The role of Awakening councils

Programme of Sunni militias was a key factor in Iraq’s improved security, but also empowered dubious local strongmen.

Sunni Awakening checkpoint

The Sons of Iraq (SoI) – a coalition of Sunni armed groups that sprang up to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in late 2005 and 2006 – was a key development for Iraq’s security, and the leaked documents reflect their importance.

Dozens of reports describe SoI “engagements”, when US units met with their leaders. These meetings sometimes yielded usable information: A June 2005 engagement, for example, led to a raid on an alleged improvised explosive device workshop in Tikrit.

The SoI went on to establish checkpoints and patrols in a number of cities and towns, a ground-level presence that many analysts credit with helping to improve security. Beginning in 2008, US forces began adding a new line of data to their reports – “nearest SoI checkpoint” – an indication of how widespread their presence was.

And an increasing number of reports in 2007 and 2008 describe AQI assassination attempts against SoI members – an indication of how threatening their presence was for the AQI.

Also known as Awakening Councils, the Sons of Iraq won extensive praise in the United States, where some officials and many commentators now speak favourably of trying to “export” the Awakening strategy to Afghanistan.

But while the leaked documents demonstrate the important role the Sons of Iraq played in improving Iraqi security, they also reveal the unpredictable results that come when the US meddles with complicated local power structures.

Exaggerating their own influence

The “Awakening programme” often empowered people of questionable character, to say the least.

Playing both sides

“Salim was a low level SoI leader who used his SoI affiliation to conceal insurgent activities. Salim is widely known to have been involved in numerous kidnappings, murders, and attacks against ISF and CF.”

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In the documents, militia leaders are routinely accused of exploiting their positions for personal gain, taking advantage of their quasi-official status to stockpile weapons, extort money and have their rivals arrested. At least one of them, a Sons of Iraq leader from near Tikrit in Salah al-Din province, was accused of using his position as a shield against charges of sexual assault.

[REDACTED] has had multiple reports starting from when Bulldog first arrived into the AO. He is said to be responsible for the murder of innocent civilians, conducting insurgent activities under the guise of a SoI leader, extortion, and rape.

In April 2008, a Sons of Iraq leader reportedly placed an IED on a main road in Salah al-Din province; the bomb exploded, causing minor damage to a US army MRAP. US intelligence officials concluded that the Awakening leader probably planted the bomb, and several others, because he was denied a contract to secure the road.

Not all of the renegade Awakening leaders were motivated by money: A “low level” SoI leader captured in May 2009 was accused of “using his SoI affiliation to conceal insurgent activities”, including kidnappings and murders.

Other groups simply tried to exaggerate their own importance in a bid to continue receiving funds and prestige from the government. In May 2008, for example, a Sons of Iraq group in Baghdad turned in a small cache of mortars. A US intelligence assessment concluded that the militia planted the cache itself.

This UXO is most likely an event created by the SoI to make the CF believe that they still [sic] active in the area. Due to the decrease of the enemy activity within OE Warrior the SoI will continue with their activities that consist of emplacing caches and UXO IOT look like they are essential for the stability and security of the muhallas. We can expect more caches turned in by the SoI in the near future.

A similar report came in early June, when an Awakening leader reported a magnetic IED hidden underneath his car, one of several such incidents in Baghdad in the summer of 2008. “Usually these are emplaced by SoI members intending to display their own importance to CF,” the US army concluded.

“Disillusionment amongst the SoI”

Many of the more recent reports, those from late 2008 and 2009, also showcase the ongoing tension between the Iraqi government and the remnants of the Awakening groups.

Reading the Documents

  • Glossary: Military jargon
  • Editor’s note: About the documents

The Iraqi government periodically arrested leaders of Awakening militias; the arrest of Adil al-Mashhadani, the former head of the militia in Fadhil (and currently awaiting execution in an Iraqi jail), is perhaps the best-known.

The leaked documents reveal that the Iraqi government detained at least six Awakening leaders on what seem to be very thin charges, like the top two officials in Buhritz, near Baquba.

The detainment of [REDACTED] will have detrimental effects on the transition of SoI to GOI control. The detainment of Abu Ali last month, which was the number 2 SoI in Buhritz, caused major disruptions as the SoI began to lose faith in their CF partners. Now that those relationships have been rebuilt, this arrest of the number 1 SoI in Buhritz will likely cause disillusionment amongst the SoI with more individuals losing faith that they will have a fair opportunity to transition and participate in upcoming elections.

This uneasy relationship continues to this day: The Washington Post reported last month that hundreds of police officers – formerly members of an Awakening militia – would be stripped of their ranks, a plan (since scrapped) that prompted allegations of sectarianism from Ahmed Abu Risha, the head of the Awakening movement.

A similar decision in Diyala in June – the defence ministry refused to renew weapons permits for thousands of Awakening fighters – caused the militia to threaten an end to co-operation with the government.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq has also attempted to exploit the tenuous financial position of many SoI members, according to the reports. The Iraqi government was supposed to find government jobs for all of the roughly 90,000 members of the Awakening militias. Exact numbers are hard to find. But the most recent estimates suggest that 52,000 fighters are still waiting for employment.

AQI has sought to exploit the continued unemployment of many SoI members, as mentioned in one April 2009 report: US forces received a report of men in black ski masks “handing out literature stating that the SOI and IP need to disband immediately or else.”

With SoI in a partially bewildered state, due to their insufficient support by the GOI, AQI views this as a chance to exploit the financial straits of SoI members, giving them a chance for financial stability by joining AQI in their ongoing fight with CF.

Again, the report presages a present-day problem: The New York Times reported last week that a small number of Awakening members, frustrated with the government’s inaction, seem to have rejoined AQI.

The conflict
The politics
The human cost
Source: Al Jazeera