Page last updated at 08:56 GMT, Wednesday, 13 May 2009 09:56 UK

Sunnis fearful of Iraq future

Awakening member Khalid manning a checkpoint (photo by Natalia Antelava)
Awakening movement members like Khalid take pride in their effect on security

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Baghdad

Over the last six years, 6,000 new graves have been dug in a former playground in Adhamiya - 6,000 former neighbours buried where their children used to play.

At the height of the insurgency, Adhamiya was one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods of Baghdad.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq used it as a base, sectarian killings were common and the Americans were losing the conflict. But then Sunni Muslim men from the neighbourhood switched sides and drove al-Qaeda out.

"Look at the difference we've made," says Khaled, pointing at the dusty streets around him.

When the Americans were here, things worked well. But now the government is arresting our leaders
Adhamiya Awakening member

"Shops are open, people can go to the mosque without fear, none of this would be possible without us."

The US military would agree. Security began to improve when across Iraq, tens of thousands of men - many of them former insurgents - joined the so-called Sahwa, or Awakening, Councils . They were paid by the Americans to keep the peace in their neighbourhoods.

But with the Americans preparing to leave, Iraq's Shia-led government has recently taken charge of the Sahwa groups - and their members say that was when their problems started.

"The government hates us," Khaled says. "They treat us badly. Our salaries have not been paid on time."

"When the Americans were here, things worked well. But now the government is arresting our leaders. I could be arrested any day," Khaled says.

Iraqi officials insist the recent arrests target only some individuals, and say the government will keep its promise of incorporating Sahwa members into the state security system, or giving them jobs elsewhere.


But in Adhamiya few seem to believe the officials, and across Iraq these arrests have made many nervous.

"We are very worried about what will happen when the Americans leave," said one Awakening Council member from outside Baghdad, who did not want to be named.

Iraq Awakening member in Adhamiya (photo by Natalia Antelava)
The whole Awakening movement was equipped and paid by the US until 2008

"We are constantly intimidated by the police and harassed by the authorities," he said.

Recently, an Awakening leader protested against his detention, saying he had signed an agreement with the Americans which guaranteed his immunity from persecution.

But Iraq's defence ministry spokesman, Maj Gen Muhammad Askari, says the US amnesty only applies to actions committed against US forces.

"The Americans can't give him amnesty for what he did against the Iraqi government. That's the government's responsibility," he says.

"Americans often did not know what they were doing and who they were recruiting. Among the Awakening members there are many outlaws and criminals. It's our right to deal with them the way we consider necessary," Maj Gen Askari adds.

And he says that might include prosecuting Awakening members for crimes committed before they switched sides.

Security plea

In neighbourhoods like Adhamiya, where the Awakening Councils patrol streets and provide security, such rhetoric is received with hostility.

"We are worried what will happen when the Americans leave Iraq," says 22-year-old Laith.

"We are worried that the government is not paying the Awakening leaders, and is sidelining them. We rely on them for security, without them sectarian killings will start again."

Salaam, a man in his 50s, has the same concerns. "The government can't provide us with the security we need, so they must treat the Awakening Councils well," he says.

Bereaved mother Elam at Adhamiya cemetery (photo by Natalia Antelava)
Elam is just one of thousands of bereaved relatives who come to mourn

If the Americans are concerned about the future of their showcase security project, they are not showing it. The official US line is overwhelmingly positive about the future of Iraq, the government and co-operation with the Sunni Awakening.

"We believe there is a spirit of reconciliation, and that Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has invested in the process," says spokesman Lt Col Jeffrey Kulmayer, who describes his optimism about Iraq's future as "infectious".

But not for someone like Elam. Every Friday she comes to the Adhamiya cemetery to visit the grave of her 19-year-old son Ali.

He survived the worst of the violence, only to be killed in a recent bombing that emphasised just how fragile the situation remains.

"My boy, my lovely boy," Elam wails, rocking back and forth. She still blames herself for letting him leave the house on the day he died.

Caressing Ali's photograph, Elam says things can no longer get worse for her. But for Iraq, they could.

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