Leaders of U.S. allied Sunni patrols targeted – hundreds ordered arrested by Baghdad government – Iraqi “stability” threatened
By Richard A. Oppel Jr. / NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE / August 22, 2008
BAGHDAD – The Shiite-dominated government in Iraq is driving out many leaders of Sunni citizen patrols, the groups of former insurgents who joined the U.S. payroll and have been a major pillar in the decline in violence around the nation.
In restive Diyala province, U.S. and Iraqi military officials say there were orders to arrest hundreds of members of what is known as the awakening movement as part of large security operations by the Iraqi military. At least five senior members have been arrested there in recent weeks, leaders of the groups say.
West of Baghdad, former insurgent leaders contend that the Iraqi military is going after 650 awakening movement members, many of whom have fled the once-violent area they had kept safe. While the crackdown appears to be focused on a relatively small number of leaders whom the Iraqi government considers the most dangerous, there are influential voices seeking to dismantle the U.S.-backed movement entirely.
“The state cannot accept the awakening,” said Sheik Jalaladeen al-Sagheer, a leading Shiite member of parliament. “Their days are numbered.”
The government’s rising hostility toward the awakening councils amounts to a bet that its military, feeling increasingly strong, can provide security in former guerrilla strongholds without the support of these former Sunni fighters who once waged devastating attacks on U.S. and Iraqi targets. It also is occurring as awakening members are eager to translate their influence and organization on the ground into political power.
But it is causing a rift with the U.S. military, which contends any significant diminution of the awakening movement could result in renewed violence, jeopardizing the substantial security gains in the past year. U.S. commanders say that the practice, however unconventional, of paying the guerrillas has saved the lives of hundreds of U.S. soldiers.
“If it is not handled properly, we could have a security issue,” said Brig. Gen. David Perkins, the senior military spokesman in Iraq. “You don’t want to give anybody a reason to turn back to al-Qaeda.” Many Sunni insurgents had previously been allied with al-Qaeda of Iraq and other extremist groups.
Awakening members complain, with rising bitterness, that the government has been slow to make good on its promises to recruit tens of thousands of its members into those security forces. Perkins said only 5,200 members had been recruited in a force of about 100,000.
“Some people from the government encouraged us to fight against al-Qaeda, but it seems that now that al-Qaeda is finished, they don’t want us anymore,” said Abu Marouf, who, according to U.S. officials, was a powerful guerrilla leader in the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade west of Baghdad.
After he said he discovered his name on lists of 650 names that an Iraqi army brigade was using to arrest awakening movement members west of Baghdad, Abu Marouf fled south of Fallujah.