Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images
A member of the U.S.-backed Neighborhood Patrol Awakening Council stands guard in front of an Iraqi flag on Aug. 28 in the Sunni Adhamiya district north of Baghdad.
A member of the U.S.-backed Neighborhood Patrol Awakening Council stands guard in front of an Iraqi flag on Aug. 28 in the Sunni Adhamiya district north of Baghdad. Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images
Violence has fallen dramatically across Iraq, due in part to the contributions of the Sunni paramilitary groups that are supported and funded by the U.S. military.
Called the "Awakening Councils" or the "Sons of Iraq," they are former insurgents and tribal leaders who turned against al-Qaida in Iraq. There are about 100,000 of them across the country on the U.S. payroll.
But now, Iraq's Shiite-led government is targeting the movement in parts of Iraq, including Diyala province north of Baghdad.
Centerpiece Of American Strategy
Mullah Shihab is a member of Sons of Iraq and is again a wanted man. Thin and with restless eyes, he is proud of his past as an emir, or leader, of one of the most feared insurgent groups in Diyala province.
"When my country became occupied, I exercised my legal and legitimate right to fight the occupiers," Shihab says. "When al-Qaida started killing innocent people in this country, I turned against them and began working with the Americans."
In 2007, Shihab became one of the leaders of the Sons of Iraq — neighborhood watch groups that are funded by the U.S. military.
The Sons of Iraq program became a centerpiece of the American strategy in Iraq and it showed results. The drop in violence in the capital of Diyala — Baqouba, where Shihab lives — has been startling.
"The American forces with all their technology failed to secure even one area," Shihab says. "The local government couldn't even walk a few hundred feet outside their offices. But when we came onto the scene, security was established."
That is why Shihab is furious that he is now being targeted by Iraq's Shiite-led government.
The government has been reluctant to incorporate the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi security forces, and only a small percentage of the 99,000 Sons of Iraq members nationwide have been brought into the Iraqi army and police.
Instead, say Sons of Iraq leaders, the government is trying to dismantle their movement by force. Shihab says he suspects it is because the Sons of Iraq movement is trying to gain political power ahead of planned provincial elections.
A Warrant For Arrest
Shihab's name, along with hundreds of his fighters, is on an arrest warrant — and the only ones safeguarding them now are the very people they used to fight against.
"We were against the American forces, but the Americans are now taking our side more than the Iraqi forces," Shihab says. "The Americans are protecting our leaders from the Iraqi government."
On one sultry afternoon, Shihab and other Sons of Iraq leaders are welcomed onto a U.S. military base in Baqouba.
Capt. Solon Web, with the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, is the main liaison with the Sons of Iraq in Baqouba. The recent actions by the national government have him worried. Most of the Sons of Iraq checkpoints have been dismantled and, for now, Web is paying the men to sit at home.
"It is a turning point," Web says. "It is strange to see from, when I came, hundreds of men in their orange vests to barely anyone, anywhere. It's definitely a transition. If you look at who makes the Sons of Iraq, it's young military-age men who don't have a whole lot else going on. We need to give them something to do. We don't need them to be led astray."
A Worrying Trend For The U.S.
According to Shihab, several new insurgent groups with names like "the Al Mustafa Brigade" have recently sprung up in Diyala.
It's a worrying trend for the U.S. military and one that could potentially undo much of the progress that has been made.
"The Sons of Iraq are currently in this limbo state of "what happens next?" Web says. "If we had something to transition to, I feel like the Sons of Iraq would be ready to transition. It's not easy to find somebody who wants to take ownership of this."
The Sons of Iraq leaders have asked Web to escort them to a meeting at the police station to see if they can negotiate with the Iraqi security forces who are targeting them.
At the station, 40 American soldiers are in the ironic position of acting like bodyguards to the six Sons of Iraq leaders in attendance.
The head of the movement in Baqouba, who goes by the name Abu Talib, says that he wouldn't have dared come here without them.
"What we are seeing now is that those we were fighting against in the past are now protecting us, and those who are our people are fighting against us," Talib says.
He is suddenly interrupted by the Baqouba police chief. Abu Talib's worst fears are confirmed by the chief's words.
"We've been looking for you to arrest you," the chief says, "and now we find you right here at the headquarters."
It is not an auspicious start to the meeting.
Disbanding The 'Sons'
Abu Talib addresses Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, who is representing the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad.
"Most of our guys are being arrested on fake charges," Talib says. "I'm now chased by the security forces. Eighteen of my family members were killed by insurgents during the last year-and-a-half I've been working for the Sons of Iraq. They died for the sake of Iraq, but the government has given us nothing."
The message Khalaf delivers is not one the members want to hear: Their force will not be reconstituted.
"What happened before was an exceptional situation that can't last forever," Khalaf says. "We had a similar experience in Basra with the Mahdi Army militia. It was totally controlling the city. We slaughtered them."
Abu Talib is outraged by the comparison to the militia headed by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Sons of Iraq, he explains have been working with the government, not against it these many months.
"You cannot compare us with the Mahdi Army in Basra," Talib says. "We strengthened the government in the province at a time when not even the most senior official here could cross a road without being shot at."
Khalaf is unswayed and talks to them dismissively.
"I'm against this name 'Sons of Iraq,'" Khalaf says. "We are all the sons of Iraq. There is no Iraqi who is not a son of this country. Let's not get things mixed up."
His message is clear: In the province of Diyala, at least, the time of the "Sons of Iraq" is over.