NPR logo
U.S.-Aligned Sunni Fighters Under Threat In Iraq
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129835253/129849501" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
U.S.-Aligned Sunni Fighters Under Threat In Iraq

Iraq

U.S.-Aligned Sunni Fighters Under Threat In Iraq

U.S.-Aligned Sunni Fighters Under Threat In Iraq
  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129835253/129849501" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Sunni Awakening militiamen man a checkpoint in Samarra. i

Awakening militiamen, former Sunni rebels who sided with U.S. soldiers against al-Qaida during Iraq's brutal insurgency, man a checkpoint in the northern city of Samarra on Aug. 21. The future of the Awakening is uncertain: They feel under threat as the U.S. withdraws its troops; many fear reprisals lie ahead. Mahmud Saleh/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Mahmud Saleh/AFP/Getty Images
Sunni Awakening militiamen man a checkpoint in Samarra.

Awakening militiamen, former Sunni rebels who sided with U.S. soldiers against al-Qaida during Iraq's brutal insurgency, man a checkpoint in the northern city of Samarra on Aug. 21. The future of the Awakening is uncertain: They feel under threat as the U.S. withdraws its troops; many fear reprisals lie ahead.

Mahmud Saleh/AFP/Getty Images

When considering what lessons the U.S. military can take from Iraq to Afghanistan, defense analysts point to the so-called surge in Iraq. They say the surge never would have succeeded without the help of the Sunni Awakening, a group of former insurgents who switched sides to fight with the Americans and against al-Qaida in Iraq.

Analysts admit that formula probably won't take hold in Afghanistan, because there is no sign of a Taliban awakening. And they say the formula might not be holding in Iraq either, because American troops are surging out of Iraq, and the Awakening movement is in trouble.

Abu Hussein is a card-carrying member of the Sunni Awakening. For a time, the group controlled large swaths of Iraq. These days though, al-Qaida is active again.

It was just after sunset one evening last week when Abu Hussein parked his car on a dusty street in central Baghdad, in one of the oldest parts of the city. He had come to put his Awakening guards on high alert. Days before, suicide bombers had stormed a local army headquarters killing 12 and injuring 36.

When Abu Hussein came back to his car, he found a letter stuck in the windshield wiper.

It was addressed to "those who have sold yourselves and honor to the occupier." It was signed by the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group for al-Qaida.

"We will kill you," the letter continued. "Your house will be stormed and burned to the ground with all those inside it."

Abu Hussein took the letter to the police. He says such threats are common for members of the Awakening. Al-Qaida also tries to recruit Awakening members with promises of high salaries.

Ali Abu Jihan teaches his wife, Shaima Saadi, how to use an AK-47. i

Ali Abu Jihan is a member of the Sunni Awakening. He is so worried about security that he has taught his wife, Shaima Saadi, how to use an AK-47. Ali Omar al-Mashhani for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Ali Omar al-Mashhani for NPR
Ali Abu Jihan teaches his wife, Shaima Saadi, how to use an AK-47.

Ali Abu Jihan is a member of the Sunni Awakening. He is so worried about security that he has taught his wife, Shaima Saadi, how to use an AK-47.

Ali Omar al-Mashhani for NPR

Mistrust Of Government

There is another threat to the Sunni Awakening, Abu Hussein says. And that's Iraq's Shiite-dominated government.

Control of the Awakening was transferred from the U.S. military to the Iraqi government in late 2008 and early 2009. Iraqi officials repeatedly promised to absorb Awakening members into the Iraqi army and police. Others were to be given jobs in government offices.

But several Awakening members tell NPR that members working in for the state rarely get paid on time, if they get paid at all. And some are being rounded up and arrested for crimes they may or may not have committed.

Zuhair Chalabi heads the government committee in charge of the Awakening. He says officials want to thank the group for helping bring stability to the country.

They revealed sleeper cells and weapons caches, Chalabi says. So the Iraqi government issued a presidential decree "as a kind of appreciation for their heroic acts."

When asked if this is just a gesture toward the past, and not a plan for the future, Chalabi says Awakening members will have to join Iraq's security forces.

But Awakening members tell NPR that they view this offer as just a way to remove them from their home neighborhoods and marginalize them even further.

Change In Fortunes

The movement was born at a tribal mansion about two hours west of Baghdad, in the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar.

It was March 2007 when Sunni tribal leader Abdul Sattar Abu Risha announced that a loose band of fighters had come together under one name, the Awakening.

In a video of the event, American Marines stand side by side with tribal leaders. Six months later, Abu Risha was assassinated by a car bomb, but the surge and the Awakening went on to end heavy fighting in the province.

In recent months, though, security in Anbar has deteriorated.

Ali Abu Jihan says he hasn't seen a paycheck in months, even though he risked his life fighting against al-Qaida.

"The honest, true, real Awakening people, the pioneers who were proud of what they did, are now sitting at home doing nothing," he says.

Two months ago, a homemade bomb planted outside Abu Jihan's parents' home killed his 21-year-old son.

Walking toward the courtyard of his two-bedroom house, Abu Jihan says he worries so much about security that he's taught his own wife how to use an AK-47.

Holding her pudgy, wide-eyed 8-month-old in one arm and the loaded gun in the other, Shaima Saadi says she has no choice but to defend herself.

Third-Party Peacekeeper Necessary

Defense analyst Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says it's too soon to think that Sunnis like Abu Jihan can simply dissolve his band of fighters and join the Shiite-dominated army.

In this way, Biddle says, postwar Iraq should be viewed in the same way as the Balkans states after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed.

"I think it would be very unusual for communities as recently threatened as Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi Shiites were to suddenly be prepared to get along together, when it looks like the equivalent of the third-party peacekeeper that kept things stable in the Balkans is leaving," he says.

That third-party peacekeeper in Iraq is the U.S. military. Biddle says American and Iraqi officials should agree on a long, slow U.S. drawdown from Iraq, rather than stick to the abrupt withdrawal deadline at the end of next year.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.