Former Iraqi insurgent contemplates returning to war

McClatchy NewspapersMay 24, 2009 

A suicide bomber Thursday killed six Awakening Council members who were waiting in line in Kirkuk to receive their monthly salaries.

EMAD MATTI / AP

BAGHDAD — Abu Fatma dresses in suits now. He cuts his hair short and talks like a politician.

He looked down at his tie and his clean gray suit.

"Don't be fooled by my clothes," he said.

Abu Fatma agreed to put his guns aside as part of a deal with the U.S. military last year but the former Sunni Muslim insurgent, once known as a killer with no mercy, is still a fighter. If the Americans don't start keeping the promises they made to his group and him he'll fight again, he said.

"All our arms are from old army caches underground; they will allow us to fight another 20 years," said the Kurd from the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. "I've told the Americans, 'If you keep alienating the people, all the Iraqis will fight.' "

Iraq's fragile peace already is eroding — April was the bloodiest month in a year — and it could unravel completely as the U.S. draws down its forces and prepares to leave Iraq.

One key, Abu Fatma said, is whether the Americans and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government begin to release detainees from Sunni groups that have stopped fighting, stop pursuing the groups' members, protect them from the Shiite Muslim-dominated Iraqi government and help them make the transition from warriors to politicians.

The U.S. hasn't fulfilled any of its promises, he said, and he and other mostly Sunni fighters who agreed to stop fighting in exchange for help from the U.S. military think they've been betrayed.

The Americans, they said, have stood by as the Iraqi government has pursued leaders of the Sahwa — the Awakening groups — and the Sons of Iraq, the Sunni militias that the U.S. military paid to stop fighting in exchange for cash, jobs and protection.

"(Other groups) ask us, 'What did the Americans do?' " Abu Fatma said. "This question has become the most embarrassing question I hear. . . . I'm stumped and embarrassed. I don't have an answer. I say, 'Don't lay down your weapons,' because otherwise I would be dishonest."

Abu Fatma once worked in the office of Saddam Hussein's reviled son Qusay, and when the U.S. military invaded Iraq in 2003, he vowed to fight. He joined other nationalists, and they formed a resistance army that included some Shiite and even Christian fighters, he said.

Their war soon grew murky, however. Sunnis and Shiites started to kill each other. Al Qaida in Iraq, a militant Islamic group, appeared, and then grew cruel and violent. The American military targeted Sunni insurgents while Iran funded Shiite militias, Abu Fatma said. His group was backed into a corner.

He and his army made a deal based on honor, he said. Its soldiers never took money from the U.S., and they've kept their promise to put their weapons aside.

Early last year, Abu Fatma traveled from the south to the north of Iraq asking other Sunni insurgent groups to join in laying down their weapons and entering politics.

In the northern city of Mosul, he said, he met with a representative of al Qaida in Iraq. Inside a mosque, he explained his group's plan to lay down its weapons and work with the Americans to lessen neighboring Shiite Iran's influence.

The al Qaida in Iraq representative asked about the former insurgents' goals, Abu Fatma recalled.

"To liberate Iraq and end the occupation, first and foremost," Abu Fatma said he told the man. "To stand up and fight against the Iranian influence."

The al Qaida in Iraq representative looked at him sternly and told him to leave Mosul, Abu Fatma recalled. If he didn't, he'd be killed.

Now Abu Fatma wonders whether it was all a mistake. He doesn't want to fight again, but he watches as leaders of the Awakening groups are detained and those from other former insurgent groups remain in hiding, wanted by the Iraqi government. He was tortured and detained multiple times for his part in the resistance, and he continues to use his nom de guerre instead of his real name because he's still worried that the government will detain him.

If he has to fight again, he will, he said.

For now, though, Abu Fatma is a deputy in a new political group that's reached out to Sunni insurgent groups to enter politics. He hopes to win parliament seats in Iraq's upcoming national elections.

It's unclear how influential he and his group are, but one American military official said that he'd seen them produce results. He thinks that Abu Fatma's army has some 5,000 men and is a way to reach other insurgent groups.

"Every group was telling these guys, 'Listen, you are being foolish, because the coalition and the Iraqi government are going to use you to get rid of us,' " said the U.S. military official, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk. " 'When they are finished with us, they are going to get rid of you.' "

He worries that the "prophecy is now being fulfilled."

The Iraqi government is "breaking the backs of these organizations," the official said. "The problem is some of them will drift back to their old groups. . . . some will go back immediately to fighting, and the others might return home and just look the other way."

A tribal sheik in Salahuddin province, a portly man with political aspirations, is desperately trying to form a new political bloc of mostly former Baathists, Saddam's Sunni-dominated political party. He hopes it can replace the national government, which is led by Shiite former exiles, before the Americans leave, but he spends his days in hiding because he's a wanted man.

The sheik, who asked that his name not be used because he's being pursued by local security forces, began fighting al Qaida in Iraq even before he spoke to the U.S. He was a leading member of the Iraqi Liberation Army, a group of mostly former Baathists who battled the American-led occupation. He also never took money from the U.S. military, but he agreed to deal with it in order to help his own cause.

Now he worries that the U.S. will leave and Iraq will be lost to a corrupt government controlled by Iran, he said.

"We need to solve the problems before we put down our weapons," he said. "This is our last option, to go back to the resistance, to the fighting. We gave our word to the U.S. forces, but this is our last option."

Under the new security agreement with Iraq, the U.S. military can do little to help the mostly Sunni former insurgents who played the main role in reducing the violence in Iraq, and the American military official worries that when the U.S. leaves, all the progress toward peace will be reversed.

"We will leave on the heels of declaring everything good, and we will be leaving when everything is bad," he said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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