News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqAttacks imperil militiamen in Iraq allied with U.S.

Attacks imperil militiamen in Iraq allied with U.S.


New York Times: American-backed Sunni militias who have fought Sunni extremists to a standstill in some of Iraq’s bloodiest battlegrounds are being hit with a wave of assassinations and bomb attacks, threatening a fragile linchpin of the military’s strategy to pacify the nation. The New York Times

Published: January 24, 2008” />

BAGHDAD — American-backed Sunni militias who have fought Sunni extremists to a standstill in some of Iraq’s bloodiest battlegrounds are being hit with a wave of assassinations and bomb attacks, threatening a fragile linchpin of the military’s strategy to pacify the nation.

At least 100 predominantly Sunni militiamen, known as Awakening Council members or Concerned Local Citizens, have been killed in the past month, mostly around Baghdad and the provincial capital of Baquba, urban areas with mixed Sunni and Shiite populations, according to Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani. At least six of the victims were senior Awakening leaders, Iraqi officials said.

Violence is also shaking up the Awakening movement, many of whose members are former insurgents, in its birthplace in the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province. On Sunday, a teenage suicide bomber exploded at a gathering of Awakening leaders, killing Hadi Hussein al-Issawi, a midlevel sheik, and three other tribesmen.

Born nearly two years ago in Iraq’s western deserts, the Awakening movement has grown to an 80,000-member nationwide force, four-fifths of whose members are Sunnis. American military officials credit that force, along with the surge in United States troops, the Mahdi Army’s self-imposed cease-fire and an increase in Iraqi security forces, for a precipitous drop in civilian and military fatalities since July.

But the recent onslaught is jeopardizing that relative security and raising the prospect that the groups’ members might disperse, with many rejoining the insurgency, American officials said.

“There’s a recognition that sustained attacks cannot continue,” said a United States official who was not authorized to speak publicly. “We’ve got to break that.” The official said that American military and intelligence officials were taking the threat to the Awakening movement “very seriously.”

American and Iraqi officials blame Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia for most of the killings, which spiked after the Dec. 29 release of an audio recording in which Osama bin Laden called the volunteer tribesmen “traitors” and “infidels.” While the organization is overwhelmingly Iraqi and Sunni, American military officials say it has foreign leadership, though its links with Mr. bin Laden himself are unclear.

Officials say that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has a two-pronged strategy: directing strikes against Awakening members to intimidate and punish them for cooperating with the Americans, and infiltrating the groups to glean intelligence and discredit the movement in the eyes of an already wary Shiite-led government. “Al Qaeda is trying to assassinate all the Awakening members that support the government, but I believe that criminal militias are also doing this,” Mr. Bolani said during a recent interview in Taji.

Both Sunni and Shiite officials in Baghdad blame two government-linked Shiite paramilitary forces for some of the attacks: the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization. Sunni officials charge that militia leaders are involved, while Shiite officials believe that the attackers are renegade members of the groups. Both militias have close ties to Iran and have been implicated in death-squad operations against Sunni Arabs, although the Mahdi militia’s leaders have publicly told their members to abide by a cease-fire.

Citizen guardsmen and Iraqi intelligence officials say they have also captured Iranians with hit lists and orders to attack Awakening members. American military officials say they suspect that Iran’s paramilitary force, Al Quds, is directing the Shiite militias’ attacks against the Awakening movement. But other than finding Iranian-made weapons, which are sometimes used by Shiite militia fighters, American military officials offered no evidence that Iranians were participating in direct attacks. “Right now, the Concerned Local Citizens groups are being heavily targeted by Al Qaeda,” said Brig. Gen. Mark McDonald, who is working with the volunteers. “They’re also being targeted by some Shiite extremist groups.”

Killings of guardsmen are mounting even as Awakening members are becoming increasingly frustrated with the Iraqi government, which has yet to fulfill its promise to integrate 20 percent of the volunteers into the Ministries of Interior and Defense and give nonsecurity jobs to the rest — a process that American officials say could take until the end of the year.

“If I give you a gun and tell you to stand at a checkpoint but I don’t give you support, how long will you stay?” asked Khadum Abu Aya, one of the Awakening leaders in Adhamiya, a neighborhood in northwest Baghdad that was once dominated by Sunni insurgents.

Officials in Baghdad who support the movement worry that if attacks on the tribal forces continue without faster progress by the Iraqi government, Awakening members could begin to fall away, harden into antigovernment militias or even rejoin the Sunni Arab insurgency.

They are worried about losing men like Omar Abbas, 23, one of the thousands of Awakening foot soldiers who expose themselves to danger every day at checkpoints throughout the country. American and Iraqi officials agree that Al Qaeda is the major threat, followed by the Shiite militias.

But many Awakening members like Mr. Abbas turn that hierarchy of risk upside down, singling out the Shiite militias.

“Badr is the worst threat,” he said, referring to the military arm of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a leading Shiite political party. The next greatest threat, he said, is the Mahdi Army, the armed wing of the political movement of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Both militias have deep influence in Iraq’s security forces.

Despite their opposition to Al Qaeda, Mr. Abbas says, most Awakening members feel even more alienated from the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. “Fifty percent of Al Qaeda in Adhamiya has joined the Awakening,” he pointed out.

For months, threats ricocheted around Col. Riyadh al-Samarrai, the leader of the Awakening council in Adhamiya. Spray-painted messages appeared on walls near Adhamiya checkpoints: “Awakening is an obstacle to jihad” or “Death to you.”

