Iraq Paramilitary Group Targeted, Despite Success The Sunni paramilitary group Sons of Iraq has been a centerpiece of the American strategy in Iraq. But the group, which receives funding and support from the U.S., is now being targeted by Iraq's Shiite-led government.

Iraq Paramilitary Group Targeted, Despite Success

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And as we've been reporting for months, violence has fallen dramatically across Iraq. One reason has been the contribution of Sunni Muslim paramilitary groups that are supported by the U.S. military. They're called either the Awakening Councils or the Sons of Iraq, and are former insurgents who've turned against al-Qaida in Iraq.

There are around 100,000 of them there across the country and on the U.S. payroll. But now Iraq's government led by Shiite Muslims is targeting this Sunni movement in areas around Iraq, including Diyala province north of Baghdad. From there NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro sent this report.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mullah Shihab is a wanted man - again. Thin 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.

Mr. MULLAH SHIHAB (Former Emir): (Through translator) When my country became occupied, I exercised my legal and legitimate right to fight the occupiers. When al-Qaida started killing innocent people in this country, I turned against them and began working with the Americans.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In 2007, he 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 Mullah Shihab lives - has been startling.

Mr. SHIHAB: (Through translator) The American forces, with all their technology, failed to secure even one area. The local government couldn't even walk a few hundred feet outside their offices. But when we came onto the scene, security was established.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which is why he is furious that he's now being targeted by Iraq's Shiite-led government. It has been reluctant to incorporate the Sons of Iraq into the Iraq security forces. Only a small percentage of the 99,000 Sons of Iraq 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. Mullah Shihab says he suspects it is because the Sons of Iraq movement is trying to gain political power ahead of planned provincial elections.

Mullah Shihab's name, and those of hundreds of his fighters, are on an arrest warrant - and the only ones safeguarding them are the very people they used to fight against.

Mr. SHIHAB: (Through translator) We were against the American forces, but the Americans are now taking our side more than the Iraqi forces. The Americans are protecting our leaders from the Iraqi government.

(Soundbite of men talking)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a sultry afternoon, and Mullah Shihab along with other Sons of Iraq leaders are being welcomed onto the U.S. military base in Baqouba. Captain 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 Captain Web is paying the men to sit at home.

Captain SOLON WEB (U.S. Army): It is a turning point. It's very strange to have gone, when I first shown up, to see literally hundreds of people everywhere you go with the orange road guard vests. You not can't find anyone barely anywhere. It's definitely a transition. If you look at the Sons of Iraq, it's the mostly young military-age males, 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: According to Mullah 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's been made here.

Mr. WEB: The Sons of Iraq are currently in kind of this limbo state of, well, what happens next? If we had something to transition to, I feel like the Sons of Iraq would be willing to go to something else. It's not easy to find somebody that wants to take ownership of this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Sons of Iraq leaders here have asked Captain 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 this 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 of Abu Talib, says that he wouldn't have dared come here without them.

Mr. ABU TALIB: (Through translator) 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He is suddenly interrupted by the Baqouba police chief. Abu Talib's worst fears are confirmed by the chief's words.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've been looking for you to arrest you, he says, and now we find you right here at the headquarters.

It's not an auspicious start to the meeting. Abu Talib addresses General Abdul Kareem Khalaf, who is representing the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad.

Mr. TALIB: (Through translator) Most of our guys are being arrested on fake charges. 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The message General Abdul Kareem Khalaf delivers is not one the members want to hear: Their force will not be reconstituted.

General ABDUL KAREEM KHALAF (Ministry of Interior): (Through translator) What happened before was an exceptional situation that can't last forever. We had a similar experience in Basra with the Mahdi Army militia. It was totally controlling the city. We slaughtered them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abu Talib is outraged by the comparison to the militia headed by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The Sons of Iraq, he explains, have been working with the government, not against it these many months.

Mr. TALIB: (Through translator) You cannot compare us with the Mahdi Army in Basra. 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: General Khalaf is unswayed and talks to them dismissively.

Mr. KHALAF: (Through translator) I'm against this name, Sons of Iraq. 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: His message is clear: In the province of Diyala, at least, the time of the Sons of Iraq is over.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baqouba.

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