An armed Sunni militiaman wearing an Iraqi Army patch, left, and a U.S. Army soldier patrol in Samarra on Oct. 6, 2010. Over the past month, militants led by the extremist Islamic State group overpowered the military and the Sahwa, seizing control of most of the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq. The jihadis have systematically killed dozens of former Sahwa leaders, forced others to flee and recruited the remaining foot soldiers through intimidation. (Maya Alleruzzo / AP file)
BAGHDAD — Wisam al-Hardan’s cellphone rang late into the night. He let it ring on and on. He couldn’t bear to answer.
Al-Hardan, a leader in the Sunni tribal militias that allied with the U.S. to help turn the tide against al-Qaida in Iraq, knew what the Sunni fighters on the other end of the line wanted: weapons to fight the Islamic extremists rampaging across their lands. Al-Hardan also knew he had nothing to offer them.
“I don’t want to remember these hours,” he said. “Very painful hours.”
The various threads that came together to leave al-Hardan sitting powerless in his Baghdad home wind back through the years of broken promises and failed policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki toward the Sunni militiamen popularly known as Sahwa, or Awakening Councils. Al-Hardan and former Sahwa members say that under the Shiite prime minister, the militias were neglected, corruption flourished — and though millions of dollars were appropriated, militiamen were still left poorly armed and ill equipped.
The results speak for themselves. Over the past month, militants led by the extremist Islamic State group overpowered the military and the Sahwa, seizing control of most of the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq. The jihadis have systematically killed dozens of former Sahwa leaders, forced others to flee and recruited the remaining foot soldiers through intimidation.
The checkered dealings with the Sahwa in recent years drained the Sunni community of any trust in the Baghdad government and particularly in al-Maliki, who is seeking a third consecutive four-year term. That presents an immense challenge to inducing the Sunni tribal fighters who turned on al-Qaida once before to risk everything again — even if they wanted to — and side with the government against the new insurgency.
“We have zero trust in al-Maliki, who will continue to deceive us and hurt us if he is to win a third term. If al-Maliki stays in power, then nobody will be willing to return to Sahwa,” said Abu Sahir, a former Sahwa leader in Khan Bani Saad in Diyala province who became a fighter in the anti-government Mujahedeen Army militant group.
“But if al-Maliki is to be replaced by another person who would do something to stop the corruption and the humiliation, we might reconsider our position.”
It’s impossible to gauge how widespread that sentiment is. Other former Sahwa fighters who have joined the militants say they have severed ties with Baghdad for good. The internal dynamics of the insurgency — such as sometimes divergent interests between the Islamic State group and other Sunnis who have joined its fight — are also unpredictable and could affect the decisions of thousands of individual fighters on whether to stick with the movement.
But the bitterness Sunnis feel about their treatment under al-Maliki is clear.
The Sahwa emerged in late 2006 when Sunni tribesmen who had previously battled the U.S. military decided to team up with the Americans instead to fight al-Qaida in Iraq after becoming alienated by the group’s brutality. The Americans provided the weapons, training and money — at least $370 million over a three-year period — and the Sunni fighters helped the U.S. troops root out much of the extremist group.
In 2009, the U.S. handed responsibility for the Sahwa over to Iraq’s Shiite-led government, which promised Washington it would fold the some 100,000 Sunni fighters into the security forces or other government jobs. Around 23,000 former Sahwa fighters were eventually put on the government payroll, according to Ahmed Abu Risha, a leading Sahwa figure.
But many more were not.
Al-Maliki — a Shiite wary of an armed Sunni force — withheld political and financial support for years, happy to watch the Sahwa wither. That contributed to a sense of neglect among many former Sahwa fighters since the 2011 U.S. military withdrawal.
As the Sahwa waned, al-Qaida in Iraq slowly regained its footing. It pushed aggressively into Syria’s civil war in early 2013 and rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Its success in Syria helped fuel its resurgence on the Iraqi side of the border, leading to a sharp deterioration of security in Iraq.
In February of 2013, al-Maliki’s government hit upon the idea of resurrecting the Sahwa. In part the aim was to rally Sunni militiamen against the extremists. But there were also political considerations: With parliamentary elections a year off, the prime minister might be able to garner a bit of goodwill by putting Sunnis on the government payroll.
But the new Sahwa from the start was undermined by Sunni divisions over al-Maliki.
Al-Hardan was elected in early 2013 as the head of the “new Sahwa,” but he was never fully welcomed by many of the old Sahwa leaders, particularly Ahmed Abu Risha, who had long been recognized as the leading figure in the movement. The old guard viewed al-Hardan as al-Maliki’s man — a label that turned toxic as Sunni protests against the prime minister’s Shiite-led government gained pace.
“The new Sahwa formed by the government is corrupt, and the government wanted to copy the old Sahwa with new pro-government leaders,” said Dhari al-Rishawi, an adviser to the Anbar governor and a Sahwa leader with Abu Risha.
The relations among senior Sahwa figures were further complicated by traditional rivalries among the tribes, as well as tussling over control of business interests and patronage networks. Personalities and egos clashed.
Amer al-Khuzaie, al-Maliki’s adviser on reconciliation and Sahwa, said that as of June 1, 2014, there were 31,000 fighters nationwide for the new Sahwa. The largest contingents were in Mosul and Anbar, which boasted 10,000 members apiece, he said, and the budget stood at $250 million a year for the project.
But the Sahwa seemed to exist more on paper than on the ground, said Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst who is the publisher of the bi-weekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics.
“It was clearly a very half-baked idea,” he said. “The government provided money, for sure, but I never saw an armed formation per se.”
Members of the new Sahwa say most of those funds were not reaching the fighters.
Al-Hardan complained of a lack of weapons and ammunition, and said “corruption, salary cuts and personal interests have all affected the national interest.”
“They give each one only 20 bullets, not enough to enter a battle,” he said, in comments echoed by others. “We buy weapons and ammunition with our own money to defend ourselves.”
When the Islamic State group took Mosul in early June, it seized documents from the military and intelligence headquarters in the city that detailed the names and addresses of old Sahwa figures, said al-Khuzaie. The militants then went to their houses and killed them.
“Sahwa is going through a big problem. There is fear, killing and displacement,” said al-Hardan. “Sahwa is now between two fires: the fire of the Islamic State and the fire of corruption and the lack of support.”
Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, and Sameer N. Yacoub and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.