Threatening calls to his cellphone became routine. And his son was accosted at a barbershop by a man who put a gun to his head and said, “Tell your father we’re going to kill him.”

Then on Jan. 7, they did. A man walked into a guarded religious compound, greeted Colonel Samarrai with the easy familiarity of a friend and detonated a bomb, killing himself and the Awakening leader.

Adhamiya guardsmen said that in recent weeks at least 25 Awakening members had been killed in the Baghdad districts of Shaab and Yarmouk.

Among the victims was Ismael Abbas, a Shiite tribal leader in Shaab, who was shot to death outside his home this month. Eight of Mr. Abbas’s men were abducted the next day. Awakening members blame Mahdi Army fighters.

But Sheik Hassan al-Mayahi, a Sadrist cleric in Shaab, denied that anyone loyal to Mr. Sadr would flout his cease-fire order. He blamed Sunni militants for the violence, but warned that Sadrists took a dim view of the Awakening groups in Shaab, which remained a Mahdi Army stronghold.

“Why do we need an Awakening Council in Shaab if the neighborhood is safe and people are satisfied?” he said, describing the guardsmen as “masked men carrying weapons.”

“We can’t distinguish them from the insurgents,” he said.

Despite losing ground in Baghdad, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia continues to recruit, propagandize and attack — often secretly, Iraqi and American officials say.

Across the Tigris River at the National Police barracks in the predominantly Shiite district of Kadhimiya, police officers questioned a young insurgent propagandist named Ali Taleb Jassim Mohammed. He stood before his interrogators’ desk wearing stylish denim pants, a leather jacket, handcuffs and a blindfold. The police had seized him two days earlier at a checkpoint in possession of a stack of threatening pamphlets. He showed no signs of mistreatment.

Mr. Mohammed told his questioners that operatives for Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia approached him two months ago while he was working for the Awakening movement in the Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliya. The operatives threatened to kill him if he did not leave the citizen guard and join their group, he said.

“They told me to do killings and plant I.E.D.’s,” or improvised explosive devices, against Shiite militiamen and Awakening members, he told his interrogators. “I refused and later they gave me these leaflets and told me to hand them out in Yarmouk.”

The police also displayed a handwritten counterintelligence manual that was found with another man detained at headquarters. It was disguised as a child’s geography notebook, a sticker of Sylvester and Tweety Bird affixed to the cover.

“What are our most important secrets?” read one passage on resisting interrogations. “The members of the organization. The location of their homes. Hide phone numbers, names, addresses and countries they are from.

“How is information compromised? By failing to do your job well. Confiding in stupid people. Bribery. People who talk too much. Confessions under torture. Electronic listening devices. Infiltration by spies.”

An Iraqi intelligence official said, “Our battle in Iraq has become an intelligence battle.” The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the nature of his job, added, “Half of the Awakening movement is infiltrated by Al Qaeda.”

The official said that the most dangerous threat, however, was posed by the Mahdi and Badr militias who, he claimed, were working with Iran to undermine the Awakening movement.

“Two weeks ago, we captured one Iraqi and two Iranians meeting in a house in Baghdad,” he said. “They are hitting the Sunni councils, because the Shiites think that they will form a Sunni militia that will be a force to hit them hard. When we capture these Shiite militiamen, they tell us they have orders from Iran.”

He warned that if Awakening groups were provoked into retaliatory attacks against government-linked Shiite militias, the results could be catastrophic.

In Diyala Province, a violently troubled area of Sunnis and Shiites north of Baghdad, attacks against citizen guardsmen have been aggravated by some of the worst sectarian conflict in the nation. Qasim al-Jafari, a Shiite tribal council leader, said dozens of Awakening members in Diyala had been killed in the last month, mostly by fighters for Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

Iraqi police officials in Diyala say that since June more than 200 Awakening members have been killed and more than 500 wounded. The Diyala tribes, organized about a year after the Anbar movement, are relative newcomers; Mr. Jafari’s force, for example, is still seeking certification from the central government.

Compared with neighborhood groups in Baghdad, some of Diyala’s largest Awakening groups are linked more by tribe than by geography or sect — Mr. Jafari said his volunteers were evenly divided between Shiites and Sunnis. In contrast to community-based volunteer squads, their tribal forces thwart terrorist infiltrators more effectively because relatives vouch for one another.

Despite their advantages, many Diyala tribes are being overwhelmed by the scale of violence in the province, parts of which remain a haven for Sunni insurgents. Accounts of killings of volunteers in Diyala resemble Baghdad’s “intelligence war” less than they do conventional warfare.

Sheik Jafari said that 13 tribesmen were killed during one recent five-hour gun battle. Fighters for Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia are also blamed for the assassinations of several high-ranking sheiks in the province, including two tribal chiefs: Faiz Lafta al-Obeidi and Abu Sadjat, who was killed when a suicide bomber leapt onto his car.

While the attacks are taking a toll on Awakening members, they are causing even more damage to the delicate relationships between former insurgents and the government.

In Fadhil, the Awakening leader, Khalid al-Qaisi, said he had little hope that Iraqi politicians would support the movement and offered this opinion of Baghdad’s Shiite-led elite: “The garbage in Fadhil is better than the Iraqi government.”

Reporting was contributed by Ahmad Fadam, Karim Hilmi, Mudhafer al-Husaini, Qais Mizher, Wisam A. Habeeb and Abeer Mohammed from Baghdad, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Baquba.

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