BAGHDAD - The Iraqi government is in danger of pushing Sunni tribal leaders back into the arms of al-Qaida and re-igniting major violence across Iraq if it fails to take more Sunnis into the security forces, the country's leading Sunni politician has warned.
Many tribal leaders who opposed the US occupation switched sides on promises of jobs in the previously Shia-dominated army and police. In a sign of the success of the so-called Awakening movement (al Sahwa), which is also known as the "Sons of Iraq", the US recently handed Anbar province - once a centre of the insurgency - back to Iraqi control.
But in Diyala province, north of the capital, as well as in Baghdad suburbs, the Iraqi army and police have arrested dozens of al-Sahwa leaders in recent weeks because of their previous anti-American and anti-government activity. The government is dragging its feet on a pledge to take a fifth of the estimated 100,000 al-Sahwa members into the security forces.
Iraq's vice-president, Tariq al-Hashimi, who heads the Iraqi Islamic party, said: "The government is very hesitant, and I'm afraid if those groups and individuals are frustrated they might change their minds and instead of fighting al-Qaida and terrorism they will be back to offering them a safe haven, as they did in the past. This is a dangerous development.
"The Awakening groups have become genuine partners in tackling terrorism in Iraq and they should be rewarded rather than penalised," he said.
His concerns were strongly echoed by Sheikh Mustafa Kamil Hamed, a leader of the powerful Jibouri tribe, who controls about 3,500 men in al-Doura, an area of farms and small towns east of Baghdad. Sporting a pistol and a leather belt of bullets across his white jalabiya, his story typifies the extraordinary zigzag of many Iraqi Sunnis. Once a resistance leader, he now proudly displays a medal from George Bush and boasts of entertaining General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, at his headquarters, a small compound surrounded by blast walls and concrete watchtowers.
Al-Qaida arrived in al-Doura in 2005, he said, kidnapping government employees, taking hostages, putting up fake checkpoints, and killing Shias. "Al-Qaida pushed us hard to work with them. They even killed my brother's two sons. We said to them, 'If you've come to resist the US occupation, Iraq is an open field. You're free to do what you want but don't come here and kill our people,'" the sheikh said.
Gradually, he and his tribal colleagues decided to band together and resist al Qaida. The trend was replicated in other Sunni areas. The Americans saw what was happening and gave the Awakening movement money and other support. Now al Doura is crisscrossed with al-Sahwa and Iraqi army checkpoints. Displaced Shia families started to come home. But the mood in al-Doura changed last month with the arrest by the Iraqi army of two prominent al-Sahwa leaders.
In Adhamiya, once of the most dangerous Sunni districts of Baghdad, the story is similar. Abu Abed Ali Bahjat has 400 al-Sahwa men under arms since he began to resist al-Qaida. They refuse to let Iraqi army and police, or US forces, into the suburb's rubble-strewn streets. Adhamiya was one of the worst areas during Baghdad's sectarian battles. Now Shia families are returning there too - around 300, according to Abu Abed, or roughly 60% of those who fled.
Like Kamil Hamed, he is angry with the Shia-led government's apparent switch against al-Sahwa, blaming it on Iranian influence.
Some Sunni leaders claim the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, wants al-Sahwa disbanded by the end of the year. Gen Petraeus and other US officials have expressed guarded criticism of the delay in taking the promised 20,000 al-Sahwa members into the security forces, as they try to strike a balance between not undermining Maliki while assuring Sunnis.
Kamil Hamed suspects the US supports the clampdown on al-Sahwa, whatever US officials say publicly. "US forces are playing a cat-and-mouse game," he said. "They cannot support al-Sahwa on the one hand and let the government arrest al-Sahwa leaders on the other. We restored security in this area but now are under threat. My personal feeling is the US has a special agenda to demolish al-Sahwa. We don't think the US cares."