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Iraq's Awakening: Two tales illustrate force's birth and slow death

A politician and a fighter were both part of the Sons of Iraq, a U.S.-backed Sunni force that helped end the civil war. Now one is hunted and the other is trying to find a place in the government.

April 28, 2009|Ned Parker

ALRIFOOSH, IRAQ — They were unlikely comrades in arms: the security guard and the stockbroker who stepped out of the shadows of the insurgency to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Abu Maarouf, wiry and good with a gun, headed a hit squad and waged a tribal rebellion against insurgents who had turned the revolt against the Americans into a brutal, thuggish affair. Abu Azzam, heavyset and fond of tailored suits, led secret talks with the Americans that helped forge an alliance with the U.S. military in Abu Ghraib, the no man's land between Baghdad and Fallouja.

The story of Abu Maarouf and Abu Azzam offers a rare window into the birth and slow death of the Sons of Iraq, the U.S.-backed corps of Sunni fighters who helped end the country's civil war.

Today, Abu Maarouf is on the run, hunted by the Iraqi army and the group Al Qaeda in Iraq. Afraid of midnight raids and ambushes, he sleeps some nights in irrigation ditches. Many say it's a miracle he's still alive.

His old cohort Abu Azzam spends his days inside the blast walls of the hermetic Green Zone in meetings with officials from Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's office.

The divergent fates of these two former Sunni insurgents highlight the major unknown about the intentions of Iraq's Shiite-led government: Is it reaching out to former Sunni insurgents such as Abu Azzam in the true spirit of "national reconciliation," or in hopes of splintering the movement?

And will the government's campaign against men such as Abu Maarouf succeed in snuffing out potential rivals? Or is it planting seeds for a long-term Sunni revolt?

The crackdown also points to a significant change in the U.S. forces' onetime policy of nurturing and protecting the Sons of Iraq. As the Iraqi government has arrested some of the movement's leaders, forced others into exile and failed to deliver jobs for rank-and-file fighters, the Americans have regularly deferred to Baghdad's wishes as they hand over responsibility for the country's security.

"I worked with the American forces very hard, but in the end they pushed me aside. That's what they've done," Abu Maarouf said on a recent day in his home village of Alrifoosh, not far from where hooded gunmen once patrolled. He worried that fighters, angry over the government's actions, might now be open to joining Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The Americans, who once wrote the paychecks for 100,000 fighters with the militias, say their hands are tied.

"We are just walking on eggshells. We are afraid we are going to violate the security agreement," a U.S. military officer said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Publicly, military spokesmen point to an Iraqi government commitment to find jobs for the fighters, but breeze over the recent pattern of arrests and the fact that there is only one year of funding to absorb the Sons of Iraq into state jobs, with no guarantees those jobs will exist after 2009.

"They [the government] are breaking the back of these organizations," the U.S. officer said. "They are going after the key leaders, and once they eliminate the key leaders, the members will drift away. The problem is some of them will drift back to their old groups."

The fighter

Abu Maarouf walks into his concrete home not far from the canal where his brother's throat was slit soon after they turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq. The former security guard on some of Saddam Hussein's properties sits on a thin cushion on a concrete floor covered with a plastic mat, with Kalashnikov rifles and a bulletproof vest stacked against the wall. Three men, dressed in race-car T-shirts and green sweatpants, linger.

"Qaeda defeated the Americans and the Iraqi government. We stopped Qaeda. In a short time, we completely cleared the area," Abu Maarouf says, sitting cross-legged in a blue suit coated with dust and a checkered tie.

Abu Maarouf recalls the days before the revolt, when Iraqi army officers were kidnapped by Al Qaeda in Iraq and hung from a meat hook and left to rot for three days.

"No one could capture these people. And the Iraqi government stood by helplessly. We fixed the situation, and now they want to oust us. It's not right," he says.

At first, the Americans wanted Abu Maarouf captured. He was a known insurgent. In 2005, the U.S. military bombed his house in an airstrike, and the heap of yellow rubble from the attack still stands in his yard next to a white plastic picnic table. His fealties before his revolt remain a mystery. He calls himself an independent; others mention the 1920 Revolution Brigades, one of the largest armed groups, and even Al Qaeda in Iraq.

As his revolt gained credibility, Abu Maarouf's old comrade Abu Azzam, whom he had known from huddles with other insurgent groups, introduced him to the Americans. In turn, Abu Maarouf's forces helped Abu Azzam seize control of his village from militants and establish his own paramilitary force.

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