Iraq Spawning Surge of Militias

12208878501141.jpgBy SANA ABDALLAH (Middle East Times, with agency dispatches)
TRIBAL MILITIA: The U.S.-backed Sunni “Awakening” councils are threatened with disbandment by the Iraqi government, leaving them jobless and vulnerable to al-Qaida reprisals. Their rise has encouraged other sectarian-based communities to form their own neighborhood militias. A member of the “Awakening” is seen in photo watching over an area in Diyala province. (Photo by UPI)

 AMMAN — Five and half years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and increasing calls for an end to the American occupation, there is little evidence to show that attempts to restore security and stability in the country are making any significant progress as new armed militias continue to emerge in this multi-sectarian Arab nation.

Reports from Iraq say that neighborhood militias, often sectarian-based, have become widespread, especially with the rise of the Sunni “Sahwa,” or “Awakening councils, to defend their homes and communities from insurgent or al-Qaida attacks that the formal Iraqi security forces, backed by the U.S. military, have been unable to contain.

AFP news agency reported that the small Christian community, concentrated in Nineveh and its provincial capital, Mosul, has taken security in its own hands with armed patrols and checkpoints around their villages.

Armed Christians said they were the only ones who could defend their communities from extremist Sunni and Shiite attacks and kidnappings for refusing to pay “jizya,” an obsolete tax levied on non-Muslims during the 7th century at the height of Islam’s expansion.

The number of Chaldeans, who make up the bulk of the small Christian society, dwindled to one-half — 400,000 people — after the invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, which had led to bloody sectarian violence and widespread disorder.

The Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Iraq, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped and his body was found near Mosul last March. His abduction and murder was believed to have been in retaliation for his, and thousands of other Christians’, decision to stop paying the “jizya.”

Some Iraqi commentators suggest that although sectarian strife and bombings have been reduced in recent months, they expect the level of violence to take another upward trend, citing failure in the creation of a functional post-Saddam state and sometimes random security decisions by the government that tend to backfire.

The Sahwa councils, for example, relatively succeeded in reducing violent attacks in the predominantly Sunni Diyala province, which has been described as the last bastion for al-Qaida after a wave of U.S.-Iraqi military offensives cracked down on armed groups across the country.

Critics had at the start warned against the concept of the Sahwa, saying they could become a monster in the making. They cautioned that just as these councils, made up of neighborhood Sunni tribal leaders and former insurgents, had turned against al-Qaida, they would also turn against the U.S. and Iraqi forces at a later stage.

They complained that these councils, which the U.S. military calls the “Sons of Iraq,” could open a can of worms and inspire other local communities to set up their own militias — a trend that has recently begun to surface.

Most of its members were insurgents who fought against the U.S. forces alongside al-Qaida shortly after the 2003 invasion. But al-Qaida’s extremist ways in imposing their version of Islam on the Sunni areas and inciting and carrying out attacks against Iraqi Shiites, as well as the tempting $300 monthly salary from the U.S. military, found eager soldiers to join the councils.

The first signs that the Sahwa could become an eventual problem rather than a solution emerged this week with the announcement that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad would take over paying these councils amid official leaks that they would be dissolved and disarmed as of next month.

That leaves its members jobless and vulnerable to reprisals from al-Qaida. In addition, there is little trust that Iraqi forces or central authorities can protect their communities from al-Qaida attacks, from Shiite militias, or common criminal gangs for that matter.

Reports from Iraq said that the Iraqi authorities had already begun to close down the Sahwa offices in Diyala’s towns and villages, arguing that this was necessary to assume control of the area in the latest massive offensive launched in the province in July.

But some of the council’s armed members have already fled their areas with their weapons and the authorities were said to be hunting them down.

They complained that their leaders have now become government targets as well.

Many council members had hoped that the offensive was to chase down the “terrorists and outlaws,” while rewarding them with jobs in the security forces or other state establishments for having substantially subdued al-Qaida.

However, the government said that only 20 percent of the thousands of Sahwa men would be absorbed into the system, largely dominated by Shiite parties.

Analysts say that would leave thousands of desperate families without an income and an unemployed youth in the oil-rich country ready to rejoin the anti-government insurgency if it puts food on the table.

Many Iraqi commentators predict the government is unlikely to handle the Sahwa issue wisely, warning that their disbanding could mean the birth of yet more militias.

Such a scenario is expected to lead to another surge in violence, which has been fluctuating since 2003, and thus prolong the U.S. military presence on the grounds that the Iraqi forces are not yet ready to assume responsibility of their country’s security.