Muhannad Mahmoud can’t find a place in the new Iraq.The American military, which hired him and more than 80,000 other Sunni fighters to take on al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents, just left. But the insurgents certainly have not.The Iraqi government, increasingly dominated by Shiite powers, is leery about hiring the fighters into security forces. And even if Mahmoud did land such a job, some of his fellow Sunnis are so distrustful of the new government that they would label him a traitor.
As a member of the “Sons of Iraq,” widely credited with helping the United States restore stability to Iraq several years ago, Mahmoud and his brethren feel that they have been pushed to the side — even as insurgents come after them daily.“I am ready to fight them again,” Mahmoud said recently, taking a break from his job repairing power lines that run from a neighborhood generator to homes and businesses.
For years, the Iraqi government has struggled to carry out a U.S.-brokered plan to find military or police jobs for the Sunni fighters — some of them genuine heroes, some of them former insurgents themselves. How the government treats them over the coming months represents a chance at reconciliation or a threat to widen the country’s sectarian divide, especially if Sons of Iraq members strike out on their own, or even worse, defect to groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.
These days, even in a country seeing increased violence, the Sons of Iraq stand out — the target of daily assassination attempts. Throughout Iraq, they are known more broadly by the term “Sahwa.” In the past week,four Iraqis connected to Sahwa were assassinated on a single day.
Two died on Tuesday when simultaneous blasts erupted outside their homes outside Fallujah. Another, Hassan Abdulla al-Timimi, who had risen to the rank of captain in the Abu Ghraib police force, was gunned down by insurgents who stormed into his house and also killed his wife and three children, said Col. Sabah Al-Falahi, a police commander in the area. A fourth, Mullah Nadem Jabouri, was shot by assassins armed with silencer pistols, according to security officials.
Jabouri was a former member of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but renounced the group in 2007 and persuaded many Sunnis to fight against the terrorist organization. For the past two years, he had been living in Jordan, but was visiting Iraq and speaking with Sahwa and Sunni leaders.
“They’re the most targeted and vulnerable people in Iraq,” said Sterling Jensen, who studies the movement at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies and served as an Arabic interpreter for U.S. commanders here during the war.“We’re wanted by all the terrorists,” said Mustaf Shibib al-Jubouri, a Sons of Iraq leader who has survived four car bombings and estimates that a half-dozen Sons members are attacked daily around the country.
The Sons of Iraq are certainly well known in Adhamiyah, a sprawling Sunni area in northern Baghdad where Mahmoud spends his days repairing the generator power lines. Back in 2007, as al-Qaeda in Iraq took over the area, Mahmoud learned that U.S. commanders were rounding up fighters and paying about $300 a month. The effort, as it turned out, was a key element of the U.S. strategy to turn the tide of the war.
Mahmoud fought in major battles against insurgents, and helped patrol Adhamiyah’s streets. Reports of the Sons of Iraq spread to neighborhood residents who’d fled — people like Zeiad Farouq Naaoush, who sought safety in Egypt after being kidnapped and released by his captors only after they got a ransom.
“My family told me the Sahwa is in the streets, and it’s better,” said Naaoush, who returned in 2008.By then, the Sons of Iraq ranks had swelled to 100,000, including a small contingent of Shiite fighters. The United States transferred full management of them to the Iraq government in 2009 with the understanding that 20 percent of the fighters would be given jobs in Iraq’s police or military units. And the government would try to find the others civil service or private-sector jobs.
But the process has moved slowly. Sons of Iraq members say they are denied jobs because they are Sunni even as the Iraqi government welcomes one-time Shiite insurgents into jobs. The government says it is committed to hiring Sons of Iraq members, but education levels prevent some of them from getting security jobs.“They are not being dealt with on this sectarian basis,” said Ali Hadi al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Zuhair al-Chalabi, head of Iraq’s National Reconciliation Committee, said security forces in Baghdad have hired 9,000 Sons of Iraq members. In other provinces, Chalabi said, he would like to see police forces hire 7,600.Further clouding the Sons of Iraq’s future are recent comments from Maliki’s office. An aide to him for reconciliation affairs, Amir al-Khuzai, told the Sharqiya news channel that security forces no longer want to hire Sons of Iraq members. Khuzai couldn’t be reached for comment.
Analysts say that as Maliki consolidates control, he is getting pressure from Shiite allies to halt the hiring of Sons of Iraq members into police or military forces. “He won’t do anything significant to help the Sons of Iraq,” said Jensen, the former U.S. military interpreter who has spoken to many Sons of Iraq members. He and others worry that the Iraqi government is pushing the Sons away at the very time they are needed to fight what appears to be a resurgent al-Qaeda in Iraq.
As more of them get picked off, or feel abandoned by the government, they may be more willing to stake loyalties elsewhere. Last week, , Sons of Iraq leader Ahmmad Abu Risha’s attention was focused on rumors that the Shiite-dominated Karbala province would try to annex part of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province. “We, the Sahwa forces, are ready to fight against these schemes that stem from Iran,” he said.
Mahmoud, the generator line electrician, said he still will try to get a police job, even though he said his experience had been bad thus far. Mahmoud said a police agency hired him and other Sons of Iraq fighters to be night guards in their Adhamiyah neighborhood. The men received a month of training, but were let go with no pay, he said.Like other Sons of Iraq members, he felt safer when U.S. troops — their original sponsors — were in the country. “I want the Americans to be back,” he said.
By Dan Morse, The Washington Post