Story Publication logo September 18, 2008

New Model Army


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"Iraq: Death of a Nation" examines how the U.S. invasion and occupation created a multi-faceted...

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The al Aimmah bridge has been closed since 2005, and the Iraqi army guards both sides to prevent anyone crossing from Khadamiya to Adhamiya – two Baghdad neighbourhoods that are essentially polar opposites. Khadamiya is named for the shrine of the seventh Shiite imam, Musa al Khadim, while Adhamiya is home to the Abu Hanifa Mosque, where the 8th century Sunni Imam Abu Hanifa an Numan is buried. On August 31, 2005, nearly a thousand Shiite pilgrims headed to Khadamiya were killed in a panicked stampede on the bridge after shouts went out warning of an imminent suicide attack. Most of the dead were crushed or suffocated, but hundreds drowned after falling into the Tigris when the railing broke.

The residents of the predominantly Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiya, formerly home to many of Saddam Hussein's officers, are more likely to be secular nationalists than Islamists, and it has been a centre of resistance activity since the American invasion. When I tried to visit in 2007, it proved impossible: the neighbourhood was controlled by Sunni militiamen hostile to the US military and Iraqi government. In 2006, I interviewed a professor in Adhamiya, who called afterwards to tell me that militiamen had come to her door minutes after my departure to find out who I was.

Adhamiya was one of many places I visited during the month I spent in Iraq this summer that were being policed by a local Sahwa, or Awakening, militia – the product of a marriage of convenience between Sunni forces and American troops.

Farouq al Obaidy, who commands one of the Sahwa groups in Adhamiya, tells me reverently that the bridge to Khadamiya was the last place Saddam Hussein appeared in Baghdad, in 2003. "In April 9th, Saddam appeared here," he says, as we stand atop a building across from the mosque. "You see that spot, near those trees? He appeared by those trees. Then he crossed to Khadamiya. The last city that fell during the occupation was Adhamiya. And it didn't fall; it was occupied."

Like many Iraqis, Obaidy views military resistance to the occupation as legitimate. His men have set up their own checkpoint leading to the bridge – 10 metres in front of the one manned by the Iraqi army. A few weeks after our conversation, tensions between the two forces came to a head when it was rumoured that the army planned to arrest another Sahwa commander on charges of attacking American and Iraqi troops. After Awakening leaders threatened violent retribution if their man was arrested, the charges were quickly dropped.

Many Sahwa men are former members of the anti-American resistance, and Obaidy readily admits it. Some of them shout "No America!" and "America bad!" at me – before, during and after my talk with their leader. His group rejects the "Awakening" moniker; in Adhamiya, they call themselves the White Revolutionaries. "We do not call ourselves The Awakening," he tells me. "We were never asleep."

Iraq's current ruling parties, Obeidy says, were "formed in Iran, let's be honest! They went to Iran when they were very young. They came back old. They don't have compassion for this country or their people. And their loyalty is to Iran. This is the truth that needs to get out. We want a leader to be an Iraqi from this land. We don't want a 'leader' to be a chess pawn, placed and removed by others."

The Sunnis, it is now clear, have lost the battle for Baghdad, overwhelmed by government forces and outnumbered by the Shiite militias allied to them. Shiites now control 75 per cent of the capital and would likely have driven out all of the Sunni had it not been for the Awakening.

The US now funds approximately 100,000 Sahwa militiamen in north and central Iraq, but the Iraqi government is supposed to assume these costs beginning on October 1, absorbing 20,000 into the police or the army. The government has indicated it intends to disarm most of the fighters and offer them jobs in the security forces or in government offices. But in the run-up to this merger the government has launched military operations against some Sahwa groups and has accused local leaders of complicity in war crimes – specifically the sectarian cleansing that took place between 2004 and 2006.

The Awakening groups are caught between their Shiite rivals and the radical Sunnis who vow revenge on those who have co-operated with the Americans; Sahwa leaders fear they will be easy targets if they disarm.

