The Sunni Awakening Councils, plucked from the Iraqi Sunni Arab insurgency movement and laboriously enlisted as US Iraqi allies in the fight against al Qaeda, are displaying symptoms of disaffection.
“If there is no change in the near future, there will be war again,” said Abu Marouf of the Sunni Arab Zubai tribe. He commands 13,000 fighters, erstwhile members of the Baathist insurgent “1920 Revolution Brigades,” which battled US soldiers in Fallujah.
Marouf demanded the integration of his fighters in the government army.
“If the Americans think they can use us to crush al Qaeda and then push us to one side, they are mistaken,” he said.
That warning was issued in January. This week, some of the Awakening Councils went on strike to demand arrears in payment from the US military.
These are just some of the signs of the restiveness overtaking the 90,000-strong Awakening Councils in recent weeks. The once harmonious bond between the US Army and their Sunni allies is making way for rising friction. Some of the American intelligence liaison officers working with the councils have warned the US Iraq commander, Gen. David Petraeus, that some Councils, which have become the backbone of the pro-American forces fighting al Qaeda, are on the point of turning their guns back on US forces.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources in Iraq say the course taken by the Shiite-versus-Shiite conflict in South Iraq may prove to be the last straw. The old-established Sunni Arab tribes of central and western Iraq are not about to take expanded Iranian influence in Iraq and the meteoric rise of the Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army lying down. Indeed their chiefs, at the head of the Awakening Councils, are fuming.
They are convinced that Tehran is out to cut the Sunni Councils down as a force in the country. Reports circulating in Sunni Arab media accuse Iran of organizing Sadrist rogue elements into hit squads for assassinations of Awaking Councils members in Baghdad.
They attribute the conspiracy to the Revolutionary Guards’ al Qods Brigade commander, Gen. Qassem Suileimani, the very same live wire of Maliki’s Basra campaign. The US army’s inaction in the fighting was not lost on the Council chiefs.
As to their reckoning with the Mehdi Army, they are taking into account that the ceasefire Moqtada Sadr imposed from August 2007 – and extended in February 2008 for another six months – grows more fragile by the day.
Sadr’s Medhi Army stages a covert invasion of Kirkuk
While it contributed to the decline in violence in Iraq as a whole, Sadrists are believed determined not to let the Sunni Awakening Council movement become too powerful or revert to insurgency. If this happens, they may end their unilateral truce and make a Shiite-Sunni showdown unavoidable.
Sadr shows every sign of capitalizing on Maliki’s failure to subdue his militia in Basra. Thursday, April 3, he called on “millions” to converge on the Shiite shrine city of Najef, where he has set up his headquarters, for a mass demonstration against the American “occupation” on April 9.
The Sunni Arab leaders of the Awakening Councils are also seriously irked by their diminishing stake in the northern Iraq city of Kirkuk among its close to a million Kurdish, Turkmen and Arab inhabitants.
Kirkuk’s oil fields rival Basra’s in scope and are the hub of the Iraqi petroleum industry. Major oil pipelines lead to the Mediterranean.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly discloses here that Kirkuk also holds the third largest concentration of Sadrist Mehdi Army militiamen after Baghdad and Basra. This came about very discreetly during the four years in which the dominant Kurds were otherwise engaged in reversing Saddam Hussein’s forced “Arabization” of the city and restoring more than 150,000 Kurds to Kirkuk and its province.
Very quietly, Sadr installed thousands of members of his following in the strategic oil city. By now, they dominate whole districts.
Arab groups meanwhile formed into Awakening Councils, financed and armed by the US. The semi-autonomous Kurdish administration is going to great lengths to expel these Sunni Arab quasi-militias from Kirkuk as part of their campaign of Arab ethnic cleansing of the province.
Some informed sources are calling Kirkuk the next major ethnic flashpoint in Iraq. Feeling they are pushed to the wall by the ruling Kurds and rising Shiite power, the Awakening Council chiefs will not let go of the Sunni Arabs’ place in Kirkuk’s scheme of things – even if it comes to clashing with American forces.