In Adhamiya, a neighborhood that only a year ago was among the most dangerous in Baghdad, the violence last week seemed almost negligible. A shootout near a checkpoint left two people dead on Sunday. Another man was killed on Monday by a small bomb placed under a car.
Some residents hardly noticed.
But the deaths quickly drew the attention of the American officers stationed in the neighborhood. Both outbursts involved members of the Awakening Councils, the citizen patrols paid by the United States to fight the insurgency.
And both were seen as a worrisome sign of the tension and infighting that have rippled through the Sunni-dominated Awakening groups in recent weeks, just as the American military plans to transfer control of about half the councils to the Shiite-led government.
The American military credits the councils — whose 99,000 members are mostly Sunni Muslims, many of them former insurgents — with helping to greatly reduce violence around the country.
But in Adhamiya and in some other areas of Iraq, the patrols, hailed by many as heroic for making the streets safer, have posed increasing problems. Commanders quarrel and jockey for power and territory. Finger-pointing and threats are common. Some residents complain that the men, not a few of them swaggering street toughs, use their power to intimidate people. Sometimes violence erupts.
"What you have is essentially armed factions, like mini-gangs, that operate in a certain set of checkpoints in certain territories," said Lieutenant Erick Kuylman, a patrol commander in the First Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, which operates in Adhamiya. He said the Awakening Councils had met their original purpose, but he added, "They have outlived, I think, their service since then."
Some American officers say it is no coincidence that the problems have worsened at a critical juncture for the Awakening movement and for American forces.
On Oct. 1, 54,000 Awakening members in and around the capital — including those in Adhamiya, a Sunni stronghold where Saddam Hussein was last seen before he vanished in 2003 — will move to the payroll of an Iraqi government dominated by Shiite Muslims, who were long persecuted under Saddam.
American military commanders have said the success of the transition is a critical gauge of whether reconciliation is possible at a time when withdrawals of American troops are beginning.
"It's a very big deal to us to make sure that this goes off well," said Brigadier General Robin Swan, a deputy commander for the American forces in Baghdad.
The military has spent months working out the mechanics of the transition, hoping to head off problems. But some American officers have expressed concerns that should the transfer go badly, the lure of the insurgency might prove too great for some Awakening members, in particular top leaders, who stand to lose lucrative management fees and higher salaries. The result could threaten the fragile stability attained in much of Iraq in recent months.
In Adhamiya, where attacks by insurgents were once so frequent that American and Iraqi forces walled in the area with three miles of concrete, the patrols may be especially susceptible.
Ghassan Mutar, an Awakening leader in the neighborhood, said Monday that "people will be absolutely angry" if the government did not deliver on its assurances. "If anyone offers them money to plant bombs or attack Americans," he said, "they might go back to the insurgency."
Other areas of Iraq, like Diyala and Salahuddin Provinces, where local leaders say Awakening groups have carried out kidnappings and killings aimed at rival councils, might also offer fertile recruiting grounds.
Many Awakening leaders fear that once the transfer is complete, the government will go after them. They say they have little faith in the promises of the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, that about 20 percent of the Awakening members will be incorporated into the security forces and that the rest will be given civilian jobs or job training. They fear that government officials will dissolve the patrols and arrest any former insurgents viewed as a threat. Iraqi Army commanders have repeatedly said there will be no mass arrests.
In Adhamiya, nervousness about the transfer has exacerbated frictions.
"Because no one really knows how the transition is going to go," Kuylman said, "they're all assuming the worst."
How the Iraqi government handles the transfer is crucial, he said. "If they don't have their pieces lined up before they start making moves, it's going to be disastrous," he said, adding, "You're faced with people put in power, and they obviously aren't going to want to give it up."
For several weeks, he and other officers have spent much of their time trying to allay fears, calm tempers and mediate disputes between Awakening commanders or between the councils and the Iraqi Army. On Sunday, an Iraqi colonel, Adel Hussain Ali al-Tahi, was appointed to oversee the Adhamiya councils, in part to resolve a dispute between factions about who should replace a departing leader, Ali Bajet.
Last week, lines of American Humvees moved from checkpoint to checkpoint, the patrol commanders answering Awakening guards' questions and offering assurances: "We're not going to abandon you." "We're still going to be here."
The attention was not a formality. Last week, a tense situation escalated into a crisis.
As a dust storm settled over Baghdad on that Sunday, the son of an Adhamiya council leader drove his Mercedes up to a checkpoint staffed by Awakening guards. The guards knew the man, but they stopped his car anyway and searched it. An argument erupted. Another Awakening commander got involved, and a few hours later there was a fistfight. Someone fired a Kalashnikov rifle in the air, and wild shooting began on all sides. Two people were killed, one of them a cousin of an Awakening commander.
News of the shootings spread quickly, and American and Iraqi army officers rushed in to defuse the situation. At 3 a.m., a meeting was held at the house of a tribal leader, with representatives of all sides present. They watched a videotape of the shootings, recorded by a camera at an American base nearby. Soon, 19 men were arrested for questioning, 16 of them Awakening members, American officers said. Most of them have since been released.
Later that day, a small car bomb went off near the house of a senior Awakening leader who had attended the reconciliation session, killing one of his guards.
Last Tuesday, Awakening leaders met with American and Iraqi officers to discuss the transfer of the councils, but the meeting quickly dissolved into angry complaints and recriminations
One commander, Ali Abdul Jabbar, whose cousin had been killed in the shootout, shouted: "I have my family waiting for me and they are crying. Why did they arrest my guys?"
Sheik Sabri al-Mishhdany, whose guard was killed by the car bomb, in turn accused Jabbar's camp of planting it.
"Why don't tell they tell the truth?" Sheik Mishhdany said, speaking of the other Awakening leaders.
"I know what's going on," he said. "It's all inside the Awakening. All the Awakening guys, you have problems with each other. Let everyone go home and let the coalition forces deal with Adhamiya, the Iraqi Army and the coalition forces, and there will be no more Awakening."
Lieutenant Colonel Michael Pappal, the commander of the First Battalion, had begun the meeting by explaining the details of the transfer. It was still not known, he said, whether the commanders would continue to receive higher monthly salaries than the $300 paid to rank-and-file members. If the Iraqi government would not pay the salaries, he said, the American military might supplement the base pay with stipends.
"We're trying to make the transfer as transparent as possible, meaning you would never know there was a change," he said.
He patiently answered questions and listened to different accounts of how the shootings had occurred. But his voice sharpened when one Awakening leader badgered him for more details.
"I'm not discussing that," Pappal said, adding: "Everybody was shooting that day. There will be no more SOI-on-SOI shooting at each other anymore." Sons of Iraq, or SOI, is the name used by the American military for the Awakening Council members.
Pappal pleaded with the assembled leaders for information about who was planting a series of small car bombs in the neighborhood. "I guarantee you there are people in this room that know where the sticky bombs are coming from," he said.
He said later that intelligence indicated that the bombs came from "outside," presumably Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown Sunni extremist group that American intelligence agencies say is led by foreigners. But the frictions among the Awakening leaders, he added, made things easier for the insurgents.
Toward the end of the meeting, the door opened and Major General Mizher al-Azawi, commander of the 11th Division of the Iraqi Army, entered the room. He had learned of the shootings, he said, and wanted to hear what the Awakening leaders had to say.
Those men, who had not hesitated to interrupt or even talk over Pappal, suddenly fell sile
The American commander might be their present, but the Iraqi general was their future.
Reporting was contributed by Riyadh Mohammed, Atheer Kakan and Mudhafer al-Husaini from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Baghdad and Diyala and Salahuddin Provinces
6 months ago