Two separate suicide attacks targeted al-Sahwa
this week in Baiji and Baquba [AFP]
A principal founder of the US-funded tribal "Awakening Councils", or al-Sahwa, has said that parties loyal to Iran and Syria are targeting his group.

Abu Azam rejected accusations that al-Sahwa, formally known as The Tribal Arming Programme, was aimed at undermining the Iraqi resistance.

"Regional forces like Iran and Syria target our forces because they know if our forces bring stability to Iraq, the US would turn its attention on them. And that is the last thing they want," Abu Azam said.

Earlier this week two attacks on al-Sahwa killed and injured dozens in Baiji, 80km north of Baghdad, and Baquba.

Abu Azam said that the main goal of al-Sahwa is to stem growing Iranian power in Iraq.

"Our forces have achieved peace and stability in their areas by ejecting Iranian agents," he said. 

Amir al-Musawi, a former advisor to Iran's ministry of defence, dismissed the accusations against his country.

"Iran expects such accusations at this stage. Next, when bombs go off in Shia areas, it will be p
rojected as al-Sahwa taking revenge. This is the US gameplan. They do not want stability for Iraq for their own vested interests," he said.

Struggle for control

The al-Sahwa units came into prominence at the end of 2005 when they were formed by local tribes to fight alleged al-Qaeda members and affiliated groups, and challenge them for control of western and northern Iraq.

Following a series of successful al-Sahwa campaigns to control Ramadi, capital of al-Anbar province in western Iraq, the US military and tribal leaders entered into negotiations over funding, arming and training of the militias.

Each member of the al-Sahwa militias now receives a $300 monthly wage.

"We do not think the Iranian-supported Shia political parties want to split Iraq. It is not in their interest to see the country parcelled out. Iraq's break up would have serious implications on Iran's national security"

Abu Azam, a principal founder of the US-backed al-Sahwa

There are divisions among Sunni leaders over the militias and fears that they could form the nucleus of a separate Sunni army that could perpetuate the territorial break up of the country.

Critics point to comments made by Shia leaders who want a separate region for the sect in the south and Kurdish leaders who have set their eyes on an autonomous region in the north.

Fadil al-Rubei, an Iraqi historian, says al-Sahwa might become the de facto army of the intended Sunni region in central Iraq, given the fact that the majority of Iraq's army and police are Shia and the Kurds have their own Peshmerga forces. 

Al-Rubei said: "I believe the US occupation has started the third phase of its strategy in Iraq. The first was to pit one sect against the other when it brought the Shia religious parties to power at the expense of the Sunnis and others."

"The second phase was to aid the losing sect [Sunnis], to annoy yesterday's winner and sow discord among sects. This was demonstrated by major modifications to the de-Baathification law and the re-employment of many former second rung [Baath] officials."

"The third phase is to strengthen the tribe against the sect. The creation of tribal militia has split the Sunnis. The Iraqi Islamic Party of Tariq al-Hashimi, Iraq's Sunni vice-president, backs the militias, while the Association of Muslim scholars, the highest Sunni authority in Iraq, is against them [the militias].

But Abu Azam dismissed fears over the breaking up of Iraq.

He said: "We do not think the Iranian-supported Shia political parties want to split Iraq. It is not in their interest to see the country parcelled out.

"Iraq's break up would have serious implications on Iran's national security. If a Shia Arab region is created, it would strengthen Arabs in Iran's al-Ahwaz region who have been struggling for their independence for decades.

"In the north, the links between Iraqi and Iranian Kurds is no secret; we do not think Iran would tolerate a strong Kurdish entity."

Sunni-Sunni rift

Sunni political parties, including Al-Tawafuq (the Iraq Accord Front) - the biggest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament with 44 of the 275 seats, support the al-Sahwa militias but with reservations.

Dhafir al-Ani, an MP from al-Tawafuq, said: "We are in support of these forces because they help to bring balance to the Iraqi political scene, which has been somehow monopolised by limited players belonging to one ideology.

Al-Sahwa militias have been accused of
weakening the Iraqi resistance
"However, we have fears that the al-Sahwa issue could develop into a Sunni-Sunni clash, as some major Sunni parties and authorities have serious reservations about its role."

Many are suspicious of al-Sahwa because of its US connection. The militias have been accused of weakening the Iraqi resistance by targeting and arresting its fighters.

But Abu Azam says there is no contention between al-Sahwa and resistance groups.

"I would like to emphasise that al-Sahwa is not a US organisation as some would like to describe it. Many resistance factions joined al-Sahwa and they are working to enforce the rule of law, Iraqi law not anyone else's law.

"I led a one year of tough negotiations with the Americans to convince them of the al-Sahwa project. They have always rejected the idea. They preferred bringing pressure on the Iraqi government to enroll more Sunnis into the army and police."

Khalid al-Maeini, a senior researcher at the Iraqi Centre for Strategic Studies in Jordan, said: "The year 2008 will witness deep divisions among Iraqis, which will weaken the central government, [creating an] ideal environment for the breaking up of a country or the establishment of semi-independent regions."

"Sunnis are already split over al-Sahwa and the Shia alliance will see fatal divisions over sharing the billions of dollars Shia pilgrims bring to the shrines in Najaf and Karbala every year, apart from controlling Basra's wealth and power."

Source: Al Jazeera