BAGHDAD, Dec. 23, 2007 — -- The fighters of Iraq's "Sunni awakening" have become as controversial as they've been successful.
Nearly 80,000-strong, paid by the Pentagon, and independent of the Iraqi government, these Sunni "awakening councils" are largely made up of former insurgents who have turned their guns on al Qaeda.
"At the beginning, people saw it as an occupation which had to be resisted," said Abul Abed, leader of the Knights of Mesopotamia, speaking in Arabic. "But then, they saw that the Americans were working in the interest of the people. They saw al Qaeda doing terrible things."
President Bush has called them the hope of the future Iraq. "In Anbar, you're seeing firsthand the dramatic differences that can come when the Iraqis are more secure," Bush said during a visit to Anbar province in September.
"You see Sunnis, who once fought side by side with al Qaeda against coalition troops, now fighting side by side with coalition troops against al Qaeda," Bush added.
The militiamen are being lionized on Iraqi television.
In a new slick, Hollywood-style government advertisement, matching a virtual campaign, by jihadists in Iraq, that has endured for the duration of the 4 1/2-year war, a band of insurgents is driven out of town by local villagers. By nearly all accounts, it fairly represents what has happened in some Iraqi Sunni villages.
The fighters of the awakening have been integral to the lull in violence that's accompanied the American troop surge.
Even powerful Shiite leaders, such as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, acknowledge that the militiamen have made a difference. Yet, Iraq's new hope has divided the nation. The increasingly frustrated fighters of the awakening have one demand: permanent jobs. And it has gone unmet.
"The projection is that some 20 percent to 30 percent of those serving in the concerned local citizen groups will eventually be incorporated in the Iraqi police or the army," Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told Fox News on Sunday.
Yet, even for that minority of fighters, the Shiite-led government has dragged its feet on promises of government security jobs. They fear a civil war, in which taxpayer-armed Sunni gunmen will one day array themselves against the central government. The U.S. worries that leaving thousands of Sunni fighters jobless will achieve the same end.
The awakening councils have played a critical role in making Iraq's streets safer, but they have also become victims of their own success. Encouraged by the Americans, feared by Shiite leaders, and increasingly targeted by al Qaeda:
• A funeral was held Friday for three awakening leaders found dead in Baqubah on Thursday.
• In West Baghdad, Saturday, insurgent gunmen shot an awakening leader dead near a Sunni mosque.
• Hours later, not far away, a bomb struck a minibus carrying members of the awakening councils, killing four.
A new audiotape by a man claiming to be Abu Omar al-Baghdadi — the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq — urges more violence.
"I call on you today to sacrifice, may Allah accept your sacrifices, with the apostates of the Awakening (Councils), because they have become supporters for the cross, and stood against the Mujahideen," the man said.