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A Dark Side to Iraq 'Awakening' Groups
International Herlad Tribune  |  January 04, 2008
The thin teenage boy rushed up to the patrol of U.S. Soldiers walking through Dora, a shrapnel-scarred neighborhood of the Iraqi capital, and lifted his shirt to show them a mass of red welts across his back.

He said he was a member of a local Sunni "Awakening" group, paid by the U.S. military to patrol the district, but he said it was another Awakening group that beat him. "They took me while I was working," he said, "and broke my badge and said, 'You are from Al Qaeda.' "

The Soldiers were unsure what to do. The Awakening groups in their area of southern Baghdad could not seem to get along: They fought over turf and, it turned out in this case, one group had warned the other that its members should not pay rent to Shiite "dogs."

The Awakening movement, a predominantly Sunni Arab force recruited to fight Sunni Islamic extremists like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, has become a great success story after its spread from Sunni tribes in Anbar Province to become an ad-hoc armed force of 65,000 to 80,000 across the country in less than a year.

A linchpin of the U.S. strategy to pacify Iraq, the movement has been widely credited with turning around the violence-scarred areas where the Sunni insurgency has been based.

But the beating that day was a stark example of how rivalries and sectarianism are still undermining U.S. plans. And in particular, the Awakening's rapid expansion - the Americans say the force could reach 100,000 - is creating new concerns.

How, when thousands are joining each month, can spies and extremists be reliably weeded out? How can the members' loyalty be maintained, given their tribal and sectarian ties, and in many cases their insurgent pasts? And crucially, how can the movement be sustained once the U.S. turns over control to a Shiite-dominated government that has been wary of and sometimes hostile toward the groups?

Despite the successes of the movement, including the members' ability to provide valuable intelligence and give rebuilding efforts a new chance in war-shattered communities, the U.S. military acknowledges that it is also a high-risk proposition.

It is an experiment in counterinsurgency warfare that could contain the seeds of a civil war - in which, if the worst fears come true, the United States would have helped organize some of the Sunni forces arrayed against the central government on which so many American lives and dollars have been spent.

In interviews with Awakening groups in 10 locations - four interviewed during a week in Anbar, and six groups in and around Baghdad interviewed over several days - it was evident that the groups were improving security in their areas. But it was also clear that there was little loyalty, in either direction, between the Sunni groups and the Shiites running the government.

The U.S. is haunted by the possibility that Iraq could go the way of Afghanistan, where Americans initially bought the loyalty of tribal leaders only to have some of them gravitate back to the Taliban when the money stopped.

Colonel Martin Stanton, chief of reconciliation and engagement for the Multinational Corps-Iraq, said the military had no illusions about the Awakening members' former lives or the reasons for what appeared to be their change of heart.

"These weren't people who were struck by a lightning bolt or saw a burning bush and came over to this side of the Lord," Stanton said. "These were people who last year were being hammered from two different directions: by Al Qaeda and by us. It was probably a distasteful choice to make back then because, after all, they viewed us as invaders, and they probably still do, but it was a survival choice and they made it."

The government has made only the most halting steps toward rapprochement with the Awakening groups, even those who have been fighting insurgents for months in their neighborhoods.

And for the Americans who helped create and nurture the movement, the initial excitement has been tempered by the challenge of managing a huge and growing force where many of the men have shadowy pasts.

"It's the case with any franchise organization," said Major General John Allen, the deputy commander in Anbar Province. "Sooner or later you lose control over the standards."

In the summer of 2005, the Abu Mahals, a tribe of notorious smugglers by the Syrian border, were being pushed out of their own area by a competing tribe that had struck a deal with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Some of the tribe's men had been insurgents, killers of U.S. marines, but the border was an out-of-control no man's land.

So when the tribe proposed an alliance, the Americans decided to give it a try. Weapons and training flowed to the tribe, the extremists were pushed back on their heels - and the Awakening was born. Nearly two years later, after several important tribes around Ramadi joined, the Awakening movement in Anbar has grown to adolescence, acting at once capable and delinquent. New offices are opening all over the province, marking their presence with yellow satin flags, armed guards and sheiks aiming to start a national political party.

Legitimacy has come with formal employment. Sheiks who signed up early on gave the Americans names of people they wanted hired as police officers, and the provincial force now numbers 23,000, up from 5,200 in June 2006. The Iraqi Interior Ministry has also agreed to accept 4,000 more, in addition to a jobs program for 6,000 civil servants.

Attacks in the province, meanwhile, are at roughly a tenth of what they were last year, according to military figures. And in cities like Ramadi that were once largely beyond U.S. control, construction clatter and the slosh of wet concrete has replaced the snap of gunfire.

But as the movement has spread east through Anbar, two responses have emerged: an intense pride in the hard-fought peace, and a sometimes violent scramble for rewards, credit and power.

The Americans, meanwhile, are handing out hundreds of million of dollars in aid and reconstruction funds - $223 million to Ramadi and its surrounding areas alone since February. As a result, a dizzying number of sheiks have stepped forward in recent months claiming to be important leaders who fought Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and now deserve money, water plants, new schools and hundreds of jobs for their relatives.

Just to keep track, many U.S. company commanders now travel with thick packets of pictures identifying what one American marine described as Anbar's competing teams: "fake sheiks, little sheiks and big sheiks."

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