Back in 2005, Anbar man, Adhma al-Nimrawi, joined a local group fighting the extremist group Al Qaeda in his area. The 46-year-old took part in a US-funded initiative called the Awakening, or Sahwa, movement, which saw locals fighting the extremist group in Anbar. But after Al Qaeda were effectively driven out of the province, al-Nimrawi says the men he fought with were abandoned by everyone.
The Awakening forces were supposed to incorporated into existing Iraqi security forces. They should have been paid a regular wage and received weapons and training, after the US sponsors withdrew. But that never really happened and many of the Awakening fighters felt betrayed.
He believes his job fighting the extremists was a sacred duty that cannot be rewarded by money or a job offer.
Now men like al-Nimrawi fear this may happen again. Up until recently, al-Nimrawi and other members of his tribe were fighting the next incarnation of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the extremist group known as the Islamic State. They had volunteered for what are known as the tribal militias, in Ramadi, in the mostly-Sunni province of Anbar.
“When we joined these groups our goal was to protect our own hometowns and not allow the Islamic State to control them,” al-Nimrawi told NIQASH. “But every time, after we have done such a job, we have found that the size of our sacrifice is much larger than the size of the central or local government’s concern for us.”
Last week Iraq’s highest Shiite Muslim religious authority, Ali al-Sistani, said that the volunteer militias that had formed in 2014 to fight the Islamic State, or IS, group should be incorporated into state-run security forces. Many of the Shiite Muslim-majority militias agreed in principle to give back their state-supplied guns and to do as the Iraqi government asked. However the situation for the tribal militias in Anbar, which are made up of Sunni Muslim locals, seems less clear.
As yet there is no official procedure about how the militias will be incorporated into official security forces. And that is exactly what worries al-Nimrawi and his colleagues in arms. When al-Sistani said the militias should come under the control of the Iraqi government, he didn’t specify any particular group. He did not differentiate between Shiite and Sunni volunteer fighters. He said all of them should be integrated and he also called for a wise plan for the future of these groups.
In Anbar, any new rules around the militias would affect an estimated 25,000 fighters.
Nobody knows what lies ahead, says Awad al-Jughaifi, one of the leaders of a tribal militia in Haditha, in the west of Anbar province. And the central government has not yet given any clues as to how any mechanism might work.
Al-Jughaifi says there are around 10,000 local fighters who have been officially incorporated into the Iraqi militias and who are now getting salaries from the government just like their counterparts in the Shiite Muslim militias. “So according to that, they would come under the instructions [given by al-Sistani] and their concerns should be put to rest. They too shall become part of the security forces,” al-Jughaifi suggests.
The militia leader adds that he has taken up the issue with the country’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, personally. “We asked about the fate of these fighters and he always stresses that we are part of the system and that we will not be marginalized or excluded, as had happened with the Awakening forces,” al-Jughaifi continues.
Most of the fighters he works with are afraid of that, and that all their sacrifices in the fight against the IS group might have been for nothing.
The tribal militias are just as important as the other militias and there should be no discrimination between the two groups.
His fighters want to be part of the federal security forces, confirms Akef al-Dulaimi, one of the leaders of the Fallujah Shield force which is affiliated with the tribal militias. They support the plan to unite all of the troops under one flag and to move away from partisan or tribal affiliations.
“The tribal militias are just as important as the other militias and there should be no discrimination between the two groups,” al-Dulaimi argues. “Tribal militias offered strong support to the Iraqi security forces here and they participated in the liberation of local cities and helped protect territory after the terrorists were expelled. And that is not to mention the personal sacrifices made by the fighters and by their families.”
Integrating the tribal fighters into the security forces is a positive for everyone, al-Dulaimi suggests. “We still need fully equipped fighters here. The danger still exists. And maintaining and protecting the gains made is just as important as direct military action.”
Not everyone feels this way though. Militia fighter al-Nimrawi points out that some of the men only took up arms to defend their own cities. They don’t want to do any more than that and would prefer to go back to their ordinary lives.
Mahmoud al-Ifan, 43, is one of these. He is a senior member of the Fallujah militias but he believes his job was a sacred duty that cannot be rewarded by money or by a civilian or military job.
“Most of the men I met during 2015 and 2016 joined the militias to liberate the province from the IS group, which had deprived of their right to a safe life,” al-Ifan says. “Still,” he adds, “there is also no doubt that a large number of the fighters here are hoping to get a job in the security forces now, a job that would guarantee them a dignified life, after the sacrifices they have made. But they also have legitimate concerns because there’s been discrimination in how the different groups – the [Sunni Muslim] tribal militias and the [Shiite Muslim] militias – have been treated since the beginning of this fight.”