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Line em up
Ex-insurgents Want More Money, or Else
July 25, 2008
The Iraqi officer leading a U.S.-financed anti-jihadist group is in no mood for small talk -- either the military gives him more money or he will pack his bags and rejoin the ranks of al-Qaeda.
"I'll go back to al-Qaeda if you stop backing the Sahwa (Awakening) groups," Col. Satar tells U.S. Lt. Matthew McKernon, as he tries to secure more funding for his men to help battle the anti-U.S. insurgents.
Most members of the Awakening groups are Sunni Arab former insurgents who themselves fought American troops under the al-Qaeda banner after the fall of the regime of executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Some, like Satar, had served in Saddam's army before joining Al-Qaeda. Others were members of criminal gangs before deciding to fight the insurgents, with the backing of the U.S. military.
They earn around 300 dollars a month and their presence at checkpoints and on patrol has become an essential component of the U.S.-led coalition's strategy to restore order in the war-wracked country.
"I like my work," said Satar, who is in charge of security south of Baquba in Iraq's eastern Diyala province.
According to McKernon Satar has a contract with the U.S. military to employ 230 men "but he has more than 300" under his command, which is why he wants more money to keep them happy.
The U.S. military knows perfectly well that many people joined Awakening groups simply because it was a good way to make money, and that if the cashflow dries up some would not hesitate to return to al-Qaeda.
In a bid to avoid this, the U.S.-led coalition is helping Awakening members to return to a "normal life," according to US Admiral Patrick Driscoll.
He told AFP that options included helping them return to the lives they had before joining the insurgency or joining the Iraqi security forces.
Some 17,000 Awakening members have opted for the second choice, and 2,500 of them now hold administrative positions, Driscoll said.
But not everyone in Baquba is happy with the situation.
"Yesterday's killers have now become our protectors," said one sceptical resident who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Who should I trust to protect my family?"
Despite levels of violence nationwide hitting a four-year low, Diyala remains one of the most dangerous regions in Iraq because of the al-Qaeda presence.
On Thursday police said a woman suicide bomber attacked an Awakening patrol in central Baquba, killing eight people including a local Sahwa commander.
Little more than a year ago, Baquba was the scene of deadly fighting that forced many residents to flee.
Among them was the Shiite Wahab family. Despite simmering tensions that continue to grip Baquba, the family recently returned home to the Katun neighbourhood, a mostly Sunni area in the western part of town.
No sooner had they settled in than a home-made bomb blasted through the gate of their house. On Wednesday the eldest son, Mahmud, discovered a second bomb just yards away from the building.
American soldiers accompanied by Iraqi policemen and troops arrived to investigate, accompanied by Abu Zarra, an Awakening group commander of 300 men in Katun.
As bomb disposal teams examined the device, Abu Zarra was overheard by an AFP correspondent discussing with one of his men how much protection money they could extort from the Wahab family.
After the bomb was finally blown up by the experts, a U.S. Soldier teased Abu Zarra, telling him: "Isn't this just like the good old days when you were the terrorist?"
Meanwhile the U.S. Army has files on all Awakening members -- including finger prints and retinal identification.
"They know that we know who they are," said Capt. Kevin Ryan