Tribesmen now battle post-war trauma

They were once respected but today many of the former Awakening council fighters are left jobless and suffering from a variety of social problems.

In this Dec. 12, 2009, Iraqi Awakening Council members, Sunnis who turned against al-Qaida and now help Iraqi forces, provide security stand guard at a checkpoint in the Arab Jabour area south of Baghdad, Iraq. A top anti-insurgent fighter and three family members were slain overnight in their village south of Baghdad Thursday. (AP Photo/Loay Hameed)

BAGHDAD // In the not too distant past, the men of Iraq's Awakening councils were, if not admired members of their community, then at least in a position to command respect. They carried rifles, had the support of the Americans, regular salaries and could claim - not without justification - to have routed al Qa'eda, something the US military had failed to do. Today, however, with the Awakening councils being phased out, the tribal fighters are increasingly suffering from a host of social problems similar to those faced by traumatised US soldiers returning from war; alcoholism, domestic violence, unemployment, divorce, imprisonment.

Some are even talking about changing sides again, to fight against a government they feel has betrayed them. Rajaa Mohammed was widowed a little over two months ago when her husband, Abu Tarek, died from an overdose. The 48-year-old had been depressed since being dropped from his post with an Awakening council in Fallujah during the summer. Failing to find alternative work, he took to drinking and became moody and hostile towards his family, according to Mrs Mohammed,

"One day he was a hero who fought al Qa'eda and the next he was told he was not good enough for a job with the Iraqi security forces because he didn't have any school certificates," she said. "That affected him very strongly, he couldn't find work, lost his confidence and started taking medication for depression. "He had always been a kind man but I started to be afraid of him and his temper. Then, one day we found him dead. He had taken all his pills at once and died of an overdose."

The Awakening councils - "Sahwa" councils in Arabic - were born in 2005 in reaction to al Qa'eda's growing strength and influence. Iraqi tribes had allied or turned a blind eye to the Islamic extremists in order to aid their own insurgency. But as al Qa'eda in Iraq's power grew, it challenged the primacy of ancient tribal networks. With Iraq in the grip of a devastating sectarian war that was tearing the country apart, tribal leaders decided enough was enough. Rather than fight with al Qa'eda, they turned their guns on them, with the support of the US military, which gladly bankrolled the scheme.

At its height, the Awakening movement had more than 90,000 armed members, a sizeable enough force that, if united, could pose a threat to the newly elected Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. To head off that possibility, the authorities decided to wind the council forces down, promising to find government jobs for as many of their members as possible in the process. While large numbers of the former fighters have reportedly been given work in the Iraqi security forces, many complain that they have been left unemployed and without salaries. Once hailed as national saviours - at least in certain quarters - they say they are now being cast aside.

On a personal level, for some of the fighters, that fall from grace has had a devastating impact. Abdul Rahman Hasuni, 40, a resident of Ramadi, once notorious as an insurgent stronghold, fought as part of a Sahwa council there for more than a year. When the group was dismantled six months ago, many of his contemporaries joined the Iraq police and army. Without a formal education however, he was unable to meet the minimum requirements for recruitment.

Within months of being made redundant, Mr Hasuni, a father of two, was in prison after carrying out a random shooting in the street. "I lost my mind for a while," he said. "I'd had all this power and respect as a Sahwa council member and then my life was turned upside down. People suddenly didn't respect me in the street, I was powerless. "One night I grabbed my rifle and in the middle of the night walked around shooting people's houses. I don't know what came over me, I lost control of myself."

The police arrested him and he was sentenced to three months in jail. According to Mohammed Alani, a consultant psychiatrist working in Anbar province, where the Sahwa originated, post-traumatic stress disorder-type (PTSD) symptoms are not uncommon among former Sahwa fighters. "There have been hundreds of cases of Sahwa fighters needing treatment for depression and psychiatriac illnesses," he said. "I've had 60 cases in the last six months. They were all patients who took part in the armed revolution against al Qa'eda, and who now have no role."

Similar situations faced US soldiers returning home after time in combat, Dr Alani said, with the trauma of their experiences in combat catching up with them, and a feeling that their lives were of little value if they were not fighting. The actual prevalence of PTSD among US troops is not accurately known. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs some 40 per cent of soldiers cared for in their hospitals suffer from the disorder. Studies of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans also indicate that it takes time for PTSD to develop in many cases, perhaps six months after combat has ended.

Families, both of US soldiers and Iraqi fighters, also suffer in the fall out. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that significant numbers of former Sahwa fighters see their home-lives unravel. "In recent months we've had a lot of divorce cases here," said Hadi Awad, an official working in Fallujah court. "There have been a lot of cases of Sahwa members beating their wives and children. There was even a case of one killing his family.

"A lot of them seem to be mentally sick, a lot of the times wives are divorcing husbands and mental illness is the reason." One of the cases dealt with by the court involved a former Sahwa member who, by Mr Hadi's account, had cut off his wife's hands. "He had gone into a trance or something and thought he was dealing with an al Qa'eda prisoner," Mr Hadi said. "When he came out of the trance, he couldn't believe what he had done to his wife."

Tribal sheikhs dismissed any direct connection between increasing social problems and the Sahwa councils, saying traumas of war had been suffered by the whole Iraqi population. "The curse of al Qa'eda has been to affect everyone," said Raad Sabah, a Sahwa leader in Ramadi. "Many people lost brothers, fathers and sons in the fighting and that creates a serious mental strain." While acknowledging the government had found many jobs for former Sahwa members, Sheikh Sabah said not enough was being done. "They need jobs, they need protection from revenge and they need proper healthcare treatment to help them cope with this," he said.

Perhaps most worryingly for the government and for the US, with its hopes to withdraw all combat troops by the end of next year, there are signals disgruntled and traumatised Sahwa fighters might be planning to rejoin forces with al Qa'eda. "I have no work, I lost everything and now I'm supposed to sit and watch my family die of hunger because I cannot afford to feed them," said one former Sahwa fighter from Ramadi, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"If things go on like this, I will fight the government. They steal our money and want to be strong only to meet their agenda, not the people's. "I am sick and tired of all of this, and if the solution is to challenge the government, then I will challenge the government."