Dark Days for Iraq's Awakening

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Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for TIME

Members of the local Awakening movement in north Baghdad's Adhamiya district.

Farooq al-Obeidi sensed his killers were near. "We have been penetrated by al-Qaeda," said al-Obeidi, a top commander of the Sunni Awakening group in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya.

Al-Obeidi's band of citizen fighters and local watchmen, divisions of the U.S.-backed Awakening movement around Iraq, have been critical to the taming of the insurgent-infested areas since 2006. As a consequence, they have faced regular assassination attempts from militants aligned with al-Qaeda in Iraq, the umbrella organization for Sunni insurgents. Al-Obeidi said four of his men had been killed since the beginning of the year. And, just about a month after speaking with TIME, al-Obeidi himself was dead. On August 17, a suicide bomber walked up toward al-Obeidi and a team of his bodyguards as they gathered at a checkpoint in Adhamiya. The ensuing blast killed al-Obeidi and nine others and maimed 20. A few days later a militant Website linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq posted a message claiming responsibility.

Al-Obeidi's death marked yet another blow dealt against the Sunni Awakening movement. Awakening fighters, many of whom once worked with the insurgency before switching sides, played a vital role in bringing Iraq's violence down to levels that leadership in Washington and Baghdad now consider low enough for significant U.S. troop withdrawals. But future prospects for the movement's members are growing dim as their insurgent rivals keep up a gruesome murder campaign and the Iraqi government maintains its distance.

U.S. military officials, who have paid and supported the fighters, hoped to see much of the movement absorbed into the Iraqi government security forces. But the predominantly Shi'ite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has largely shunned the groups and lately taken an even harder line against them. Iraqi security forces have arrested multiple Awakening leaders and disbanded some of the bands. For a time joint patrols and checkpoints involving both Iraqi security forces and Awakening fighters allowed the groups to function essentially as paramilitaries alongside the Iraqi army and police. But the growing strength of Iraqi security forces has led them to begin undertaking what would once have been joint operations on their own. Moreover, Maliki recently suggested that Awakening groups had outlived their usefulness, vowing to Shi'ite tribal leaders that all militias would eventually be disarmed. It is a long way from the days when Awakening leaders once hoped to take seats in Maliki's governing coalition. They now sit on the sidelines of Iraqi politics uncertain about what comes next.

All the forces gathering against the Awakening movement were bearing down on Al-Obeidi before he died in Adhamiya, a neighborhood that had been transformed from a violent den of the insurgency to a place of relative calm with the help of Awakening fighters. "With 48 fighters we liberated Adhamiya," said al-Obeidi a month before he died. "This part of the town was very difficult for the mighty force of the Americans to bring under control, and for the Iraqi army and police and militias. They could not secure this area of town for four years."

Al-Obeidi proudly pointed to recently reopened teahouses and other signs of life around the neighborhood but voiced frustration over what he considered a cold shoulder given to his Awakening band by the Iraqi government. "If the government was really looking after the Awakening councils, our salaries would come from the government," al-Obeidi said. "Believe me, even if I get less money from the government than from the Americans, I would feel cleaner and more honest to be taking pay from the government... Any honest Iraqi would prefer to get it from the Iraqi government. I don't want to see any weapon in these streets. I impose law in this city, which the Americans and the Iraqi army have failed to do. I don't want my men to be militia members. I want them to be part of the Iraqi army and police."

The suicide bomber who unleashed the scene of carnage August 17 destroyed all chances of seeing such a future vision come to pass for al-Obeidi and the others who died. Those of the Awakening movement who live on there and elsewhere across Iraq are left to watch in growing apprehension as similar hopes fade. With reporting by Abigail Hauslohner/Baghdad