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govt neglect of anti-al-qaeda movement to blame for iraq\\\'s deadly summer?

Mustafa Habib
As deaths and violence levels rise in Iraq, its clear that the Sunni Muslim extremist group, al-Qaeda, is making a comeback in the country. Could it be that the government\'s neglect of the Awakening Movement, the…
22.08.2013  |  Baghdad

“The government has deserted us,” complains Othman, a member of the Awakening Movement. He\'s standing near a a police patrol in Shahrayan, in the Diyala province, with two of his colleagues-in-arms, Mohammed and Salam; he doesn’t want to give his full name for fear of retribution. “And after all the sacrifices we made. And after we were able to defeat some of the most powerful parts of al-Qaeda.”

Othman says he and his friends have not been paid for six months. “We don’t get any material or moral support and we haven\'t got much ammunition. How are we supposed to fight al-Qaeda in these conditions?,” he wondered aloud.

At one stage the so-called Awakening Movement - 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 up arms against Sunni Muslim extremists, particularly al-Qaeda – was considered the US military\'s magic bullet in Iraq.

But that was then. More recently, and particularly since the withdrawal of US troops, the Awakening Movement has been neglected by the Iraqi government. There were up to 90,000 Iraqis involved in the initiative at one stage but most recent estimates put the number of those participating at around 50,000 and sinking. The US used to pay members of the Awakening Movement and the Iraqi government was supposed to take over that task. But since the US left the group has often been left unpaid. And now some are blaming that neglect for the rise in violence in Iraq and for the resurgence of al-Qaeda.

"We have lost the Awakening Movement,” one senior security official, who preferred to remain anonymous, told NIQASH. “That\'s why our security situation is no longer as stable as it was in 2008 and 2009. The government has neglected the Awakening Movement and now they\'re paying a high price for that. The US troops, as mighty as they were, never managed to defeat al-Qaeda. But the Awakening Movement did.”

Its true that although many Awakening Movement members were simply unemployed, others were formerly al-Qaeda.Members of the US military convinced them to defect and to hunt down terrorists in return for money and weapons. However since the US military left Iraq late last year, the Awakening Movement members have found themselves in an increasingly tenuous position. They haven’t been integrated into state security and they’ve also become targets for al-Qaeda extremists, who, after the withdrawal of US troops, started a campaign of intimidation and murder against them. Judging by government operations carried out in the Anbar province by the Iraqi government at the beginning of August, the group also seem to have lost some of their abilities and strength.

“The Prime Minister [Nouri al-Maliki] thought that after the withdrawal of the US troops, that he didn’t need us any more,” Tamam al-Ani, a former commander in the Awakening Movement now living in Jordan, told NIQASH. “But he\'s left us with no protection whatsoever.”

Al-Ani said that in 2012, when al-Qaeda began to return to Anbar, he had had several death threats. “Because the soldiers under my command arrested and killed dozens of al-Qaeda members," he explained.

“The Iraqi government is still supporting the Awakening troops and in fact, over the last two years, it has integrated about 20 percent of them into the regular security forces,” says Iraqi national reconciliation advisor, Amir al-Khuzaie. “The rest are waiting their turn for civilian employment due to their academic qualifications and experience.”

But this process is troublesome too. Some members of the Iraqi government believe that not all of the Awakening Movement members are totally loyal.

“Some of the Awakening Movement members are double agents,” says State of Law MP Ihsan al-Awadi. “They work for us and they work for al-Qaeda at the same time. This has prompted the government to scrutinize some of the members’ files before integrating them in the security establishment."

And it is also clear that the Sunni extremist group, al-Qaeda, is becoming more active in Iraq again, with their activities concentrated in the provinces of Anbar and Diyala and the city of Mosul.

A few months ago, the Iraqi government also announced that the Awakening Movement\'s spiritual leader would be replaced. Instead of tribal leader, Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, one of the most prominent tribal leaders in Anbar who took the job on after his brother, Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha, who founded the Awakening Movement, was killed, the Movement would be led by another tribal leader, Sheikh Wissam al-Hardan.

Many believe that Abu Risha was replaced because of his support for recent anti-government protests in Anbar. The Iraqi government believe he is hostile to them.

Abu Risha himself told NIQASH that, “we gave the government security, like a gift on a golden platter! But instead of thanking us it has ignored us and wasted that gift. Now Iraq is paying the price – with the return of al-Qaeda.” And Abu Risha believes that, even under the command of al-Hardan, the Awakening Movement won\'t be able to achieve the same results as they did before. “They have become politicized,” he argues.

“The government should revive the Awakening Movement,” agreed MP Mathhar al-Janabi, a member of the Parliamentary committee on security and defence. “The Awakening Movement could fight the new al-Qaeda cells. The government should have learned their lesson. Even working together, the Iraqi government and the US forces couldn’t defeat al-Qaeda without the help of the Awakening Movement.”

However even if the will was there, the way would be difficult. Some Awakening Movement insiders believe its too late to get their forces back on board. As Mustafa al-Obaidi, a former Awakening Movement leader in the Salahaddin province, says: “Sunni Muslim tribes and their sons don\'t have any trust in the government anymore.”