The Sunni Awakening movement, also known as the Sons of Iraq program, are coalitions between tribal Sheikhs in a particular province in Iraq that unite to maintain security in their communities. The movement started among Sunni tribes in Anbar Province in 2005 to become an ad-hoc armed force across the country in less than a year.
The awakening fighters in Iraq have been credited by some analysts with reducing levels of violence in the areas in which they operate; however, the rapid growth of the groups, whose salaries were initially paid for completely by the US military, has also led to concerns about some members' insurgent pasts fighting against coalition forces and to concerns about infiltration by al-Qaeda. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has warned the US-armed 'concerned local citizens' are an armed Sunni opposition in the making, and has argued that such groups should be under the command of the Iraqi Army or police.
The Iraqi Defense Ministry has said that it plans to disband the Sunni Awakening groups so they do not become a separate military force. The Iraqi government plans to absorb approximately a quarter of the Awakening groups into security service or the military, but analysts fear what will happen to the remaining three-quarters. The US is urging the Iraqi government to rapidly integrate the fighters into the national security forces. Some experts warn there are similarities between the awakening councils and armed groups in past conflicts that were used for short-term military gains but ended up being roadblocks for state building. In 2009, some awakening groups threatened to set the streets ablaze and "start a tribal war" after not doing well in elections.
Awakening movements in Iraq are also referred to as:
- "Mercenaries" (Maliki aide, al-Qa'eda)
- U.S. Military/Government of Iraq:
- "Sahwa" militia
- "Former Sunni insurgents" - CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon
In 2005, the Abu Mahals, a tribe that smuggled across the Syrian border, was being forced out of their territory by a tribe allied with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The tribe proposed an alliance with the United States force in November 2005 and began receiving weapons and training. In September 2006, the leader of the movement, Sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, formed the Anbar Awakening Council also called "Anbar Awakening" to counter the influence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi was assassinated by a suicide bombing in September 2007. His brother, Ahmed Abu Risha, took over as leader, but so far has been unable to unite the various awakening militias.
In October 2008, the Iraqi government took over from the American military the responsibility for paying 54,000 members of the Awakening councils. Many of the Awakening fighters put little trust in the Iraqi government to help employ them. "I consider the transfer an act of betrayal by the U.S. Army," said one Awakening member in response to the transfer.
Work in Iraq
The groups are paid by the American military and the Iraqi government to lay down their arms against coalition forces, patrol neighborhoods, and to fight against other Sunni insurgents. The US military says the groups help it target Al-Qaeda in Iraq more precisely and avoid collateral damage. The Washington Post writes the awakening groups have caused al-Qaeda in Iraq to soften its tactics in an effort to regain public support.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has condemned the groups for fighting insurgents and for standing by the “filthy crusaders”. Some members of the awakening groups are former insurgents, and some awakening members have been killed by former awakening members in suicide bombings. Sheiks who work with the awakening movement also frequently face killings which originate from outside the movement.
The Government Accountability Office, the audit arm of the United States Congress, has warned that the groups have still "not reconciled with the Iraqi government" and that the potential remains for further infiltration by insurgents.
The Iraqi Defense Ministry has said that it plans to disband the Awakening groups so they do not become a separate military force. "We completely, absolutely reject the Awakening becoming a third military organization," Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi said. Al-Obaidi said the groups also would not be allowed to have any infrastructure, such as a headquarters building, that would give them long-term legitimacy.
The Iraqi government has pledged to absorb about a quarter of the men into the Shiite dominated military and security services, and to provide vocational training to the rest of the members of the Awakening groups. The Iraqi Interior Ministry has agreed to hire about 7,000 men on temporary contracts and plans to hire an additional 3,000; however, the ministry hasn't specified the contract length or specific positions for the men to fill. Deborah D. Avant, director of international studies at the University of California-Irvine, said there are ominous similarities between the awakening councils and armed groups in past conflicts that were used for short-term military gains but ended up being roadblocks for state building.
