Baghdad — In one of the deadliest single attacks in Iraq this year, insurgents on Sunday targeted the Sunni militia that was crucial in turning the tide against Al Qaida in Iraq.
That bombing claimed at least 43 lives and rekindled memories of the 2006-07 peak of both Iraq's civil war and its insurgency. It is the latest in a string of recent attacks against Iraqi police and the Sunni Awakening, or Sons of Iraq.
Members of the Awakening, a collective movement recruited by the U.S. military to fight AQI, were attacked while waiting on Baghdad's southwest outskirts to receive paychecks from the Iraqi government.
Government officials and Awakening leaders blamed AQI.
"It is Al Qaida - they are targeting us because we hurt them, we paralyzed them," said Abu Mustafa, the South Baghdad deputy Awakening commander, who would only give his nickname for security reasons. "Now (Al Qaida militants) are trying to find a gap, a weak spot in order to regain the ground."
Indeed, the attack comes at a time of political flux in Iraq. Iraqi politicians continue to bicker over forming a new government, resulting in an open-ended power vacuum that has festered more than four months after national elections. With the U.S. due to pull out all combat troops by Sept. 1, Iraqis are concerned that AQI could further capitalize on the political uncertainty.
"This will have consequences if it is not brought under control ... if that push from Al Qaida is not stopped," said a resident of Fallujah, a key city in Iraq's western Anbar province, once renowned for its Sunni militancy and Al Qaida presence, which the Sunni Awakening helped to subdue. "People are losing their lives, they are losing their sons... We are on the ground, we can see it. The fact is there is pushback from Al Qaida, timed as the Americans leave. Al Qaida is sending a message to families: 'If you go after us, we will go after you.'"
BIDEN AND MILITARY: NO CHANGE IN DRAWDOWN PLANS
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, speaking hours after Sunday's attacks, said neither the lack of a new government nor the violence would halt the withdrawal, leaving just 50,000 support troops in Iraq after August.
The drawdown - from a peak of more than 170,000 American troops in late 2007 - "will not in any way affect the physical stability of Iraq," Biden told ABC News.
But senior U.S. and Iraqi officers say that Iraq is less susceptible today to renewed civil war, and that efforts by Al Qaida and other militants to intimidate and reestablish control over former bastions such as Anbar province have so far been largely ineffective.
"We have days when there are spikes in attacks, but then we have quite a few days go by with little or nothing," said Brig. Gen. Kenneth Tovo of the U.S. Army 1st Armored Division, in charge of Anbar Province. Attacks are down to an average of two per day in the province.
"Our assessment - and the Iraqi forces are in agreement with this - is that most of the violence right now is not Al Qaida-generated or -directed," said Tovo, in an interview before the Sunday suicide strike on the edge of Baghdad. "My Iraqi counterparts believe that most of this is political opportunism, in this uncertain period when we are working on national government formation. They feel that when (the new government is formed), a lot of this will settle down."
MANY AWAKENING MEMBERS NOW PAID TO STAY HOME
The Awakening Councils - often made up of former insurgents who then sided with the government against Al Qaida, and also known by their Arabic name, Sahwa - have been a frequent target of revenge attacks by Al Qaida in Iraq and other hardcore Sunni militants, since they were raised with American backing in 2007.
Despite playing a significant role in suppressing Al Qaida in villages and towns across a swath of central Iraq, they have always been viewed with suspicion by the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki.
The Sunni militiamen complain they are neglected by an uncaring government, which has failed to fulfill promises to integrate 20 percent of the roughly 92,000 Awakening members into the regular security forces, to find jobs for others, and to keep paying salaries - never mind to keep them safe.
The risk of infiltration is a constant problem, said Khalid, the Awakening commander of Baghdad's Radwaniya district, where Sunday's attack took place.
Al Qaida has mounted a "continuous effort to target us from the inside. We know this and take what precautions we can, but suspicion is not a good colleague in a fight like this," said Khalid, who would only give one name. He lost a cousin in the suicide attack, and spoke on Monday while attending a funeral.
"The (Iraqi) army has good relations with us and is cooperative, but there is no support from the government," said Khalid. "I used to command 1,240 men, each one an important part of a security net, and now I command 400 only. The rest have become either porters or cleaners or are simply paid a monthly salary and stay at home. They should be here on the ground, holding their weapons and securing the area."
FALLUJAH POLICE CHIEF: THEY WILL NOT DEFEAT OUR RESOLVE
Among examples of attacks, two separate roadside bombs in December killed two Awakening commanders. In March, armed men broke into the house of a Sunni militiaman, shooting him and his wife. In June the house of a member was blown up on the outskirts of Fallujah. Also last month, gunmen raided the home of a man who belonged to a tribe vocal in its anti-Al Qaida views, killing five members of the family.
Much more frequent attacks have been aimed at police officers, who have seen families killed by gunmen using silencers, and their houses repeatedly blown up. Many of those attacks have taken place in and around Fallujah, a former insurgent and Al Qaida stronghold 30 miles west of Baghdad.
"There will be no return for Al Qaida," said Fallujah police chief Brig. Gen. Mahmoud Ibrahim al-Essawi. "Bombing homes of police officers and members is to destabilize security and this will not succeed because we made plans that we cannot reveal now.... I accuse Al Qaida for the attacks...but they will not defeat (our) resolve and this city will not embrace them again."
IRAQI FORCES IN ANBAR HAVE 'PROVEN THEMSELVES'
American officers also say that, despite the continued attacks, Al Qaida and affiliated Sunni militants have lost many previous capabilities, and that low-level Al Qaida operatives have even been found working for non-Al Qaida groups, sometimes for cash.
"Al Qaida, as a coherent terrorist organization that existed in previous times, has been severely degraded," said Tovo. "Just look at the damage they've taken at the senior and mid-level leadership over the course of the spring and early summer. They have lost their coherence, their funding has been (cut) back, and frankly, (there is a) lack of popular support."
GEN. ODIERNO INTERVIEW: AL QAIDA IN FINANCIAL CRUNCH
Iraqi forces have "proven themselves very capable in Anbar," adds Tovo. Al Qaida in Iraq "can perpetrate violence, but at this point they are not a serious threat to Iraqi Security Force control."
But that has not stopped attacks from happening, or pro-Al Qaida websites from calling for revenge online. One Web posting on Monday celebrated Sunday's attack, showing graphic before and after photos of the attack. The banner on the page addressed the Awakening militias: "Wait for the plucking of your heads, you traitors."
>e,?(Special correspondents Sahar Issa and Mohammed al-Dulaimy in Baghdad and Jamal Naji in Fallujah contributed.)