Iraqi authorities have begun training thousands of additional Sunni tribal militiamen in a major shift of attitude towards the fighters as Baghdad grapples with its worst violence in years.
The collection of armed tribal groups known as the Sahwa helped turn the tide of Iraq’s brutal insurgency, but they have since alleged ill-treatment at the hands of the Shiite-led authorities.
The increased reliance on the militiamen, confirmed by tribal, official and security sources, is an implicit acknowledgement that the country’s conventional security forces have largely failed to control spiralling violence that has left more than 3,600 dead this year.
“We have decided to fight Al-Qaeda with the Sahwa, which achieved victory against them in the past,” said Amr Khuzaie, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s national reconciliation adviser.
“They will be well-organised and well-trained, and young — they will be not more than 40 years old.”
Khuzaie said authorities envisioned up to 10,000 militiamen concentrated in the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, and the areas surrounding the capital where insurgents have long sought safe haven, sometimes referred to as the “Baghdad belt”.
Tribal and security sources said around 2,000 Sahwa fighters were currently in training, with the first units to be deployed in the Baghdad area.
A revival of the Sahwa marks a major public shift, both in the treatment of the militiamen and in terms of official reliance on non-conventional security forces.
From late 2006, when Iraq’s bloody sectarian war was around its peak, Sunni tribes began siding with US forces against the often brutal tactics of their Al-Qaeda-linked co-religionists.
The American military started paying the militiamen regular salaries, and called them the “Sons of Iraq”. In Arabic, they were referred to as the Sahwa, or “Awakening”, forces.
Coupled with a “surge” of US troops, and an overall change in strategy, the co-opting of the Sunni tribes and the rise of the Sahwa, who numbered around 100,000 at their peak, are seen as having been crucial to the decline in violence in Iraq from 2008 onwards.
But since US forces handed over responsibility for the Sahwa to Iraqi authorities, the militiamen have alleged poor treatment, delayed payment and a failure of the Shiite-led government to follow through on a promise to incorporate them into the civil service and conventional security forces.
Now, with violence at its worst level since Iraq was emerging from that sectarian war, the Sahwa appear to once again be an important part of strategies to combat attacks.
“The government has decided to revive the Sahwa project,” said Abdulkadhim Rashid Yusuf, the Sahwa leader in the cross-sectarian town of Taji, which lies north of Baghdad and has been hit by a spate of brutal attacks in recent months.
“It has seen the loosening of the security situation, and the return of terrorism on a larger scale.”
Walid al-Ayish, a leader of the Faraj tribe, added: “The government decided to merge the Sahwa into civilian institutions, but left their positions unmanned — they are the people who know their areas best.”
“The state has noticed this breach, after it failed to stabilise security, and now it has begun taking in new members” of the Sahwa.
As violence has spiked higher, authorities have responded with wide-ranging operations targeting militants.
The latest is said to have dismantled several militant training camps and bomb-making sites and led to the arrest of hundreds and the killing of dozens. It came after brazen assaults, claimed by an Al-Qaeda front group, on two prisons near Baghdad that freed hundreds of prisoners.
But analysts and diplomats have said the campaign has ignored the root cause of the violence — anger among minority Sunnis at their alleged ill-treatment at the hands of the Shiite-led government.
Increased use of the Sahwa could, in theory, tackle two problems at once, by providing thousands of young Sunni men with jobs, and, officials hope, reining in worsening violence.
“After Iraqi forces took responsibility from US forces and formed a large military, they felt that they did not need the tribes nor the Sahwa, so they neglected them,” said Nadim Hatem Sultan, head of the Tamim tribe in Taji.
“This wrong must be corrected.”