Al-Qaeda Infiltrating Pro-U.S. Militias in Iraq, Sources Say

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Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for TIME

A Sunni Awakening fighter stands guard on an open road in Iraq's desert Anbar province.

Sheik Hamid al-Hayess is not optimistic. A burly man with a thick black mustache and closely knitted brows, he is one of the founding members of the Anbar Awakening. The grouping of Sunni tribal sheiks in the once al-Qaeda–infested western province turned against the insurgents and sided with the U.S. military, providing the model for what became a nationwide campaign known as the Sahwa. But that model is in trouble. "The Sahwa has been infiltrated by al-Qaeda," he says somberly. "A civil war is coming."

If it happens, this time the lines in the sand will more likely be between Sunnis. Iraq's minority Sunnis have become increasingly split between those like Sheik Hamid, who are now allied with the Shi'ite-led government, and Sunnis who are against it. Some co-religionists remain so antigovernment that they either have returned to the insurgency or sympathize with those who have. (See pictures of the sheiks who helped bring stability to Anbar province.)

In recent months, al-Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliates have been regrouping, recalibrating their targets and tactics; they have recruited disenfranchised members of the U.S.-allied Sahwa movement, planting them as sleeper agents among the mainly Sunni neighborhood patrolmen, who number about 94,000 nationwide, according to a highly placed source close to the insurgency. "Many of the Sahwa have returned after seeking forgiveness, but they are still Sahwa," the source tells TIME. "They wear the government's uniform, but they plant explosives and sticky bombs. The Sahwa is the biggest recruiting pool for al-Qaeda." (See the most dangerous streets of Baghdad at the height of the insurgency.)

The source claims that some 40% of the Sahwa are insurgent spies. A senior source in the Interior Ministry who requested anonymity does not deny the infiltration but puts the figure at closer to 20%. The Interior Ministry source says intelligence agencies are reviewing the Sahwa files. Abdel-Karim Samarraie, the deputy leader of the parliament's defense and security committee and a senior member of the Tawafuk, the largest Sunni bloc, says al-Qaeda moles represent a small minority of Sahwa but should be weeded out. "The Interior Ministry fired 62,000 of its employees because there were legal accusations against them," he says. "The same thing can be applied to the Sahwa." The U.S. military did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

This new security threat comes as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw its forces from Iraq's cities by June, ahead of a complete withdrawal by the end of 2011. But in many ways, U.S. troop numbers and locations are secondary factors. This is an Iraqi problem, one that stems from festering political rivalries and suspicions among the country's competing centers of power.

Those suspicions made some members of the Sahwa easy pickings for a tenacious insurgency that has capitalized on the rising resentment many in the Sunni community feel toward Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. Among their complaints: that Baghdad has sometimes been a month or two late in forking over the $300-a-month salary for Sahwa patrolmen; that Sahwa leaders have been arrested, sometimes on charges harking back to their insurgent past, despite promises of amnesty; and most significant, that the government has been slow to make good on its pledge to incorporate 20% of the Sahwa into the security forces and find government jobs or civilian training for the rest.

There are conflicting reports as to how many Sahwa have been absorbed into the Iraqi security forces. Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf says 13,000 have been trained and placed in local police units. Major General Mike Ferriter, deputy operations commander of the U.S.-led forces, says the police have taken in 5,000 and the army 500. Even so, the figure is clearly not the promised 20%. A recent hiring freeze in the security forces — prompted by budget woes due to the massive drop in oil prices, which account for about 90% of government revenues — has further reduced the likelihood that the 20% benchmark will be achieved anytime soon.

As poverty, broken government promises and feelings of marginalization took hold of the Sunni community, all al-Qaeda and its allies had to do was wait. "The coalition and the Iraqi government told the people that the reason for their poverty was the insurgents. But when the people became Sahwa, their poverty was not alleviated," the insurgent source says. "They realized that their poverty was due to the Americans and the government. That's what's happening in western Baghdad."

See pictures of U.S. troops' 6 years in Iraq.

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