Hundreds of members of the Awakening Councils, a collection of United States-allied Sunni sheiks and their militia forces, have quit or been dismissed from their positions in the past few months, the New York Times reported Saturday.
Iraqi government officials say that the fighters, known as Sahwa, have left as a result of an intensive recruiting campaign by the Sunni insurgency and rejoined Al Qaeda. Many have extensive knowledge of the U.S. military, the Times said, adding that it is possible that thousands of the fighters who are working for the government are simultaneously assisting the insurgency.
The Sahwa joined forces with U.S. troops against Al Qaeda in 2006 and helped turn the tide of the Iraq war. Since then, the fighters have become frequent targets of insurgent attacks.
While the U.S. military initially supervised and paid the salaries of the Sahwa fighters, whose numbers peaked to about 100,000 in 2008, the Iraqi government took over the Sahwa from the Americans last year, agreeing to give at least 20 percent of the fighters police and government jobs and to pay the rest to maintain security in Sunni areas. Other fighters simply returned to their old jobs.
“The Awakening doesn’t know what the future holds because it is not clear what the government intends for them,” Nathum al-Jubouri, a former Awakening Council leader in Salahuddin Province who recently quit the organization, told the Times.
“At this point, Awakening members have two options: Stay with the government, which would be a threat to their lives, or help Al Qaeda by being a double agent,” he said. “The Awakening is like a database for Al Qaeda that can be used to target places that had been out of reach before.”
The defections appear to confirm suspicions from August that the terror network was attempting a comeback in Iraq. Reports from Sunni tribesman and Iraqi government officials claimed that Al Qaeda was offering cash to lure back former Sunni allies who were angry with the government. Winning back the Sahwa increases the extremist group’s chances of rebounding as a significant threat.
Al Qaeda has exploited continuing Sunni resentment over their second-class status in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein — particularly in Baghdad, which had been a Sunni-dominated city for 1,000 years.
A combination of a lack of government support and increased Al Qaeda pressure has lead to many of the defections, the Times reported, though the article said that there were no exact figures for how many members of the Awakening Council have returned to the insurgency.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.