Iraqi Anti-Qaida Groups Aid U.S. Efforts

Awakening Council in Baquba, Iraq

In Baquba, Iraq, a member of one of the Sunni groups known as Awakening Councils guards a street alongside members of the Iraqi Police and the U.S. Army. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Spencer Platt/Getty Images

An anti-al Qaida militia known as the Awakening Council has been targeted by insurgents for its alliance with the U.S. military. Rand analyst Nora Bensahel discusses stability operations and military coalitions in Iraq.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

On Fridays we take a look at some of the headlines from Iraq from the past seven days. We call it The Week in Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki spoke at a European parliament in Brussels on Wednesday and said he is confident the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia will soon be run out of Iraq, and that insurgents won't derail plans for provincial elections. He said recent fighting in the southern province of Basra has not stopped Iraq's Parliament from working to pass election laws.

However, this week, at least 1,300 Iraqi police and soldiers were fired for refusing to fight during the struggle in Basra, including the police chief and the army lieutenant general. They were sent packing, and reassigned to Baghdad yesterday.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Freedom for two journalists held in Iraq this week. Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein was released Wednesday, after being detained without charge by the U.S. military for two years. Hussein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, was accused of working with insurgents, but an Iraqi judicial panel dismissed the charges.

MARTIN: And Iraqi troops freed a kidnapped British journalist working for CBS News in Basra. Richard Butler was kidnapped from his hotel room two month ago. Iraqi forces discovered Butler hooded and bound in a house during a raid in a Shiite militia stronghold on Monday.

STEWART: And finally, 50 people were killed yesterday by a suicide bomb attack, at a Sunni funeral for two members of the anti-al-Qaeda militia known as the Awakening Council. The group, credited with helping U.S. coalition forces, drastically reduced violence in Iraq in recent months. The group has been targeted for its alliance with the U.S. military, and its role in the counterinsurgency effort. They are former insurgents themselves, and report to be some 70 to 90,000 strong. With more on the Awakening Council, is Nora Bensahel, senior political scientist for the Rand Corporation - an expert on stability operations and military coalitions in Iraq. Nora, thank you for being with us.

Dr. NORA BENSAHEL (Senior Political Scientist, Rand Corporation): Thanks very much.

STEWART: So, just a baseline question. Who are the people that make up the Awakening Council? What is it that they all have in common?

Dr. BENSAHEL: Well, first of all, there are a number of different councils. There are different ones in different towns. Mostly in Anbar province, but elsewhere in the country now. And the thing that they all really have in common, is that they're interested in ensuring that the insurgent attacks, and particularly al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, as you were just talking about, stop controlling their areas. That's really the only single thing that they have in common and that they're all working towards.

STEWART: Did they have a relationship with this group, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, previously?

Dr. BENSAHEL: They did. In - after the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Sunnis were largely disaffected as a group. They were in large numbers because of the de-Baathification orders, and dismantling of the army. They were prevented from joining the government, and this really upset many of them. And many of them went into resistance against the government, and they joined in a tactical alliance with al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and they worked together to try to conduct attacks against U.S. forces, and other groups that were supporting the Iraqi government.

And what we saw in 2006 was a real tactical change, where these individuals, and in particular the tribal leaders, decided that enough was enough, that they didn't like what al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia was doing when they were governing their towns and taking power. And they made a decision to try to remove them, and work with the United States and the Iraqi government instead.

STEWART: What it is they didn't like about the way al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia was governing the towns and villages?

Dr. BENSAHEL: Well, they came in with a really heavy hand, and imposed their version of Islamic law, which was something that is not indigenous to Iraqi culture. It was much more extreme, and in many cases much more violent, and repressive, and imposed through coercion, than many of the Iraqis who had supported them before were comfortable with, and wanted to have as the dominant force in their lives.

STEWART: Can you explain to me how a group, a large group, goes from being aligned with al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, to the United States military? That's a big shift in aligning oneself.