Twelve days later, after I returned to the US, Obaidy and 14 others were killed by a suicide bomber outside the Abu Hanifa mosque. An al Qa'eda-affiliated group was reported to have taken credit for the attack.

Driving through Baghdad now requires the negotiation of various walls and checkpoints, policed by any – or all – of three different forces: a local militia, the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army, all of them united by their distrust for the others.

In Sleikh, a neighbourhood across the motorway from Adhamiya, Sunni and Shiite militias and government security forces battled for control – a deadlock that was broken when the Americans sided with the Sunnis in 2007. The tacit approval – or more lately, direct support – of American forces has often decided who controls Baghdad's neighbourhoods.

"Each guard here from the 'Sons of Iraq' gets paid $300 a month," says Abu Feras, the commander of a US-allied Sunni militia in Sleikh, using yet another name for the Sahwa groups. Soldiers in the Iraqi army, he complains, "get $700 a month," though he contends that "the Sons of Iraq are doing more than the Iraqi army to secure the area."

Like many in the area, Abu Feras complains that Iraqi special forces – allied with militias loyal to Shiite political parties – carried out raids and conducted arrests in Adhamiya beginning in 2004 in an attempt to crack down on the Sunni resistance. By 2005, the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia nominally loyal to Muqtada al Sadr, was also active in the neighbourhood, fighting with Sunni militias it claimed were targeting Shiite civilians.

In some places, the Sahwa have served as a sort of job rehabilitation program for former members of Saddam's military and security forces, who were purged in the de-Baathification that followed the invasion. Abu Feras served for 11 years as a member of Saddam's mukhabarat. The US military unit he is working with has only been here three months. When the Awakening movement began, US soldiers were blithe about the idea they were battling their former enemies and making alliances with war criminals. ("You have to start somewhere," one soldier told me.) When asked about the presence of former guerrillas in the Sahwa in Sleikh, a US lieutenant who said he speaks daily with Abu Feras made only vague reference to the "vetting" process that had taken place before he arrived. If he had any concern for the recent history of the city, he took pains to avoid getting in to it.

The fact that the Sahwa movement prevented the complete cleansing of Sunnis from Baghdad has made them popular, and they are trying to turn that popularity into political gains, making plans to stand in Iraq's next round of elections, which will likely be held sometime early next year. They've formed a political party, the Sahwa Conference, that intends to challenge the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the only Sunni parties to stand in the previous election, and the one that has garnered the most Sunni support.

The Sahwa have also endeared themselves to the Sunni community by lobbying for the release of Iraqis held in American detention camps. They have succeeded in securing the release of more than a thousand prisoners, and the Americans have in some cases been happy to help build the reputation of their new allies: American soldiers call it the "make a sheikh" programme. Sahwa commanders are sometimes consulted on prisoner releases, since the Americans have no desire to release enemies of the men with whom they are now allied.

In Fallujah, once a potent symbol of resistance against the occupation, I met Sheikh Afan al Issawi, who has committed his tribe to Sahwa. His diwan is decorated with pictures of himself shaking hands with American and Iraqi politicians, including President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki. He hasn't yet hung his picture of Barack Obama. But Afan professes little interest in American politics.

"The policy is the same," he sighs. "He is an American."

When I arrive at Afan's house, he is in the middle of a meeting with a US Marine colonel; the Marines are preparing to turn control of Fallujah over to the Iraqi government. The character of the meeting is telling. At one point, the colonel starts describing the rift between the Sahwa and the Iraqi Islamic Party, as if Afan is a child. He speaks of "commitment" to Iraq, not taking sides. When Afan presses the colonel (in nearly accentless English) for support and concessions, such as keeping one of Afan's enemies in prison, that he is not authorized or unwilling to give, the marine keeps talking past him, moving back to broad generalisations. It is possible he doesn't want to say too much in front of the press. At one point in the meeting, the captain and Afan leave the room to deal with more sensitive issues. The following day, I observe Afan paying his men from a vacuum-packed stack of $100 bills.

