground to administer the contracts,” Colonel Stanton said. “So between the time we draw down and now, we have to find something else for these guys to do.”
That, he said, is where Iraq’s government must step in.
The military proposes that the government hire 20,000 to 25,000 to serve as police officers in their own neighborhoods. To help the rest of the Awakening members, the American military is considering creating a program modeled on the 1930s civilian job corps that employed people during the Depression, said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the second-ranking American commander in Iraq. The members would help deliver basic services or make repairs locally.
But there are kinks to be worked out. “We don’t want to create a parallel government,” General Odierno said.
And at the same time, the long-term prospects for the corps is in doubt, because most Iraqi ministries are already overstaffed. The Awakening is still growing, especially in northern areas of the country, where Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is regrouping. Colonel Stanton said the military aimed to keep the total number of Awakening members below 100,000, at the request of the Iraqi government.
Government officials said they planned to hire some Awakening members in the security forces. But, the officials added, they are worried that there are so many people seeking police jobs that the government will be unable to hire them all.
“We would have tens of thousands of people hired to do some security jobs,” said Mr. Hussein, the deputy national security adviser, referring to the men the Americans have hired. “And we do not have enough space in the security ministries to absorb them.”
“And after being paid for a period, it will create a security problem if we fire them all at once,” he added.
Hanging over everything is the government’s deep unease over the background of many Awakening members. Mr. Hussein said that the government believed that almost half of the 65,000 who were already on the American payroll were involved in the insurgency in some way. And he said that intelligence sources had reported contact between the leadership of some of the Awakening groups and the former Baathist insurgency outside the country.
“Will they go back to being insurgents?” he said. “Will they be dangerous? We don’t know yet.”
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