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The Sahwa / Awakening Councils / Sons of Iraq [SOI]
Hashid Watani (national mobilisation)

The Awakening Councils are composed of Sunni tribal fighters who oppose al-Qaeda and its presence in Iraq. In 2006, they helped US forces expel al-Qaeda from Sunni provinces, like Anbar, where the councils were established, and from Sunni districts in Baghdad. At that time, the councils were estimated to have about 100,000 fighters who wanted to be integrated into Iraqi forces after helping defeat al-Qaeda. About 70,000 of their fighters were given security and government jobs and about 30,000 continued to man security checkpoints in Sunni areas in return for a monthly salary from the government.

Anbar was out of control in 2005. The terrorists were getting stronger, in the presence of the Coalition forces. They enforced some habits which the local population didn’t have before. Females shouldn’t work. Schools for girls were not allowed. They changed the way people pray. They changed the call to prayer in the mosques. They controlled all the resources of the province. They controlled some of the government offices: the Department of Education, the Health Department, the Facilities Protection Service. Each director general had someone sitting beside him from al-Qaeda.

The stunning security improvements in Al Anbar province during 2007 fundamentally changed the military and political landscape of Iraq. Many, both in and outside the military (and as late as November 2006), had assessed the situation in Anbar as a lost cause.

The Sahwa [Awakening] started in al-Qaim in the middle of 2005. The Albu Mahal tribe revolted and started to awaken. They are on the border with Syria. After the Islamic State in Iraq, which is terrorist, announced that they’re in al-Qaim, these tribes rose up. These were the first people to awaken. However, this attempt and others quickly lost steam through al Qaeda’s murder and intimidation campaign against tribal leaders and anyone, regardless of sect, associated with receiving US help.

The second announced Awakening, Abu Risha, happened in September 2006 in the Jazeera area. The Sunni Awakening officially started in September 2006 with the announcement of the Anbar Awakening in Ramadi under the leadership of Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha. A conference was held at the home of Sheikh Sattar, the first meeting in two years where the tribal leaders were able to gather at Sheikh Sattar’s house and declare openly to the people that they were going to fight al-Qaeda.^at first meeting, they called it the Awakening council, and afterwards even the political party name is the Awakening council.

From Sheikh Abdul Sattar’s announcement in September 2006 until the 5th of February 2007, when the Albu Fahd tribe came out, there was only Sheikh Abdul Sattar. It was confined to the Jazeera area. Some Awakening councils were established, but they couldn’t establish any government until the Albu Fahd tribe came out. Then everything started to return to normal. About the Albu Fahd tribe, their location is from the center of Ramadi city to Fallujah. Also, they are with the [Dubad], and across the river in the Jazeera area. The other tribes awakened because the Albu Fahd tribe awakened, so it goes with them.

American accounts then morph the Anbar Awakening into the Sons of Iraq program where Sunni tribesmen and former resistance fighters were paid by the United States to man security checkpoints in areas infested by al Qaeda and other militant jihadist groups opposed to the Iraqi government. Coalition Forces [CF] established Sahwa/SOI programs in Sunni Arab communities, principally in central and north central Iraq, in 2006-2007. CF did not coordinate Sahwa/SOI activities across provinces beyond funding and general direction, and individual CF units had responsibility for local Sahwa/SOI units, which are not bound together by any national-level organization.

The Anbar Awakening Council was the first of a number Awakening Councils formed throughout Iraq. Sunnis formed Awakening Councils in response to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Working with coalition forces in Iraq, these Awakening Councils helped for a time to greatly reduce the ability of AQI. The power of the Awakening Councils came from their grassroots nature. The Awakening Councils were seen as an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem. Maintaining its distance from outside influences was an important part of ensuring that the councils remain effective.

With the formation neighborhood councils that protected citizens, AQI lost the popular support it once had. Many Sunnis turned against AQI. However, the progress made with the Awakening Councils came at a price. By 2008 there were now several challenges facing the future of the Awakening Councils. There were threats from without and within the Awakening Councils. The threats from without included AQI and the Iraqi government. Threats from within came from power struggles as the Awakening Councils sought to gain power over each other.

As Awakening Councils were formed, they began a shift in momentum for the Sunni population. AQI was formed primarily of Sunnis, and as Awakening Councils gained in strength and popularity there was a shift of support away from AQI. Insurgents stopped working for AQI and began to support the Awakening Councils and Coalition Forces (CF). The efforts of the Awakening Councils led to the near eclipse of AQI. In response to the Awakening Council’s pressure on AQI, AQI began to target members of the Awakening Councils.

There was growing contention and power seeking among the various Awakening Councils. These councils know that they will not last forever; therefore some Councils sought to gain power to have a base from which to compete. However, the largest obstacle facing the Awakening Council was the Iraqi government’s refusal to add them to the existing security forces. This meant that when the Awakening Councils are eventually disbanded there will be thousands of individuals without jobs. In order to ensure a smooth transition, there must be a method to place more people in jobs as they leave the Awakening Councils. One method would be to encourage the government to do a phased drawdown of the Awakening Councils to prevent a sudden influx of jobless individuals.

By late 2008 the US was paying 65,000 Council members. Making funds dependent upon cooperation placed great pressure on leaders to ensure that they are fulfilling their portion of the requirement. The relationship between the councils and the Maliki government deteriorated after the US withdrawal from Iraq as the councils were neglected. While such neglect began before the US withdrawal, it worsened in the years that followed.

