American allies the Sons of Iraq being offered more money by al–Qaida to switch sides
Al-Qaida is attempting to make a comeback in Iraq by enticing scores of former Sunni allies to rejoin the terrorist group by paying them more than the monthly salary they currently receive from the government, two key US-backed militia leaders have told the Guardian.
They said al-Qaida leaders were exploiting the imminent departure of US fighting troops to ramp up a membership drive, in an attempt to show that they are still a powerful force in the country after seven years of war.
Al-Qaida is also thought to be moving to take advantage of a power vacuum created by continuing political instability in Iraq, which remains without a functional government more than five months after a general election.
Sheikh Sabah al-Janabi, a leader of the Awakening Council – also known as the Sons of Iraq – based in Hila, 60 miles south of Baghdad, told the Guardian that 100 out of 1,800 rank-and-file members had not collected their salaries for the last two months: a clear sign, he believes, that they are now taking money from their former enemies.
“Al-Qaida has made a big comeback here,” he said. “This is my neighbourhood and I know every single person living here. And I know where their allegiances lie now.”
The Sons of Iraq grew out of a series of mini-rebellions against militants associated with al-Qaida that started in late 2006. They soon grew into a success story in Iraq, which was capitalised on by the then commanding US general, David Petraeus, who agreed to pay each member a $300 monthly salary and used the rebels as a tool to quell the boiling insurgency.
The US handed over control of the Sons of Iraq to the Iraqi government in late-2008. The programme since has been plagued by complaints about distrust and delays in paying salaries, as well as almost daily bombings or shootings targeting Awakening Council leaders and members across Iraq this year, which have troubled US commanders as their combat troops steadily leave the country.
Sheikh al-Janabi’s cousin, Malik Yassin al-Janabi, a joint leader in Hila, became the latest victim today when he was killed by gunmen who shot him dead while he was driving, also wounding two of his guards.
A second Awakening Council leader, Sheikh Moustafa al-Jabouri, said disaffection among his ranks had reached breaking point as US combat forces increasingly depart, with most of his men not having been paid for up to three months and now facing a relentless recruitment drive by local al-Qaida members.
“My people are being offered more money. It has happened throughout Arabi Jabour and Dora,” he said of the two south Baghdad suburbs that he controls.
“I warned the Americans and the Iraqi government that if they continue neglecting us, the Awakening Council will become even more desperate and will look for other ways to make money.
“So it is an easy market for al-Qaida now. The Iraqi government has disappointed them and it is an easy choice to rejoin the terrorists.”
He said approaches to his rank-and-file membership had become commonplace over the last month.
“They are trying every means they know, by threatening or offering money. Many members have no money or salaries and are living in difficult circumstances.”
The director of the Awakening Council project inside the national Reconciliation Commission, Zuheir Chalabi, today dismissed claims that members were defecting in large numbers.
“I think this issue is fabricated and politicised by people who are against the government and are pro-Ba’athist,” he said. “We have no indications that large numbers of Sons of Iraq have left their jobs. We are seeing [defections] of around four in 1,000.”
However, Sheikh al-Janabi said he would give a list of names of the alleged defectors to both American and Iraqi officials. “He needs to accept the facts,” he said.
Two long-term members of the Sons of Iraq revealed to the Guardian that they had been approached in recent weeks by local men whom they knew to be al-Qaida leaders and told they would be paid more to defect.
Both admitted to be entertaining the notion, largely because they feared what would happen if they did not.
Mohammed Hussein al-Jumaili, 25, from Dora, said: “My salary is very low – it is about $300 per month and sometimes they delay paying me for two months or more.
“Ten days ago, I was in a cafe with another person from my neighbourhood. He was working with us also. Two people came to me. I knew them. They were from my area. They said: ‘You know the Sons of Iraq experiment has failed and they will be slaughtered one after the other.
‘If you work with us, we will support you. We will give you a good salary and you can do whatever operation you want to do. You will get extra money for anything that you do that hits the Americans, or the Iraqi forces.’ “
The second member, Sabah al-Nouri, 32, from west Baghdad, said he too had been approached by Sons of Iraq members who were acting as double agents.
“I am responsible for leading a group in al-Haswa district in Abu Ghraib,” he said. “Two months ago, al-Qaida contacted me through people who worked with me. They gave me a good offer, a reward for each operation and a pledge to support me and protect me.
“They said they would give me a weapon, a licence to carry one. There were a lot of promises. They said I would have more authority than I have now. They said: ‘We have not hurt you, why are you working against us?’ “
Major Mudher al-Mowla, who is in charge of the Sons of Iraq inside the Iraqi reconciliation ministry, said the government had recently learned of the cash offers and coercion. “We have learned about this, especially in Adhamiyeh [in West Baghdad] and we have started investigating. We are waiting for the results.”
The US government has granted visas to many Sons of Iraq members and claims that future applications to emigrate to the US from Sons of Iraq leaders would be well received. Both the Pentagon and White House have hailed the Sons of Iraq experience as a triumph during seven difficult years of war.
Some commanders believe Sons of Iraq leaders are overstating an al-Qaida putsch because they fear the unknown once the Americans leave. But they remain warm in their praise of the people they claim helped pave a way for their exit.
“The Sons of Iraq have displayed personal and physical courage on behalf of their country,” said Lieutenant Colonel Bob Owen, chief of the media operations centre at the US embassy in Baghdad. “When they partnered with the government of Iraq to counter the insurgency, they played a pivotal role in disrupting al-Qaida and reducing Iraqi civilian deaths.
“The people of Iraq and Iraqi leaders at every level of government are grateful for the courage and personal sacrifices the Sons of Iraq have made and continue to make for the safety, security and future success and prosperity of the country.”