For months now the U.S. military has been actively building what it calls 'Awakening' forces and "concerned local citizens" in an effort to reduce attacks on occupation forces.
Members of the forces, which comprise primarily former resistance fighters and tribal groups, are paid 300 dollars monthly. There are at present about 80,000 recruits to these groups. The U.S. military plans to cap the number at 85,000.
According to the U.S. military, 82 percent of the members are Sunni.
The forces, which are opposed by the Iraqi government led by U.S.-appointed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, are also being strongly criticised by Sunni residents in Baghdad and other cities.
"The armed groups called 'Awakening' are now the only powerful players in many Sunni areas in Baghdad, and so they show their power the way others did," Qussay al-Tai'i, a lawyer from Saydiya town southwest of Baghdad told IPS. "It seems that violence has become routine procedure for American soldiers, Iraqi security men and now the so-called Awakening fighters."
Witnesses from the area who have recently fled to Baghdad told IPS that more than 200 residents have been arrested by Awakening fighters supported by the al-Muthanna battalion of the Iraqi army.
"They came and arrested my 14 and 17-year-old sons," said Hajja Um Ahmed. "I told them my sons are only schoolboys who did nothing wrong, but they pushed me away."
Saydiya residents are worried that some of the detainees will be executed as others were in Fallujah and other areas where 'Awakening' fighters have taken over.
"They will kill them in cold blood and throw their bodies in garbage dumps," the terrified father of a 35-year-old detainee, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS. "They told my son when they took him that they would cut off his head, and it seems that they meant it."
"They have spread their spies all over the area and threatened us with arrest if we ever talk about this to the press," a merchant who did not give his name told IPS. "You too must be careful because they really hate journalists."
The Sunni religious group, The Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), has condemned the detentions, and says the occupation forces and the current government are responsible for the safety of the detained.
"We draw the world's attention to the new wave of detentions and executions by this new toy of the occupation," Sheikh Hatam Ali of the AMS told IPS in Baghdad. "Thousands of Iraqis are being detained, tortured and executed while the U.S. occupation and its illegitimate so-called Iraqi government tell the world lies about reconciliation and justice among Iraqis." U.S. military units apparently did not interfere with raids conducted by the Iraqi army and the 'Awakening' fighters in Saydiya. The raids have added to the large numbers of people detained.
In November 2007, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced that around 60,000 people were currently detained in Iraq. "They are still waiting for their problem to be solved, and the Iraqi government does not seem willing to solve it," Luqman Mohammad, a journalist and human rights activist in Baghdad told IPS. "This country needs a comprehensive solution by the whole international community."
'Awakening' forces have been widely criticised for corruption and for brutal tactics. Many speak of them as "gangs", "criminals", "dogs of the Americans", and "thieves." But the Bush administration, and many media outlets in the west, credit the 'Awakening' forces with bringing stability to volatile areas.
Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported extensively from Iraq and the Middle East
© 2008 Inter Press Service