Power shift as Awakening languishes

The first of a five-part series Widely considered one of the reasons the country was brought back from the brink of anarchy, Sunni militias have been so badly weakened that they are unable to halt their slide in the new Iraq's political landscape.

13/08/10 - Abu Dhabi, UAE -  General Mustafa, Awakening group commander for south Baghdad, at his home in Yarmuk.  (Andrew Henderson/The National)

BAGHDAD // On a recent Friday in Baghdad, hundreds of men strolled slowly to the Abu Hanifa mosque in the Sunni bastion of Adhamiya. Many wore pristine white dishdashes and white caps. They walked under the watchful gaze of dozens of Iraqi soldiers.

Iraqi army pickup trucks and Humvees were parked in empty streets. In the main square, concrete blast walls surrounded the mosque, which was a shrine to the important Sunni theologian Abu Hanifa, founder of the Hanafi school of Islam.

Unlike what one might hear in other mosques, particularly Shiite ones, this Friday sermon abstained from politics. Sheikh Abdel Sattar Abdel Jabbar spoke only of religion.

This was perhaps out of fear. More likely, it was out of futility and a sense of acceptance that in the new Iraq, many Sunnis will not regain the lofty status they held during the rule of Saddam Hussein.

That angers Mutlab, who provided only his first name to protect himself. As a member of a Sunni militia group, he fought al Qa'eda militants alongside the US forces.

"We are made to work in sanitation and we fought the terrorists," he said.

"It was better before. We ruled the street. Nobody could talk to us – not the army, nobody. We communicated directly with the Americans. Now nobody respects us."

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The sermons at the Abu Hanifa mosque were not always tranquil.

Adhamiya was the last district of Baghdad to fall to the US-led invasion in 2003 and the last place Saddam Hussein made a public appearance before he went into hiding.

After the fall of Baghdad to the United States, the first Friday sermon in Abu Hanifa compared the cataclysm to the venerable city's seizure by the Mongols in 1258. It also called for unity between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis.

But that was not to be. The disbanding of the Baath Party and the Iraq army by occupation authorities in May 2003 helped create a political and security vacuum, which in turn triggered sectarian violence and sent Iraq spiraling towards near-civil war. For the next two years, sermons from the Abu Hanifa mosque railed against the occupation. Adhamiya, home to prominent Iraqi families for generations as well as middle-class Sunnis, became a bastion of the resistance. Eventually, it fell under the control of groups inspired by al Qa'eda.

Fighters clashed frequently with the US and Iraqi security forces, which brought down waves of retaliation on Adhamiya. Shiite militias even tried to hit the mosque with mortars after the Shiite shrine in Samara was blown up in 2006. They called Adhamiya "Saddamiya".

In 2007, a sea-change occurred, as many Sunni insurgents turned their attention from attacking US troops to battling al Qa'eda. These local Sunni militias, known as Awakening groups, were funded and supported by the US military.

Khalili Ibrahim, one of the leaders of the Awakening in Adamiya, was one of those insurgents who chose to collaborate with US forces after fighting them. Why? They were the enemy of his enemy – Iran, he said. "Now the Americans were leaving, but the Iranians are staying."

The Awakening groups are widely considered one of the reasons Iraq was brought back from the edge of anarchy.

"They saved Iraq," Ibrahim recalled last year. "If the Awakening wasn't here then the American and Iraqi armies couldn't enter Adhamiya for 20 years."

Ibrahim was killed by a sniper's bullet in March.

Still, the alliance did not slow the Sunnis' political eclipse in the post-Saddam era. Nor did it improve the prospects of those Sunnis who carried the fight against al Qa'eda.
Under Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, many of his men could get jobs only as cleaners, Ibrahim had said.

Ibrahim's successor as head of the Awakening in Adhamiya, Muntasar Abu Amna, is a massive man of 32 years, with folds of fat on the back of his neck. His thick hand never strayed from his pistol.

Mr Amna, a former taxi driver, had taken part in the Awakening from the start. Now, he said, there were fewer than 200 members left.

Sitting on a bench in the main square next to the Abu Hanifa mosque, Mr Amna smoked and drank tea with some of his friends, even though the Ramadan fast was not over.

They disagreed about whether the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, who led a coalition of mostly Shiite candidates in the March elections, should return to power.

Neither Mr al Maliki nor his rival, Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister, has been able to cobble together a majority to form a new government. Yet Mr al Maliki, the incumbent, seems most likely to emerge from the gridlock as Iraq's new premier.

"We don't care if Maliki is prime minister, as long as he doesn't distinguish between Sunnis and Shiites," Ali al Ubedi said.

A taxi driver sitting next to him disagreed. "If it's Maliki, then sectarianism will return," said the driver, Hisham, who would give only his first name. "The government hurt us more than al Qa'eda did."

Although the longtime friends all agreed that Iraq's Sunnis were weak and unable to halt their slide to the sidelines of the country's political life, Mr al Ubeidi said an effective government was more important than how Sunnis and Shiites were represented in the upper echelons of power.

"There is no electricity, no water," he said. "I don't care who is in charge as long as he improves services. The people are tired. They just want a government."

* * * * *

Adhamiya is now home to many Sunnis displaced from majority Shiite areas. Their bitterness about a system they say does not respond to their needs and reward their contributions to stability permeates every conversation.

Although the Awakening groups were once thought of as a new militia that could undermine any future Iraqi government at will, these fears appear to have been baseless. Instead, once powerful Awakening leaders are dejected, their power emasculated.

Gen Mustafa Kamil Shadid was once the powerful Awakening boss in south Baghdad and a crucial partner with the US military during its troop increase in 2007.

There had once been 5,000 Awakening men in his area, and now there were barely 200, Gen Shadid said. At least 500 of his militiamen were in Iraqi prisons.

Gen Shadid has been the target of at least four assassination attempts, the latest in July. Meanwhile, the thousands of al Qa'eda militants that he says he arrested are walking free.

"They have all been released by bribing judges and police. There are 50 guys in south Baghdad. If I arrest them, there won't be any more attacks. But I'm not allowed to make arrests.

"Now a man who was an Awakening general is made a janitor and a man who was a janitor is made a general."

Gen Shadid said the US forces had promised him a top government job in security or defence, but they betrayed him.

"They are the occupier. That is their policy," he said.

Now he waits for word from Washington about his asylum application. He resents being treated like any other Iraqi applicant.

"I am not just an informer," he said. "The Americans should send a plane to take me and my family to America. They know what I did for them. But do you think another General Mustafa will come after I leave?"