Dr. BENSAHEL: It is a big shift. And the way that it happened, was there were a few tribal leaders who, at great personal cost, made the decision and coordination with their local tribal structures, that they had had enough of working with al-Qaeda, as I mentioned, and they started approaching the U.S. military. In the early days, it was mostly the U.S. Marines, because those are the U.S. forces that are deployed in Anbar province, which is where - which is the primarily Sunni province. And after a few weeks of back-and-forth and negotiations to make sure that this was a genuine offer, that this wasn't some sort of trick, the U.S. forces started working with them cautiously at first, and then, when they realized that they were serious, whole-heartedly embraced this.

STEWART: What sort of incentives do the United States provide these groups?

Dr. BENSAHEL: Well, there were a number of incentives. The first was willingness to work against al-Qaeda and to try to remove al-Qaeda from their communities which, as I said, was the reason why these councils were formed in the first place.

STEWART: Ah-ha.

Dr. BENSAHEL: But there were some other positive incentives that were given as well. Members that participated in these councils, in particular the armed parts of these councils would be given a certain amount of pay every day, I think it's about 10 dollars a day which doesn't sound like much, but is a lot in Iraq. And also, they would be given weapons and some small amount of training.

It was also, these groups were also told that they would ultimately be able to join the Iraqi's security forces, the national army and the police, which they had generally been excluded from, not completely, but they were not represented proportionally according to their numbers. And so they've gotten that - those first sets of things, the pay, and the training, and the weapons that they were promised. They haven't really been integrated into the security forces yet, and that's a real bone of contention with the current Iraqi government.

STEWART: I can imagine it must be. The promise of a future, is an excellent incentive, but how realistic is it?

Dr. BENSAHEL: Well, you're right, it is an excellent incentive. And, you know, for the short term they've gotten all of the things that they wanted in return, and mostly those were the things that the U.S. has promised and then followed though on providing. But this question of how they will be integrated into the security forces in particular, remains a very difficult question. The Shiites, who control the majority of the government, are very weary about letting these groups in. They don't trust their motives, and they believe that they are essentially starting to form a militia, that could come against the Shiites if there is a civil war at some point in the future. So there are genuine concerns on both sides, but there hasn't been a lot of progress recently.

STEWART: Little bit of out-of-left-field question. Did the United States give this group its name?

Dr. BENSAHEL: Oh, that's a really good question. I don't know the answer to that. I don't know where the name came from, actually.

STEWART: Ooh, we'll do a little bit of digging.

Dr. BENSAHEL: Yes.

STEWART: Rachel thinks she might know.

MARTIN: Well, I think The Awakening was actually an indigenous name, but we'll do a little googling...

STEWART: We're googling it.

MARTIN: And figure out what the Arabic equivalent is.

Dr. BENSAHEL: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: With the presidential candidates talking about immediate or phased troop withdrawals from Iraq, how would an American draw-down in the future, in the near future if it happened, affect the Awakening?

Dr. BENSAHEL: Well, it depends entirely on exactly how that draw-down were to occur. I mean, even the - all of the presidential candidates, even the two Democrats, are not talking about major withdrawals quickly, if you looked at - in details of their plans, it's actually a very small drawdown at the beginning and then tapering off. It would really depend on how quickly U.S. forces were withdrawn from the areas where these councils operate, and again, that's primarily in Anbar province, but it is elsewhere in the country as well.

If the U.S. were to completely withdraw from those areas, it would be very difficult for the councils, at least at this point in time, to deal with the threat that is posed by al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Obviously, the - you know, the more time elapses before U.S. troops withdraw, the situation there might be different and they might be more able to counter their local threats by themselves.

STEWART: Nora Bensahel, senior political scientist for the Rand Corporation - an expert on stability operations and military coalitions in Iraq. Thank you for so much for joining us.

Dr. BENSAHEL: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Sahawa al-Anbar. This is the Arabic equivalent, this is - the Awakening councils were started in Anbar and that was the Arabic name. The English translation is the Awakening. There you go.

STEWART: Thank you.

MARTIN: You bet. Hey, this is the Bryant Park Project and we're from NPR News. Come back, after this minute.

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