The U.S. troop surge in Iraq has been a qualified success -- a 60 percent drop in attacks, fewer bodies found on the streets, something approaching normalcy returning to the neighborhoods of Baghdad. And there's one surprising group that has played a large role in making this happen -- the Awakening Councils.
Most Awakening Council members are Sunni Muslims, and the group includes many who had been fighting as insurgents against Americans and have now turned their guns on al Qaeda. The Awakening Councils has been central to the U.S. security plan -- it has helped drive out jihadi and al Qaeda elements and proved central to the U.S. security plan.
The fighters of the Sunni Awakening are nearly 80,000 strong, paid for by the Pentagon, and independent of the Iraqi government. The Awakening Councils started in Anbar Province more than a year ago but really took off after the surge, and now scores of groups have effectively taken responsibility for law and order in their neighborhoods.
As Gen. David Petraeus told ABC News, "Tribe after tribe rejected al Qaeda, rejected its extremism, its oppressive practices and its indiscriminate violence. And watching that take place was very, very important, because it started to point a way ahead, which was that Sunni Arab communities were finally throwing off al Qaeda, finally realizing that the time had come to try to take a place at the table instead of continuing to resist and continuing to boycott what was going on in their country."
Sheikh Sabah Atham Khadem, a former insurgent who is now mayor of Jurf al Sakhr, south of Baghdad, reflected this change of attitude. He said al Qaeda was initially welcomed in his area and told ABC News that "at the beginning, when they got into our areas they were saying that they are here to liberate the country. All Iraqis want to see their country liberated, so we welcomed them."
But with the passage of time, things changed as people started to realize that al Qaeda had their own agenda and were using increasingly brutal methods.
"They dragged more than 460 people from their homes and executed them publicly after accusing them of being government agents," Khadem said. As reality set in, Khadem led the drive to push al Qaeda from the town they had controlled for four years. It has been a huge success, and many families have returned to the town and the surrounding area and the local economy has also begun to pick up.
It is an odd configuration; as Capt. Eric Islington puts it "They don't really like us ? but they're willing to work with us."
But it has worked.
President Bush has called them the hope of the future of Iraq and the groups themselves have been lionized in slickly produced television ads. But it is a precarious relationship based on mutual interest.
Khadem neatly (and a little ominously) sums up the quid pro quo: "We told our people that the American forces for the time being, they are not the enemy, they are our friends. ? I personally owe to American forces because they helped me to reach success for this project." However, that success is provisional on getting something out of this cooperation with their erstwhile enemies and the most pressing demand is for work.
The Americans pay members of the Awakening Councils $300 a month, but this is temporary and the increasingly frustrated fighters have one demand: permanent jobs. A demand that has yet to be met.
The government said that at best 20 percent would be incorporated into the Iraqi police and army. Yet even for that minority of fighters, the process of screening, acceptance and training is tortuously slow, and there have been accusations that the Shiite-led government is deliberately taking its time delivering on promises of government security jobs. The Americans worry that without long-term employment, the Awakening Council members will lose faith in the security plan and return to their old ways.
There is also a political dimension to the integration of Awakening Council members. Sunni participation in all aspects of government has been minimal at best, and this is the most hopeful sign that ordinary Sunnis are now looking to play a more active part in the political and governmental process.
The councils were given grudging recognition for their contribution by Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, the head of the largest Shiite bloc. He said that these largely Sunni concerned citizen groups are working.
"I value the role of our security forces [police and army], and also the Awakening Councils for chasing the terrorists and criminals. It is a patriotic and honorable role and it represents the unity of Iraq on facing terrorism," he said during Friday prayers at his party's headquarters Dec. 21.
But he also reflected the ambivalence of many in the Shiite-dominated government about their future role when he said, "I emphasize that the Awakening Councils should be backing and helping the government and not replacing it ? balance especially in the mixed areas and in hot areas, because weapons should be carried out by the government only."
Worse still, the Awakening Councils have increasingly been the target of lethal attacks, especially in the last few weeks. Awakening Council groups have been targeted across the country in almost every area they operate; across Baghdad, in Mosul, Diyala and in and around Tikrit .
Some of the attacks have been horrifyingly ruthless. An attack on New Year's Eve in the outskirts of Baghdad killed six Awakening Council volunteers as well as five children because the checkpoint targeted was next to a school.
The new alliance by the Awakening Councils has brought them under attack by both Sunni Jihadists and Shiite resistance.
A new group has joined the fray and distributed leaflets in a small Shiite enclave in northern Baghdad warning Awakening Council members they will be treated as collaborators. The leaflet is signed by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, which is a Shiite resistance group. As far as anyone here is aware, it's the first time the group has issued such a threat.
The Awakening Councils are in limbo. The way these groups will be integrated into the military and political infrastructure is a critical test of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, and of the hopes for Iraqi political reconciliation as a whole.