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Iraq Sunni militias pinched by jihadis, corruption

Friday - 7/25/2014, 1:22pm  ET

FILE - In this Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009 file photo, Iraqi men fire into the air during a funeral procession for of Jamal al-Baz a member of the Awakening council of Azamiyah, a Sunni group that revolted against al-Qaida, was shot dead by unknown gunmen Baghdad, Iraq. Over the past month, militants led by the extremist Islamic State group overpowered the military and the Sahwa, seizing control of most of the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq. The jihadis have systematically killed dozens of former Sahwa leaders, forced others to flee and recruited the remaining foot soldiers through intimidation. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)

RYAN LUCAS
Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Wisam al-Hardan's cellphone rang late into the night. He let it ring on and on. He couldn't bear to answer.

Al-Hardan, a leader in the Sunni tribal militias that allied with the U.S. to help turn the tide against al-Qaida in Iraq, knew what the Sunni fighters on the other end of the line wanted: weapons to fight the Islamic extremists rampaging across their lands. Al-Hardan also knew he had nothing to offer them.

"I don't want to remember these hours," he said. "Very painful hours."

The various threads that came together to leave al-Hardan sitting powerless in his Baghdad home wind back through the years of broken promises and failed policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki toward the Sunni militiamen popularly known as Sahwa, or Awakening Councils. Al-Hardan and former Sahwa members say that under the Shiite prime minister, the militias were neglected, corruption flourished -- and though millions of dollars were appropriated, militiamen were still left poorly armed and ill equipped.

The results speak for themselves. Over the past month, militants led by the extremist Islamic State group overpowered the military and the Sahwa, seizing control of most of the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq. The jihadis have systematically killed dozens of former Sahwa leaders, forced others to flee and recruited the remaining foot soldiers through intimidation.

The checkered dealings with the Sahwa in recent years drained the Sunni community of any trust in the Baghdad government and particularly in al-Maliki, who is seeking a third consecutive four-year term. That presents an immense challenge to inducing the Sunni tribal fighters who turned on al-Qaida once before to risk everything again -- even if they wanted to -- and side with the government against the new insurgency.

"We have zero trust in al-Maliki, who will continue to deceive us and hurt us if he is to win a third term. If al-Maliki stays in power, then nobody will be willing to return to Sahwa," said Abu Sahir, a former Sahwa leader in Khan Bani Saad in Diyala province who became a fighter in the anti-government Mujahedeen Army militant group.

"But if al-Maliki is to be replaced by another person who would do something to stop the corruption and the humiliation, we might reconsider our position."

It's impossible to gauge how widespread that sentiment is. Other former Sahwa fighters who have joined the militants say they have severed ties with Baghdad for good. The internal dynamics of the insurgency -- such as sometimes divergent interests between the Islamic State group and other Sunnis who have joined its fight -- are also unpredictable and could affect the decisions of thousands of individual fighters on whether to stick with the movement.

But the bitterness Sunnis feel about their treatment under al-Maliki is clear.

The Sahwa emerged in late 2006 when Sunni tribesmen who had previously battled the U.S. military decided to team up with the Americans instead to fight al-Qaida in Iraq after becoming alienated by the group's brutality. The Americans provided the weapons, training and money -- at least $370 million over a three-year period -- and the Sunni fighters helped the U.S. troops root out much of the extremist group.

In 2009, the U.S. handed responsibility for the Sahwa over to Iraq's Shiite-led government, which promised Washington it would fold the some 100,000 Sunni fighters into the security forces or other government jobs. Around 23,000 former Sahwa fighters were eventually put on the government payroll, according to Ahmed Abu Risha, a leading Sahwa figure.

But many more were not.

Al-Maliki -- a Shiite wary of an armed Sunni force -- withheld political and financial support for years, happy to watch the Sahwa wither. That contributed to a sense of neglect among many former Sahwa fighters since the 2011 U.S. military withdrawal.

As the Sahwa waned, al-Qaida in Iraq slowly regained its footing. It pushed aggressively into Syria's civil war in early 2013 and rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Its success in Syria helped fuel its resurgence on the Iraqi side of the border, leading to a sharp deterioration of security in Iraq.

In February of 2013, al-Maliki's government hit upon the idea of resurrecting the Sahwa. In part the aim was to rally Sunni militiamen against the extremists. But there were also political considerations: With parliamentary elections a year off, the prime minister might be able to garner a bit of goodwill by putting Sunnis on the government payroll.

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