MAHMUDIYAH // Influential Iraqi tribes have been holding talks to set up sahwa councils in Mosul, a move that could help restore order to the troubled northern city. The councils, also known as "sons of Iraq" or "awakening councils", have played a crucial role in bringing security to such notorious areas as Ramadi and Fallujah, once strongholds of insurgents.
Recent attempts by the Iraqi army and US military to take control of Mosul, 360km north-west of the Iraqi capital, have so far had a limited effect, with violence continuing unabated. Thousands of Christians have fled the city since the start of the month after a string of sectarian murders, and on Sunday a double suicide bombing left dozens dead and wounded. A Christian music store owner was shot to death yesterday.
Last week, a soldier was shot dead in Mosul, bringing the number of US soldiers to die in Iraq since the 2003 invasion to 4,179. According to the US army, he was killed by an al Qa'eda fighter, a catchall phrase used to describe hardline militants, rather than Iraqi nationalist insurgents. To date, no sahwa council has been established in the city, largely because key Iraqi tribes in the area - especially Sunni Arabs - have preferred to back anti-occupation fighters, rather than sign on to the US payroll in exchange for not attacking US and Iraqi army troops.
Although the nationalist Iraqi resistance movement is opposed to the extremist ideology of al Qa'eda, which calls for the killing of Shiites and non-Muslims, they are also struggling against growing Kurdish influence in the north. With al Qa'eda claiming to be at the forefront of attempts to stop a Kurdish takeover of Mosul, Iraqi tribes have either been tolerating or co-operating with extremists.
Leaders of one of the most powerful families in Iraq, however, said in an interview that discussions were under way to establish sahwa councils in Mosul. If they are put in place, Iraqi tribes - and nationalist insurgents - would turn their guns on al Qa'eda and attempt to rid the city of extremists, something they have proven brutally adept at in other parts of the country. "We are working hard to establish a sons of Iraq programme in Mosul," said Sheikh Hasan al Hamadani at his home near Mahmudiyah. The area was once known as the triangle of death, before the Hamadani tribe, and other influential families, set up sahwa councils, in effect a tribal militia.
Within the space of a few months, they killed hundreds of extremists and stopped staging any of their own attacks against US or Iraqi forces. What was once a sectarian slaughterhouse quickly became relatively peaceful. Iraqis who had been battling US soldiers instead took a monthly salary worth US$300 (Dh1,100) from the US military to maintain security. The Hamadani tribe is one of the largest in Iraq with members spread across the country. They claim up to 40 per cent of Mosul's population is Hamadani. But its historical centre is near Mahmudiyah and Sheikh Hasan, together with his brothers Mizher Hamadani and Sheikh Sa'ad, are the current tribal leaders.
"We had a meeting on Friday in our house with many key people from Mosul," Sheikh Hasan said. "The city council chairman and the police general are Hamadani, and together we are working to establish a son of Iraq programme there." He said the talks had not yet been concluded but that he was hopeful they would come to an agreement soon. Mizher Hamadani said some of the key tribal heads in Mosul remained staunchly opposed to the US presence in Iraq, but that they were coming to realise al Qa'eda was a bigger threat to the country. "We have been in talks about this for more than a year now, and we are seeing people now changing their mentalities and are coming over to the political side of things," he said.
"We have spoken to those people involved in arming and fighting the US with the Iraqi resistance and we are working hard on getting them involved in the political process. "Especially with the elections coming up, we think it is important to establish platforms that will make sure people are properly represented." In a separate interview, a member of the umbrella insurgent organisation, the National and Islamic Front in Iraq, said militants in Mosul would not lay down their weapons or enter into an agreement with the United States. "No patriotic Iraqi can accept the Americans here or their puppet Iraqi government," he said on condition of anonymity. "Some of the strongest Iraqi families are in Mosul and they will not be joining with the sahwa. The sahwa councils are a mistake."
According to the governor of Ninevah province - Mosul is the provincial capital - about 3,000 Christians have left the city in the past week in a "major displacement". Duraid Mohammed Kashmoula said most had left for churches, monasteries and the homes of relatives in nearby Christian villages and towns. "The Christians were subjected to abduction attempts and paid ransom, but now they are subjected to a killing campaign," Mr Kashmoula said, adding he believed "al Qa'eda" elements were to blame and called for a renewed drive to root them out.
At his tribal home in Mahmudiyah, Sheikh Hasan said the sahwa councils were the only way to safeguard all of Iraq's different sects. "We reject all sectarianism. The Hamadani tribe has Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians among its members and we support all of their rights. We will do what is best for Iraq in order that the country remains united and strong. We do not accept the interference of outsiders, such as al Qa'eda."