Iraq’s Sahwa fighters awaken to threats from Al Qaeda

Sunni fighters were a key force in defeating Al Qaeda during the height of Iraq's sectarian war, which came to be known as the Sahwa or 'Awakening', in 2006-2007. Now, as the Shiite government turns its back on them, they say they refuse to fight against a growing militant menace.

A woman inspects the site of a deadly car bomb attack that killed her sister in Baghdad’s eastern Mashtal neighbourhood. Hadi Mizban / AP
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BAGHDAD // Ahmed froze as he opened the small white envelope left on his doorstep in the town of Latifiya. Shaking, he looked around before reading the words scrawled on the envelope. Inside was a bullet.

“The message was clear: I must leave or I will be slaughtered,” said Ahmed, who immediately left home with his family and is now living with relatives in another town.

Ahmed was targeted for belonging to a government-backed Sunni militia formed at the height of Iraq’s sectarian conflict in late 2006, when Sunni tribesmen joined forces with US troops and rebelled against Al Qaeda in what came to be known as the “Sahwa” (Awakening).

But the tide is now turning back towards Al Qaeda and other insurgents whose onslaught against the Shiite-led government and its allies has killed more than 6,000 people this year in an ominous echo of the bloodshed that peaked in 2006-07.

Iraqi security officials blame the surge in violence partly on a lack of cooperation from Sahwa fighters who feel they were not rewarded as promised for taking on Al Qaeda and have been left to face the backlash from the militants alone.

“Since 2006, we have fought Al Qaeda and arrested so many of those criminals but today we are going to back to square one,” said Sheikh Aref Al Jumaili, a tribal leader from a town in Anbar province, Iraq’s Sunni heartland.

“We cannot fight them now. They will kill us and get revenge because we fought them with American support. Today this government is not able to protect or support us.”

In their heyday, the Sahwa mustered about 103,000 men, but the number has declined to no more than 38,000 since the US military relinquished security control in Iraq in 2010, said Amir Al Khuzaie, the prime minister Nouri Al Maliki’s reconciliation adviser.

Some were hired as civil servants, integrated into the ministries of defence and interior or given early retirement.

“Sahwa have left a big gap after they abandoned their positions and stopped securing their areas,” said a senior military officer serving in the Sunni town of Shirqat.

“They know exactly the areas where Al Qaeda and other militants are operating, how to abort their attacks, chase and hunt them.”

In Sunni communities, the Sahwa once provided intelligence in areas where the armed forces, staffed mostly by Shiites, face mistrust if not outright hostility.

But Sahwa fighters themselves now face the ire of fellow Sunnis as resentment builds towards the government that came to power following Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003.

Sunnis took to the streets in December in protest against Mr Al Maliki, a Shiite, seeing his pursuit of Sunni politicians on terrorism charges as part of a pattern of oppression.

A deadly raid by security forces on a protest camp in April touched off a violent backlash by Sunni militants who view Shiites as non-believers and the Sahwa as “Sunni apostates” who deserve to die.

“We will kill them in a brutal way and throw their corpses to the dogs,” read a statement from Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, Islamic State of Iraq.

Security officials said Sahwa fighters and their families had come under frequent attack in the past six months, but could not say exactly how many had been killed.

In northern Iraq, where insurgents have a foothold, Al Qaeda gave the Sahwa an ultimatum that expired last week on the first day of Eid Al Adha to repent and swear allegiance to Islamic State of Iraq or face death.

Al Qaeda has told Sahwa fighters to hand over their weapons and uniforms and to record a video pledging their allegiance to the militant group on a flash memory stick, Sahwa leaders and security officials said.

A senior military intelligence officer said the aim was to force former Sahwa members to fight alongside Al Qaeda or face the prospect of these videos being sent to the security forces.

“We do not trust Al Qaeda, but our fear (of it) forced us not to cooperate with the government,” said Ahmed, adding he would rather be in jail than join the militants. “Al Qaeda for me is like a nuclear bomb, it is a source of death”.

* Reuters