After the meeting, Afan drives us around Falluja. The city still bears the scars of fighting and remains hostile toward the Iraqi government, which made promises to compensate residents in 2004 – but backed off when Ibrahim Jaffari, the leader of the Dawa Party, part of an alliance of religious Shiite groups, took control of the government in 2005.

The US army has finally discovered the deal-making system that has been used to manage Iraq since the time of British colonial rule. But they don't seem to understand that their new allies have not entirely rejected the ideology of the resistance – and that they're being dragged into a war between Iraqi factions. Sectarian tensions may be largely absent from the streets of Fallujah, but even there the Sahwa and the Iraqi Islamic Party appear to be facing off in a campaign of assassinations in anticipation of the elections.

Sheikh Afan was so accommodating and frank during our tour of Falluja that I asked him a favour I doubted he could fulfill: Could he help me interview someone affiliated with al Qa'eda?

Afan thought about it, and replied: "Anyone from al Qa'eda was killed or fled." I pressed a little further, and then he turned to one of his aides and said, in Arabic, "call that son of a b****."

Half an hour later, one of Afan's cousins, Sheikh Ritha'a Jassim Hamed Abu Ahmed, arrived. Sheikh Ritha'a planned bombings and attacks with al Qa'eda until 2006, when his relatives discovered his involvement and gave him a choice: Work with us or be killed. Ritha'a spent a year as a kind of double agent – spying on al Qa'eda on behalf of the US and the Awakening – but it was clear he hadn't fully redeemed himself: when lunch was served, he was explicitly not invited to join us, a serious snub.

"When the Americans first entered, they met with sheikhs and said that they are a peaceful people, and that this country shouldn't be ruined, and that they don't have an agenda or anything," he said. "The sheikhs agreed and told them, 'You have come to remove the leader of a country and leave after that.' But they never left. When the Americans didn't leave, the jihad began. We became an occupied country."

Though he says he now supports the Awakening, Sheikh Ritha'a – like most Iraqis – still puts the highest priority on bringing the occupation to a swift conclusion.

"America will vanish with the help of God," he told me. "History repeats itself. Muslims unite to defend their homeland and honour. America will not remain. These dogs will be kicked out, and the big dog who came with them as well. I kick out those who are crueler than the Americans. I kick out those who sold their honour and homeland," he said, referring to the Shiite parties who dominate the Iraqi government. "Then if the Americans don't leave, I will be the first one to bomb my body and detonate myself at them."

This summer, Baghdad has been plagued by droughts and dust storms. The storms frequently close the airport, which is fraught with delays even in the best weather. I decided to leave the country by car, and headed toward Amman.

On the way out of Fallujah, we pass through the US army's large biometric checkpoint. Falluja still remains walled off, monitored by checkpoints that read a badge encoded with information about its wearer, including retinal scans and fingerprints. The checkpoint on the road near Falluja performs similar checks, and across the country, troops are being encouraged to replicate this tactic — to badge as many people as possible. Though the US has engaged in hi-tech methods to fight Iraqi guerrillas, a far less complicated solution seems to underpin what passes for stability here. Further west, we come to a large Sahwa checkpoint that diverts all traffic. We pass without trouble, since our driver makes this trip regularly and is known to the men in the checkpoint.

We stop for lunch near Rutba, west of Ramadi. In the car park of the restaurant, a police pickup pulls up, its occupants' faces covered by kaffiyehs. In the back of the pickup, a police officer, or militiamen, or former guerrilla – here they are all the same – mans a mounted anti-aircraft gun. I exchange a sidelong look with Rick, the American filmmaker I am travelling with. This is western Iraq. I haven't been this far into the desert since 2004. Back then, the sight of heavily armed men with their faces covered would have been a cause for intense panic. But today there is no interest in us. The armed men, whoever they are, are just here for lunch. I'm not sure exactly what I'm feeling, but it's not good. In a few hours, I'll be out of Iraq, with much to think about. But I already know that what I have left behind is not peace.


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