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Al-Qaeda Violence Rises as U.S. Strategy Unravels in Iraq

New America Media, News Analysis, Shane Bauer Posted: May 11, 2009

Editors Note: The Iraqi government's crackdown on the Sahwaneighborhood councils--has created an opening for Al Qaeda in Iraq, writes NAM contributor Shane Bauer. Bauer is a freelance writer based in Syria.

The U.S. militarys temporary strategy to use Sunni militias to bring stability to Iraq is starting to unravel, causing more violence than the country has seen in seven months.

Government statistics show that 355 Iraqis were killed in April, 290 of whom were civilians. Almost all of those deaths were caused by suicide bombings, and all of the attacks targeting civilians seemed to be aimed at the Shia. Eighty Iranian pilgrims were also slain.

Three of the April attacks killed more than 50 people each--a third of all attacks of this size in Iraq for all of 2008.

The steady increase in violence can be attributed in large part to the fact that the Iraqi government has been increasingly targeting the Sahwa, or Awakening Councils, often with the support of U.S. forces. As a result, many Sunni fighters credited for bringing down sectarian violence in Baghdad have been leaving their posts, making room for al Qaeda to resume its operations in the Iraqi capital.

Remember: These neighborhood militias were formed by U.S. forces in
2007, modeled on a tribal movement in Western Iraq, despite disapproval by Nouri Al Malikis government in Baghdad. Al-Maliki was uneasy about the fact that the Americans were paying $350 a month to former insurgents he would likely have to deal with long after the Americans were gone.

The militias turned out to be effective, bringing al Qaedas operations in their neighborhoods to a near halt. But many argued it was only temporary, the result of paying off the people who were creating the violence in the first place.

Sahwa leaders around Baghdad told me last February that the calm wouldnt extend farther than their fighters paychecks. When the Iraqi government took over responsibility for the Sahwas payroll last November, the government promised to incorporate 20 percent 20,000 fighters into the military and find the rest civilian jobs. Thus far, only 5,000 have been taken into the armed forces and many peoples names arent turning up on the governments monthly payroll.

Sheikh Abu Suleiman, Sahwa leader in Baghdads Dora neighborhood, warned then that if things dont change, the violence could return. It will hurt everyone, frankly, he said. Sahwa members will quit and the area will be without the Sahwa. Problems will return. I think the situation will become very detrimental.

He may have been right. A bomb on a minibus killed five civilians and wounded three in Dora on April 29. On May 6, a blast in a market frequented by Shia killed 10 and wounded 35 there.

Potentially more dangerous than the neglect of the Sahwa is the governments recent crackdown, which could be pushing the Sahwa back into confrontation with the Iraqi police and army. The arrest of Sahwa leader Adel Mashadani led to a short-lived uprising in Baghdads Al Fadl neighborhood against Iraqi and American forces last month. Security forces acknowledged that hundreds may have escaped with their weapons. Later in the month, the Sahwa leader of Abu Ghraib resigned after the arrest of his security guards. Several other arrests and clashes have taken place throughout Baghdad.

Three months ago, I sat in a small office in Baghdads Adhamiya neighborhood as a young man in plain clothes paced outside with an AK-47. He was a Sahwa member and a former leader of an insurgent group in the area. The government is trying to back us into a corner and get rid of us, he said. We still hate this government. The police are afraid to come here because they know we hate them. If they try to do away with us, and break their promises, well be back out in the street like we were before. Believe me.

Some Sahwa fighters may be starting to rejoin the insurgency (a term that refers to anti-American and anti-government fighters, not only al Qaeda extremists who target civilians), though its difficult to know for sure. What is clear is that the Sahwa are finding themselves stuck between al Qaeda they seem to be their second target after Shia civilians and a government that seems interested in getting rid of them.

Fortunately, the restraint shown by the Shia in the face of Al Qaedas violence has thus far prevented Iraq from tumbling back into another civil war. As of now, the violence remains one sided. Whether that restraint will hold is uncertain, but as the Sahwa project unravels, as it almost surely will, expect to see more Shia bodies piling up in Baghdad.

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