Best Defense

The unraveling: Don’t look now, but somebody is whacking the Sons of Iraq

A friend in Iraq writes: The Sahwa movement is in real trouble, and that means trouble for Iraq’s security. For the past few months and with growing frequency as of late, Sahwa leaders and rank and file members have been the targets of sophisticated assassinations. Some have been killed by gunmen armed with silenced weapons ...

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A friend in Iraq writes:

The Sahwa movement is in real trouble, and that means trouble for Iraq’s security. For the past few months and with growing frequency as of late, Sahwa leaders and rank and file members have been the targets of sophisticated assassinations. Some have been killed by gunmen armed with silenced weapons and others by bombs planted on their cars or homes. This violence is not random. These are targeted attacks aimed at a critical group within Iraq’s social and security fabric. And the government doesn’t seem to be doing much to stop it.

For background, the Sahwa — or Awakening — Movement, began in al-Anbar province in late 2005 when a Sunni tribe on the Syrian border got into a turf war with a neighboring al Qaeda-allied group. The tribe ran a profitable smuggling operation across the border, and its members decided working with U.S. forces (who presumably overlooked the smuggling) would get them the weapons and training they needed to clear their territory.

The idea caught on, and by 2008 there were a total of over 100,000 Sahwa forces — also known as Sons of Iraq — in nine of Iraq’s most dangerous provinces. Many of these SOIs were drawn from the ranks of the very Sunni insurgents they were tasked by the U.S. with rounding up, an arrangement that made them highly effective but won them a long list of enemies. And of course it was impossible to ensure that every SOI had actually severed ties with the insurgency — rumors of double agents persisted.

Problems for the Awakening Movement began in the fall of 2008 when the Iraqi government took control of the Sons of Iraq, promising to keep paying their US $300 monthly salaries while transitioning them into government employment or the Iraqi security forces. Both tasks proved easier said than done, and many SOIs claim the Shi’a-led government never intended to support their majority Sunni forces.

Those accusations gained traction in the spring of 2009, when Iraqi security forces arrested numerous Sahwa leaders and members on charges ranging from murder to extortion to links to Sadaam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. A March arrest in Baghdad’s Fadhil neighborhood developed into a dramatic standoff between Iraqi Army forces and SOIs loyal to the accused, and fighting continued for two days. However such public accusations against the Sons of Iraq soon tapered off.

Now the biggest threat to the Sons of Iraq is assassination. The Guardian spoke with a Baghdad Awakening leader who put it in stark terms:

We are being hunted down. It has never been worse. I have been targeted by roadside bombs six times in the past four months."

The Guardian reports that every SOI leader is assigned three bodyguards by the Iraqi government. But I haven’t been able to find what protection if any rank and file members receive. Even with bodyguards, the SOI leader and his family are vulnerable. His son recently spent a month in the hospital after drinking poisoned orange juice. Even his backyard fishpond was poisoned. Who does he blame? Al Qaeda.

While I haven’t had the chance check this out firsthand, every SOI I’ve seen interviewed points his finger at Sunni insurgents eager for revenge against the traitorous Sahwa forces. That same Guardian article raised the prospect that the attackers may be among the nearly 10,000 Iraqi detainees recently freed during the handover of the country’s prisons from U.S. to Iraqi control. That explanation makes a great deal of sense to me, especially because a number of those freed no doubt have axes to grind with the people responsible for locking them up. Sahwa forces are attractive and easy targets for revenge.

An explanation I don’t buy is this one, given by Politics Daily’s David Wood in a post on the most recent outbreak of violence against the SOIs:

This morning’s killings are part of a significant uprise in violence against Sahwa members, presumably by Shiite gunmen who see the large number of armed Sunnis as a threat."

I don’t think you can presume that at all. While some radical Shi’a factions might have an interest in further cementing Shi’a dominance by weakening the Sahwa movement, these assassinations read to me like retribution, plain and simple. The SOIs helped to slow the cycle of sectarian violence largely by rounding up Sunni insurgents, protecting both Sunnis and Shi’i in the process. To my knowledge, there were never any major run-ins between Awakening groups and the Mahdi Army, the Badr Brigades, or any other Shi’a militia.

The Shi’a-led government has long been uncomfortable with the idea of supporting what’s essentially an armed Sunni militia, and they are working towards the goal of reintegration. However IWPR estimates that 40,000 Sons of Iraq remain on the streets while they wait for government employment. In the meantime, a recent decision to revoke the weapons permits of Sahwa forces in Diyala Province might be a troubling sign of things to come. Without guns, the SOIs are sitting ducks, unable to perform their jobs and vulnerable to attack. And they likely won’t give up their weapons without a fight.

One SOI with whom IWPR spoke summed up his feelings toward the current Shi’a-led government this way: "We have no support from the government. They betrayed us."

While most analysts have long written off the prospect of SOIs rejoining their former insurgent groups on the belief that the traitors would never be accepted back into the fold, that calculus might be changing. AQI and the Islamic State of Iraq are hard up for recruits, and they might stand a good chance of attracting current Sons of Iraq now disarmed, fed up with the government, and under attack from those very insurgent groups should they choose not to join.

What will be crucial to watch is whether there is sufficient Sunni representation in the new government to ensure both that the Sons of Iraq receive support and protection and that the SOIs themselves don’t turn against the government. As another Sahwa member put it to IWPR in that same article: "If the votes of Sunnis are ignored and the government is formed according to Iran’s interests, and if Sunnis are still denied funds and discriminated against, then they will take up arms against the state."

The one piece of the puzzle most Awakening members seem to agree should remain in place is U.S. troops in Iraq. Without them, they fear, violence against Sunnis will break out, and the Iraqi government will do nothing to stop it. Given the threat of attack they face today, I can’t blame them for worrying.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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