“We are caught between a rock and a hard place. We’re in dire straits and there are only two options open to us, neither of which are acceptable.” These are the words of Muhanad al-Jibouri, one of the leaders of what is known as the Awakening Movement, in Baghdad. The Awakening Movement was a home grown initiative dating back to 2006, which saw tribal groups with a Sunni Muslim background halting their fight against the US military and instead taking arms up against Sunni Muslim extremists, particularly al-Qaeda, in Iraq. They were also being paid by the US military until that responsibility fell to the Iraqi state.
At one stage there were up to 90,000 Iraqi men involved in the Awakening Movement; most recent estimates put numbers at around 50,000. But ever since the US military left Iraq late last year, the Awakening Movement members have found themselves in an increasingly tenuous position. Things had already been less than positive but now, as al-Jibouri laments, “everyone hates us”.
Even getting hold of al-Jibouri was difficult. He often doesn’t answer his phone. “I always try to hide,” he explained when he did finally answer NIQASH’s calls. “I live in fear of assassination and I’m always haunted by that thought. Whenever anybody knocks on my door, or when my phone rings, I fear that I’ll be killed – or that members of my family will be killed.”
Al-Jibouri’s fears are well grounded. The Awakening Movement has been in a tricky position for some time. They haven’t been integrated into the state and they’ve also become targets for al-Qaeda extremists, who, after the withdrawal of US troops, started a campaign of intimidation and murder targeting Awakening members. They have been, al-Jibouri says, “abandoned by everyone”.
Previously the Awakening Movement had been seen as a resoundingly successful initiative. Founded in 2006, the armed groups were so successful in their counter-insurgency campaign and in assisting the US troops, that the idea was copied in Afghanistan too.
No doubt the fact that the US was paying out around US$300 per month in wages to Awakening members also helped – at the height of the Awakening Movement’s duties, this cost more than US$30 million a month. In late 2008, the Iraqi state began paying the wages of Awakening Movement members and it also promised to begin integrating the militias into state forces proper.
However up until today, around half of those involved in the Awakening Movement say that they don’t know if they will ever be employed by the Iraqi government. And others say they haven’t been paid in months.
“We feel that the government is reluctant to deal positively with the Awakening Movement,” Naji al-Athami, head of the Ghazaliya area Awakening group in Baghdad, told NIQASH. “The government should remember the major success the [Awakening Movement] had – especially when they’re compared with what government and US forces were able to achieve.”
“Is this the right way to reward us for all our efforts and sacrifices?” Sadoun al-Obeidi, another Awakening Movement leader, told NIQASH. Al-Obeidi took over as head of the Awakening Movement in the Taji area of Baghdad after the former leader fled Iraq because of assassination threats.
The Awakening leaders also point out that similar tribal groups with a Shiite background, as created by the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in response to the Sunni Awakening Movement (observers say al-Maliki was worried about the Sunni tribal groups becoming a powerful political and military force), are not having such difficulties. This, they say, shows that the Iraqi government doesn’t trust the Awakening Movement because of sectarian bias.
Replying to criticisms about the government’s treatment of the Awakening Movement members, Iraq\'s National Reconciliation Minister Amir al-Khuzaei said that up until now around 40,000 Awakening members had been integrated into the government but that they also had good reasons for going more slowly on integrating Awakening members into the state.
“Al-Qaeda has successfully infiltrated these councils and we cannot trust them,” al-Khuzaei explained. “We need time to investigate their history and their conduct.”
Al-Qaeda, which has become better organized and more active again following the US military’s withdrawal, has certainly targeted the Awakening Movement. It has campaigned to try to persuade the Awakening Movement members to join it, or, in fact, re-join it. In leaflets distributed with this purpose in mind, al-Qaeda says that any Awakening members who repented for working with the US, against al-Qaeda, would be forgiven.
More frighteningly, it seems that since the beginning of the year, every week, someone related to the Awakening Movement – be that a member, or one of their relatives – has been killed, or threatened with assassination. A senior official at the Ministry of the Interior, who wished to remain anonymous, told NIQASH that the ministry has taken note of this. “More than a hundred have been killed over the past few months,” he noted.
The senior official also spoke about how his Ministry was certain that some of the Awakening Movement members had become double agents, working for both the state security forces and also for al-Qaeda.
“During the day, they act like employees of the security forces and carry out their jobs. But in the evening they help al-Qaeda, either providing it with information on the state security forces or they tell secrets they’ve learned from their colleagues,” the official explained.
This was proven, he felt, by the fact that al-Qaeda had been so successful in targeting Awakening Movement members. “Al-Qaeda was obviously able to obtain accurate information on the names and addresses of these people from their double agents.”
“Our mission is not at all simple,” Reconciliation Minister al-Khuzaei concluded. “We do have to integrate these people into the state. But we’re just not sure where their allegiances really lie.”
Meanwhile opposition MP, Khalid al-Alwani, who belongs to the mostly Sunni Muslim Iraqiya bloc, felt that the problem with the Awakening Movement needed to be solved – and quickly.
“The growing feeling of frustration among the Movement’s members may well lead to more threats to Iraqi security,” he argued. “And it is unfair to abandon them – they only see uncertainties and they’re not sure what their fate will be.”