Fighters awaken both fear and hope

Sunni movement supported by U.S. is pacifying Iraq

December 23, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

BAGHDAD -- The thin teenage boy rushed up to the patrol of U.S. 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 U.S. 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-Qaida.'"

The soldiers were unsure of what to do. The Awakening groups in 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-Qaida 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 U.S. 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 can spies and extremists be reliably weeded out? How can the members' loyalty be maintained, given their tribal and sectarian ties, and in many cases their insurgent pasts? And how can the movement be sustained once the Americans turn over control to a Shiite-dominated government that has been wary of 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, the U.S. 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 and fund some of the Sunni forces arrayed against the central government.

In interviews with Awakening groups in 10 locations, it was evident that the groups were improving security in their areas. But it was also clear that there is little loyalty, in either direction, between the Sunni groups and the Shiites who run the government.

In fact, the Shiite-led government declared yesterday that after restive areas are calmed, it will disband Sunni groups battling Islamic extremists, because it does not want them to become a separate military force.

The statement from Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi was the government's most explicit declaration yet of its intent to eventually dismantle the groups backed and funded by the United States.

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.

"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," Stanton said. "These were people who last year were being hammered from two different directions: by al-Qaida 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.

"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 Nouri al-Maliki.

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."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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