Former ‘Sons of Iraq’ targeted by insurgents after U.S. pullout

by Dan Morse

Published: January 27 | Updated: Saturday, January 28, 4:00 AM

BAGHDAD — Muhannad Mahmoud can’t find a place in the new Iraq.

The American military, which hired him and more than 80,000 other Sunni fighters to take on al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents, just left. But the insurgents certainly have not.

The Iraqi government, increasingly dominated by Shiite powers, is leery about hiring the fighters as security forces. And even if Mahmoud were able to land such a job, some of his fellow Sunnis are so distrustful of the new government that they would label him a traitor.

As a member of the Sons of Iraq, who were widely credited with helping the United States restore stability to the country several years ago, Mahmoud and his brethren say they have been pushed to the side — even as insurgents come after them daily.

“I am ready to fight them again,” Mahmoud said recently, taking a break from his job repairing power lines that run from a neighborhood generator to homes and businesses.

For years, the Iraqi government has struggled to carry out a U.S.-brokered plan to find military or police jobs for the Sunni fighters — some of them genuine heroes, some of them former insurgents themselves. How the government treats them over the coming months could present a chance for reconciliation — or threaten to widen the country’s sectarian divide, especially if Sons of Iraq members strike out on their own, or, worse, defect to groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.

These days, even with the increased violence, the Sons of Iraq stand out, targeted by daily assassination attempts. Throughout Iraq, they are known more broadly by the term “Sahwa.” In the past week, four Iraqis connected to Sahwa were assassinated on a single day.

Two died on Tuesday when simultaneous blasts erupted outside their homes outside Fallujah. Another, Hassan Abdulla al-Timimi, who had risen to the rank of captain in the Abu Ghraib police force, was gunned down by insurgents who stormed his house and also killed his wife and three children, said Col. Sabah al-Falahi, a police commander in the area. A fourth, Mullah Nadem Jabouri, was shot by assassins armed with silencer pistols, according to security officials.

Jabouri was once a member of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but he renounced the group in 2007 and persuaded many Sunnis to fight against the terrorist organization. For the past two years he had been living in Jordan, but he was visiting Iraq and speaking with Sahwa and Sunni leaders.

“They’re the most targeted and vulnerable people in Iraq,” said Sterling Jensen, who studies the movement at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies and served as an Arabic interpreter for U.S. commanders here during the war.

“We’re wanted by all the terrorists,” said Mustaf Shibib al-Jubouri, a Sons of Iraq leader who has survived four car bombings and estimates that a half-dozen members of the group are attacked daily around the country.

The Sons of Iraq are certainly well known in Adhamiyah, a sprawling Sunni area in northern Baghdad where Mahmoud spends his days repairing the generator power lines. Back in 2007, as al-Qaeda in Iraq took over the area, Mahmoud learned that U.S. commanders were rounding up fighters and paying about $300 a month. The effort, as it turned out, was a key element of the U.S. strategy to turn the tide of the war.

Mahmoud fought in major battles against insurgents and helped patrol Adhamiyah’s streets. Reports of the Sons of Iraq spread to neighborhood residents who had fled — people such as Zeiad Farouq Naaoush, who sought safety in Egypt after being kidnapped and then released for a ransom.

“My family told me the Sahwa is in the streets, and it’s better,” said Naaoush, who returned in 2008.

By then, the Sons of Iraq ranks had swelled to 100,000, including a small contingent of Shiite fighters. The United States transferred full management of the force to the Iraqi government in 2009, with the understanding that 20 percent of the fighters would be given jobs in Iraq’s police or military units and that the government would try to find the others civil service or private-sector jobs.

But the process has moved slowly. Sons of Iraq members say they are denied jobs because they are Sunni, even as the Iraqi government welcomes onetime Shiite insurgents into jobs. The government says that it is committed to hiring Sons of Iraq members but that education levels prevent some of them from getting security jobs.

“They are not being dealt with on this sectarian basis,” said Ali Hadi al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Zuhair al-Chalabi, head of Iraq’s National Reconciliation Committee, said security forces in Baghdad have hired 9,000 Sons of Iraq members. In other provinces, Chalabi said, he would like to see police forces hire 7,600.

Further clouding the Sons of Iraq’s future are recent comments from Maliki’s office. An aide to the prime minister for reconciliation affairs, Amir al-Khuzai, told the al-Sharqiya news channel that security forces no longer want to hire Sons of Iraq members. Khuzai couldn’t be reached for comment.

Analysts say that as Maliki consolidates control, he is under pressure from Shiite allies to halt the hiring of Sons of Iraq members into police or military forces. “He won’t do anything significant to help the Sons of Iraq,” said Jensen, the former U.S. military interpreter who has spoken to many Sons of Iraq members. He and others worry that the Iraqi government is pushing the Sons away at the very time they are needed to fight what appears to be a resurgent al-Qaeda in Iraq.

As more of the Sahwa get picked off, those who remain and feel abandoned by the government may be more willing to stake their loyalties elsewhere. Last week, Sons of Iraq leader Ahmmad Abu Risha’s attention was focused on rumors that Shiite-dominated Karbala province would try to annex part of Sunni-dominated Anbar province. “We, the Sahwa forces, are ready to fight against these schemes that stem from Iran,” he said.

Mahmoud, the generator line electrician, said he has not given up on trying to get a police job, despite his difficulties thus far. Mahmoud said a police agency hired him and other Sons of Iraq fighters to be night guards in their Adhamiyah neighborhood. The men received a month of training but were let go with no pay, he said.

Like other Sons of Iraq members, he said, he felt safer when U.S. troops — their original sponsors — were in the country. “I want the Americans to be back,” he said.

Special correspondents Aziz Alwan, Asaad Majeed and Uthman al-Mokhtar contributed to this report.