What Does the Future Hold for Iraq's Awakening Councils?

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.

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