Iraq Puts Sunni Paramilitary Groups To Work

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After strong pressure from the U.S. military, the Iraqi government has agreed to employ the so-called Awakening Councils. These are largely Sunni paramilitary groups who turned against al-Qaida and allied themselves with U.S. forces. But the Awakening membership mistrusts the Iraqi government.


We're going to report a little bit more this morning on the Sunni neighborhood watch groups that have been vital to reducing violence in Iraq. They're supported and paid for by U.S. forces. They number 100,000. They're members of so called Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq, and they now have an uncertain future, as we've been reporting. The Iraqi government has promised to put them all on their payroll and ultimately provide them jobs, but many members of the groups mistrust the government and worry about its intentions. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

(Soundbite of neighborhood)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's evening in the Sunni Baghdad neighborhood of Adameia(ph) and the mood is downright festive. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day, but after the sun goes down, people eat and socialize. The streets here are jammed with cars. The cafes are full, and some of the palm trees even have fairy lights wrapped around them. This used to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baghdad, but not anymore. One of the main reasons: there are members of the Sahwa or Awakening Councils at checkpoints every few hundred feet around this neighborhood, young men carrying rifles and wearing an odd assortment of mismatched military uniforms. Twenty-eight-year-old Tarek Sied(ph) sits outside his clothing shop near a checkpoint. He says the Sahwa, as the Awakening Councils are called in Arabic, are trusted by the community here.

Mr. TAREK SIED: (Through translator) The Awakening is good, especially in Adameia City. The most important thing for the Iraqi citizen is security.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And security is better. Since 2007, the U.S. military has paid the members of the Awakening the equivalent of $300 a month to keep security in most Sunni areas of the capital. Many of the movement's leaders are former insurgents who decided to ally themselves with the Americans who in turn supported and funded them. Now the plan is to transition them to Iraqi government control on October 1st. Twenty-year-old Mudlab al-Hudiar(ph) says, though, he's worried.

Mr. MUDLAB AL-HUDIAR: (Through Translator) I don't think the Iraqi government will truly commit to this. They have always wanted to do away with our movement. They want to stop us from working now that we've done our part by securing the city.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Shiite led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been up until now reluctant to take responsibility for the Sunni groups. Hundreds of Awakening leaders have been targeted by the government in recent weeks, their names on an arrest list. The U.S. military has been caught in the middle, trying to mediate. This recent deal has only come after intense U.S. pressure. Yesterday in a cavernous Baghdad meeting hall, the heads of the Awakening Councils came to hear what the government was offering.

(Soundbite of meeting)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iraqi Lieutenant General Abboud Qanbar, the head of security for Baghdad, told the assembled leaders that under orders from the Prime Minister the Iraqis would be taking over the Awakening. For now these Sunni neighborhood watches will continue to patrol as usual. The only difference will be that the Iraqi government will pay their salaries. Eventually though, 20% of the Sahwa will be incorporated into the security forces. The government will find the rest of them eventually civilian jobs in available ministries. If implemented, this transition will mean the end of the Awakening movement in its current form. There were many questions from the Awakening leaders at the meeting.

(Soundbite of meeting)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do they call us terrorists when we fought al-Qaeda? Why are there arrest warrants against us, demanded the head of the Awakening for the Fadal(ph) area of Baghdad?

(Soundbite of meeting)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Another leader from the Rodwenian(ph) area of Baghdad wanted to know what would happen to the Awakening leadership. He told the government panel, we have been targeted by al-Qaeda with car bombs and roadside bombs. Can you tell us about our future? Who will protect us? Other concerns included the age and education requirements to work with the Iraqi security forces. To join you must have at least a middle school education and many of the Awakening members do not. Still, their main complaint was that only 20% would be incorporated into Iraq's security services. Many felt that wasn't enough. Little was ultimately resolved. U.S. Brigadier General Will Grimsley has been negotiating with the Iraqi government and says there will be more talks with them regarding the Awakening's future.

Brigadier General WILL GRIMSLEY (U.S. Army): The government realizes they have an opportunity to really reconcile a large portion of the population, especially in anticipation of the impending provincial elections and continued withdrawal eventually of coalition forces.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: An opportunity that if squandered could again pit these former Sunni fighters against the government and reverse much of the progress that's been made over the last year.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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