Sahwa's success at helping beat back Al-Qaida and associated extremists led to its first-place finish in Anbar Province's January 2009 provincial election. The Iraq Awakening Conference, or Muatammar Sahwat Al-Iraq (MSI), was the first-place winner in Anbar's Provincial Council (PC) election, taking some 20 percent of the popular vote. Sahwa, as it is known, expected to get eight seats on Anbar's 29-seat council. Winners moved, amid high expectations, from electoral victory into governing. Fallujah-area tribal sheikhs, including the province's top vote-getter, said they will use their victory to improve services and infrastructure. Except in Anbar, where it finished only slightly ahead of two other Sunni political groups, SOI political movements did not appear to transition well from a local security organization to a political movement.

Iraqi military forces, accompanied by US military advisors, arrested Sons of Iraq [SOI] leader Adil al-Mashadani during a 28 March 2009 operation in the al-Fadhil neighborhood in the center of Baghdad. Mashadani, a Sunni Arab, commanded the Sons of Iraq unit (aka "Awakening" council -- an armed neighborhood watch) in Fadhil, a Sunni enclave in mainly Shi'a east central Baghdad, which had previously been an Al Qaeda in Iraq stronghold. Reportedly, all major roads into the area remain blocked and sporadic gunfire continued through March 29, with initial clashes leaving several Iraqis killed and wounded.

On 29 March 2009, Coalition Forces participated jointly with the Iraqi Army in an operation to disarm Mashadani's men. Mashadani had been quoted in the local media complaining about the non-payment of Awakening members (payments were interrupted in February in the midst of a budgetary struggle between parliament and the executive). Mashadani warned that the salary interruptions would increase the likelihood that SOI members could be recruited back into a partnership with Al Qaeda terrorists and affiliated extremists. He had also told local media prior to his arrest that "until now, we have just promises (from the government) ... Al Qaeda and other armed groups are ready to give us a lot of money." Mashadani has been a controversial figure in the past, with the GOI and even some fellow Sunni leaders previously voicing concerns to us in private about his allegedly illegal and/or gang-like activities.

After payment delays and slow hiring into the security forces and other government jobs, Mashadani's arrest, unsurprisingly, heightened suspicions among many in the Sunni Arab community about the GOI's intentions regarding the future of the program -- and fear of more ISF actions directed against them and their leaders. The Sahwa were worried and confused by reports that the government wanted to reach out to former Baathists and ex-insurgents, but then approved an operation directed at a prominent SOI leader.

Ahmed al-Rishawi (Abu Risha), was the leader of the tribal Awakening Movement (Sahwa) in Anbar province. His relationship with the US military and influence as the Sahwa head saw him emerge as a "kingmaker" in local Anbari politics, but Abu Risha had been frustrated in his attempt to make the jump from the local to national political stage. Moreover, although he retained significant influence in Anbar, that waned with the continuing withdrawal of US troops from the province. Other Anbar sheikhs doubted his claim to be a paramount tribal leader. Despite his frequent appearances in Western media, Abu Risha appeared to enjoy only limited appeal outside his home province.

In the 2010 election, the Awakening Movement was part of the Coalition of Iraq's Unity (CIU), also known as the Iraq Unity Alliance (IUA). Led by Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, members shared a secular-nationalist vision for Iraq and favored a U.S.-style government. The party's secular-nationalist vision was for a constitutionally based political system that transcends sectarian or ethnic affiliations and is capable of delivering services to the average Iraqi. The CIU proclaims that it values a government that sounds very similar to that of the United States: three equal branches of government; a free press as a "fourth" power; equal rights for women and an emphasis on stopping domestic violence against them; care for the handicapped; partnership with international institutions; and a move towards a free market economy. On the campaign trail, coalition candidates claim they will help ensure the following "rights" for Iraqis: security, jobs, a place to live, health care, and education.

In 2012 Ahmed Abu Richa joined anti-government camps in Anbar and made the same demands as the protesters, such as releasing detainees, more Sunni representation in government institutions, and more integration of Sunnis into the political process. In March 2013, Abu Richa was arrested on terrorism charges.

At the beginning of 2014, Abu Richa switched sides and aligned himself and his followers with government forces in response to an increasing ISIL role in Anbar. Awakening Council members also reportedly fought along with government forces against al-Qaeda during the ongoing confrontations. In June 2014, in an interview with Al Jazeera, the spokesperson of the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolution, former General Muzhir al-Qaisi described the Awakening Councils as "part of an American Project" signalling distrust towards the group.

President Obama welcomed Haider Al-Abadi, Prime Minister of the Republic of Iraq, and the accompanying delegation to Washington from April 13-16, 2015. President Obama pledged to continue to support Iraqi Security Forces and tribal engagement initiatives with U.S. training and equipment. He specifically welcomed the recent decision by the Iraqi government to supply thousands of rifles and other equipment to tribal fighters in eastern Anbar province, building on the successful model at Al Asad airbase in western Anbar, where U.S. advisors are enabling tribal operations against ISIL in coordination with Iraqi Security Forces.

The Prime Minister outlined his vision of a more decentralized model of governance, as called for under the Constitution of Iraq, a model that he asserted was an essential element of the broader strategy for progress in Iraq. He detailed the government’s program to devolve security and service delivery to the provincial and local levels. In this light, he noted efforts to empower local government in the stabilization of liberated areas. He also highlighted the importance of the National Guard in providing more authority over security to the residents of Iraq’s provinces and to ensuring that Iraq’s security forces are broadly representative and close to the communities they are sworn to protect and defend.

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