'Picnics are in now al-Qaeda's out'

Iraqis return to lakeside beauty spot but fears persist that al-Qaeda will return.

    Al-Tharthar road was dubbed 'death road' by locals after it became an al-Qaeda stronghold

    Hamid Salih, a fisherman on al-Tharthar Lake, 100km north of Baghdad, remembers a time when his life was threatened by al-Qaeda forces in Iraq.

    "Al-Qaeda used to oblige us to pay them half of our fishing income. The ones who did not pay would be killed and chucked into the lake," he told Al Jazeera.
    Al-Tharthar is one of Iraq's biggest lakes, with a surface area of over 2,500 sq km.

    When al-Qaeda was forced out of the Anbar province in western Iraq in early 2007, its fighters retreated to the al-Tharthar lake region.

    The road that leads to the lake rapidly became an al-Qaeda stronghold and one of Iraq's most dangerous highways.

    The chances of crossing the Tharthar road without being robbed, kidnapped or killed were extremely low; so much so that locals nicknamed it "Death Road".

    Sahwa groups emerge

    It remained that way until the al-Sahwa, or Awakening Councils, volunteered and received US backing to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq at the end of 2006.

    The groups are mainly comprised of local Sunni tribesmen living in regions that became overwhelmed by al-Qaeda fighters.

    The Councils' fighters vowed to restore stability to the country following the calamitous security vacuum created in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2003.

    In recognition of the Awakening Councils' success in driving al-Qaeda fighters out of their previous strongholds, the Iraqi government promised to offer all 92,000 of them security or administrative posts.

    To date, however, just 20 per cent  have been enrolled within the Iraqi security forces, while the remainder are still waiting to be offered jobs.

    Many suspect that the government is simply not willing to increase the number of Sunni Iraqis appointed to the security forces and civil service.

    Furthermore, government officials have accused some Awakening Council fighters of being sympathetic to al-Qaeda's mission in Iraq.

    The government's failure to deliver on its employment promise has led to fears that the Iraqi authorities will never fully recognise them as legitimate peace-keepers - risking the relative security achieved so far.

    Al-Qaeda infiltrators?

    Latoof, head of al-Tharthar Awakening council, says his men are not aligned with al-Qaeda
    Those fears have already been realised in Baghdad, which has seen a wave of clashes between government forces and Awakening fighters over the past few weeks.

    The government says the groups had been infiltrated by al-Qaeda and former Baath party supporters, something the Awakening Councils strongly deny.

    "Awakening groups are not Baathists and not al-Qaeda. We fought al-Qaeda from the beginning and anyone confirmed as being with them is our target for immediate arrest," Abu Al-Farouq, leader of an Awakening group in the Samarra province in northern Baghdad, says.

    Louay Latoof, head of the Awakening group in al-Tharthar lake area, points out that al-Qaeda could not have been kicked out of the area without fierce resistance from his fighters, demonstrating in itself, he says, that none of them are al-Qaeda loyalists.
    Awakening fighters all warn that if the government fails to formalise their positions, they will be left with no option but to withdraw their presence in the streets, thereby allowing al-Qaeda to return.
    Normalcy returns

    In the meantime, many Iraqi families are taking advantage of the fact that al-Qaeda fighters have been driven out of al-Tharthar region, and are now flocking to the lake to have barbecues, swim, and build sand castles.

    It was a very different picture just a year ago, when dead bodies were often found floating in the shallows as Awakening groups battled to force out al-Qaeda fighters.
    Al-Tharthar locals are anxious the clashes between Awakening Council fighters and government troops seen in Baghdad are not repeated here.

    They want the Awakening fighters to stay put, keep the area secure and, in doing so, allow the fishermen to continue earning a living.
    "When the Awakening groups took over this area, security and stability were restored and we are now back to our jobs," Salih, the fisherman, says.

    "Families are now coming from different parts of Iraq such as Baghdad and Tikrit ... they come here on holidays and weekends and they buy fresh fish from us."

    Whether al-Tharthar residents will continue to benefit from this hard-won relative calm is, however, entirely dependent on the government reaching some form of acceptable deal with the Awakening Council fighters.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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