According to Ramzy Mardini, an Iraq expert at The Jamestown Foundation, "the rise of the Awakening councils may risk reigniting the Jaysh al-Mahdi". On February 22, 2008, Muqtada al-Sadr announced that he will extend his ceasefire on his Jaysh al-Mahdi militia. But according to Mardini, the uncertainty facing the Awakening movement's status may cut that ceasefire short. Mardini suggests that if the movement's demands are not satisfied by Iraq's central government, the U.S. 'surge' strategy is at risk for failing, "even to the point of reverting back to pre-surge status". Those demands include that Awakening fighters be incorporated into Iraq's security forces, having permanent positions and payrolls.
In March 2009, the leader of the Awakening Movement in Fadhil, Baghdad, was arrested on allegations of murder, extortion and "violating the Constitution". Adel al-Mashhadani was accused of being the Fadhil leader of the banned Baath Party's military wing. His arrest sparked a two day gunbattle between Awakening members and government security forces. In November 2009 he was convicted and sentenced to death for murder and kidnapping.
Governorate elections in 2009
Several political parties formed out of the Awakening movements contested the Iraqi governorate elections, 2009. The Iraq Awakening and Independents National Alliance list won the largest number of seats in Anbar governorate.
- Al Qaeda in Iraq
- Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi
- Civil war in Iraq
- Iraq War troop surge of 2007
- 2005 in Iraq
- 2006 in Iraq
- 2007 in Iraq
- 2008 in Iraq
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- Iraq government to pay Sunni groups – Al Jazeera
- US buys 'concerned citizens' in Iraq, but at what price?
- Iraq pledges to disband Sunni volunteer militias
- Sunni fighters need political role
- International Herald Tribune: Iraq Sunni group accuses tribes of poll incitement
- Program in Iraq against al-Qaida faces uncertainty
- Iraqi neighbours rise up against al-Qa'eda
- DefenseLink: Concerned Local Citizens Vastly Improve Security in Iraq’s Diyala Province
- U.S. News and World Report: The 'Sons of Iraq' Keep the Peace
- NPR: Shiite Power Struggle Is Iraq's 'Last Battle'
- Sandstorms and suicide bombers
- CFR: The Role of the ‘Sons of Iraq’ in Improving Security
- "Iraq's Sunni sheiks join Americans to fight insurgency". SignOnSanDiego. 2007-03-25. http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/world/iraq/20070325-1237-fightingbackinanbar.html. Retrieved 2007-12-26.
- "Iraqi insurgents kill key US ally". BBC News. 2007-09-13. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6993211.stm.
- ABCNews: Iraq's Sunni's Fear Life Without U.S. Oversight
- AP: "Iraq: government takes command of Sons of Iraq"
- Shift in Tactics Aims to Revive Struggling Insurgency
- Group Claims Responsibility for Iraq Attack
- Iraq explosion kills U.S. soldiers, Sunni allies in Anbar province
- US Government Accountability Office (June 2008): Securing, Stabilizing, and Rebuilding Iraq
- Uncertainty Facing Iraq’s Awakening Movement Puts U.S. Strategy at Risk
- Sons of Iraq join Diyala offensive
- Awakening group in Baghdad battle, Al Jazeera, 2009-03-29
- Iraq sentences militia leader to death, Associated Press, 2009-11-19
- The Weekly Standard: Iraq Report: Anbar Awakening Spreads, Petraeus Connects Iran to Attacks in Iraq
- Institute for the Study of War: Backgrounder: Sons of Iraq and Awakening Forces
- Michael Totten: The Battle of Ramadi
- The Long War Journal: The Awakening, al Qaeda clash in Iraq
- CNN: Iraqi Awakening Council members kidnapped, killed
- SFGate: 10 tribal leaders aiding U.S. abducted
- Teen female bomber tricks, kills Iraqi CLC sheik
- Kilcullen, David. "Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt." Small Wars Journal. 8/29/2007.
- Ahmed, Farook. "Backgrounder #23: Sons of Iraq and Awakening Forces." Institute for the Study of War. 2/21/2008.
- ATimes: Al-Qaeda 'awakens' in Iraq