Sons of Iraq In Diyala province
Source: Agence France Presse
Source: Agence France Presse
On October 16, 2010 the New York Times ran a story claiming that hundreds of Sons of Iraq (SOI) members had left their jobs, with most of them rejoining the insurgency, specifically Al Qaeda in Iraq. The article was largely based upon sources from Diyala province. That governorate has had the most contentious relationship between the SOI and the government for the last three years as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has tried to break and co-opt the SOI there. The Times’ piece failed to mention this background, and that could’ve probably provided a better explanation for what has gone on in Diyala.
The New York Times talked with government officials, SOI members, and an insurgent commander who told it that hundreds of SOI had rejoined Al Qaeda in Iraq. It also claimed that perhaps thousands of SOI still on the job were aiding the insurgency. An SOI leader in Diyala said that two dozen of his fighters had recently rejoined Al Qaeda in the last few weeks. An Al Qaeda commander was interviewed saying that they had a successful intimidation and recruiting campaign amongst the SOI there as well. Police officials accused SOI members of helping insurgents, and claimed that they had arrested 90 since January 2010, although half of them were later released for lack of evidence. Finally, the head of Diyala’s security committee told the Times that the SOI were working with militants.
Several causes were cited for this turn of events. One was Al Qaeda’s carrot and stick approach towards the Sons. They have targeted the SOI, resulting in hundreds killed and wounded, while at the same time offering them safety and more money than the government is paying them to switch sides. The political instability after the March 2010 parliamentary elections was also cited because Sunnis are not sure about their political future. The last was a government crackdown on the SOI in the province that has resulted in arrests, and an attempt to disarm them.
The problem with the story was that it was mostly based upon reports from Diyala, but had little context for what has been going on there. The province’s SOI have had the most difficulties with the government of any in the country. Those problems began in 2007 when insurgents first began turning on Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the U.S. turned them into the first Sons of Iraq units. The Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) attempted to co-opt them to build up its popular base ahead of the provincial elections, which were originally scheduled for 2008. Prime Minister Maliki immediately attempted to break this alliance. First, he offered the SOI government jobs in 2007, while refusing to integrate those who were connected to the IIP. Then in 2008, the premier launched Omens of Prosperity that was nominally meant to fight insurgents, but turned into an operation against the SOI and Islamic Party. Hundreds of SOI fighters were rounded up, along with IIP members. The U.S. even complained that Maliki was destabilizing the province at the time through his actions. The ties between the SOI and the Islamic Party were not broken and the IIP still came in first place in the 2009 elections.
Since then little has changed. Baghdad continues to offer rewards and punishments to the SOI in Diyala. In January 2009 the government took control of the SOI in the province from the U.S. promising to integrate a larger percentage into the security forces than in the rest of the country. Instead, many weren’t paid until March. One SOI leader claimed that half of his fighters were fired after the take over. Islamic Party and SOI members continued to be arrested, and Maliki launched another security operation that targeted them in mid-2009. Again, the Americans complained about these operations, with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in the province saying that they were likely political moves at the behest of Maliki. In June 2010, the government told the SOI that they could no longer carry guns because they were civilians. Finally, Baghdad announced that it would stop integrating all of the SOI in the country because they needed them for security before and after the 2010 elections, and because of a hiring freeze imposed by the 2009 budget. Payment problems continue to this day as well in Diyala.
The day after the New York Times story ran, two SOI leaders rejected the paper’s claims as well. CNN talked with two sheikhs, one in Diyala and one in Salahaddin, who stated that their men were still at their jobs. The two had 24,000 fighters under their command. They blamed politicians who were opposed to the SOI for the Times article. The Diyala sheikh said that 150 of his men had walked off their posts in the past two months, but that was because they no longer felt safe from insurgent attacks, while others went looking for other work.
So what is the truth of the matter? Some SOI have undoubtedly been tempted by Al Qaeda’s offers and rejoined the militants. How many is unknown as reports of former SOI members taking part in attacks are very rare. The fact that the New York Times didn’t provide any background to its article robbed the story of the context necessary to understand what’s happening in Diyala however. The bigger problem with the SOI seems to be the government’s unwillingness to integrate all of them, and Maliki’s continued attempt to punish and co-opt them in the province. That along with insurgent attacks upon checkpoints has probably led many more SOI to abandon their posts for safety, to escape harassment by the government, and to search out jobs that actually pay than to rejoin Al Qaeda. Either way, both trends are worrisome, and have had a deleterious affect upon security, giving insurgents more opportunities to carry out attacks.
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