FALLUJAH – The controversial move of the US military to back Sunni "Awakening" forces has created another wedge between Sunni and Shi’ite political groups.
Following disputes between the tribal groups assembled into Awakening forces and the Iraqi government, the creation of these forces has become also a political issue.
US-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who heads a Shi’ite political bloc, has adamantly opposed the US-military policy of backing tribal groups and former resistance fighters.
To date, the US military has paid more than 17 million dollars to these fighters, whose groups it calls "Concerned Local Citizens" and "Awakening Forces." Each member receives around 300 dollars monthly. Many are former resistance fighters who used to attack occupation forces.
These new forces now have a strength of more than 76,000. According to the US military, at least 82 percent are Sunni. It hopes to add another 10,000.
The groups have been credited with chasing foreign fighters out of cities in al-Anbar province to the west of Baghdad, and also from parts of Baghdad. But members of these groups are often accused of extortion, corruption, and brutal tactics.
The Shi’ite-led government has opposed creation of groups who might rival its own security forces, which comprise many members of former Shi’ite militias.
"We completely, absolutely reject the Awakening becoming a third military organization," Iraqi defense minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi said at a news conference Dec. 23. He said the groups would not be allowed any infrastructure like a headquarters building which could give them longer-term legitimacy.
Some Sunni groups also reject these forces. Offices of the Awakening forces have been closed down in Fallujah and Najaf despite warnings from Awakening leader Sheikh Ahmad Abu Risha.
"Fallujah city is not under the Awakening influence and never will be," Ihsan Ahmad, a follower of the Islamic Party in Fallujah told IPS. "Those tribal leaders want to control everything everywhere, but they are not qualified for leadership. They are just a group of ignorant tribal men."
Fear of a new conflict between tribes and political parties has arisen in many parts of the country.
"The same story of overthrowing Saddam Hussein is being repeated," Issra Yasseen, a teacher in Fallujah, told IPS. "They say they finished the influence of al-Qaeda and so they want to take over everything for themselves. We are afraid of the possibility that they will then fight each other and naturally, our lives will be the price."
Many Awakening leaders and members of these groups in al-Anbar and Baghdad say they have been betrayed by Islamic Party leaders and by the Iraqi government.
"The government was using us to protect its interests, and now it ignores our legitimate demands," Sheikh Hassan al-Alwani from the outskirts of Fallujah told IPS. "Only those enlisted with the Islamic Party are getting jobs and contracts, while we who fought only get the lowest ranks and the worst jobs."
"We were evicted from Fallujah twice by the Americans and Iraqi government troops, and our houses were destroyed under the flag of liberating us," Salim Mahmood, a former army officer who now works as a barber in Ramadi told IPS. "Those so-called sheikhs and politicians were all hiding in Amman while we were being brutally butchered by their army and allying Americans."
Tensions between politicians in the government and local tribes affiliated with the Awakening are evident all over Fallujah. Many people say they fear a new phase of fighting, this time local.
"This was the American plan from the beginning," Sammy Hussein, a poet from Fallujah told IPS. "We knew that after creating a Sunni-Shi’ite fight, they would start a Sunni-Sunni fight and a Shi’ite-Shi’ite fight so that they ensure control of our country. The only thing they have not calculated well is that people are still armed, and that the fighting spirit is still alive in Iraq."
Residents who do not belong to either side are feeling lost, and living with the consequences of the lack of any responsible rule.
Many shops are open in Fallujah, but they have little to sell. "People do not have money, and business is very slow," a 30-year-old merchant who gave his name only as Marwan told IPS.
"We are living the worst days since the November 2004 siege of Fallujah. Unemployment is killing us slowly, and we have no real government to care for us. Only those who work with the Americans can afford to buy food, while over 90 percent of residents are very poor. People are always the biggest losers."
An Oxfam International report released in July estimated that 45 percent of Iraqis live in abject poverty, on less than a dollar a day.