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.