The most important issue of my fifteen month deployment was the Sons of Iraq. The Sons of Iraq had many names, to include Concerned Citizen Groups, Sahawa, Concerned Local Citizens and Citizens on Patrol (my personal favorite). Some Colonel somewhere earned himself a gold star when he decided to force everyone to call them the Sons of Iraq.
The Iraqi Army hates the name “Sons of Iraq.” Our local Iraqi Army Major General likes to say, “If those guys are sons of Iraq, then what are we [the Iraqi Army]? Sons of bitches?” Whenever I talk to the Iraqi Army about the Sons of Iraq, I refer to them as the “volunteers.”
To make it even more complicated, the Sons of Iraq will refer to themselves as “Sahawa,” which is Arabic for “awakening.” Any of the names are interchangeable in everyday Iraqi conversation.
I first heard about the Sons of Iraq while researching the unit I was supposed to replace. The area we were heading to was bad. Very bad. Bad enough that the terrorists could kidnap three Soldiers, send a dump trucks full of explosives to blow up a patrol base (it didn’t work), and kill over fifty Soldiers over the course of a year. The area was called The Triangle of Death, I am not making that up. So, I was a bit nervous about the deployment.
Then I started reading reports about the ‘Sahawa’ and their fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Apparently, some Sunni insurgents decided to turn on AQI, and there was a great deal of fighting between the two groups. The American Army decided to go along with this, and supported the Sahawa by paying them to man check points, giving them road guard vests (so the helicopters wouldn’t shoot them while they stood on check points with their weapons) and working closely with the Sahawa leaders to hunt down AQI.
The level of enemy activity….plumeted, for the most part. No more IEDs, mortar attacks, small arms attacks, just caches of enemy munitions turned over to the Coalition and enemy fighters captured or found floating in a canal.
Why did this happen? AQI’s brutality turned the Sunni tribes against AQI. If AQI had a problem with a Sheik (tribal leader), they would kill him and dump his body in the street, then forbid anyone from touching the body for three days (I major no-no in Islam). AQI extorted money and fighters from the tribes and proved to be a very poor guest. AQI leaders were often non-Iraqis, and liked to boss around the Iraqis. The Iraqis hate this. They hate all foreigners. Even worse, they forbade smoking. I know one Sahawa leader who killed an AQI guy who threatened him for smoking.
The final straw for all the Sunni tribes was AQI’s version of “prima nocte” (watch Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart.”) AQI would spot a young girl of marriage age (12-14 in rural Iraq), kidnap and rape her. This dishonored the entire tribe, and is the ultimate insult to an Iraqi man. To add insult to injury, the AQI guy wrote her a letter saying that while she wasn’t a virgin, she gave her virginity to a prince of AQI and is still worth marrying. After this happened a few times, the tribes revolted against AQI, and the fighting began.
Sahawa guys were rather adept at fighting AQI. Members of insurgent groups like the 1920’s Revolutionary Brigade, Islamic Army, etc worked hand in hand with AQI for a number of years as they fought the Coalition and Iraqi Army. Sahawa knew exactly who was AQI, where they slept, where they hid their weapons. So, once Sahawa decided to Order 66 AQI, it was over quickly.
The United States Government had to get a handle on this, so we offered to pay the Sahawa ten dollars a day to behave and guard a check point. We gave them reflective vests so we wouldn’t have a “He’s coming right for us!” moment and shoot up friendly people holding AK-47s.
The first time I met the Sahawa was my second or third day in Iraq. AQI tried to kill a critical Sahawa leader named Abu Maruf, and we were going out to check up on him. We were pleased with the attack. If AQI tried to kill him, then he definitely wasn’t working for AQI. Plus, they messed up the attack which just upset the Sahawa even more, like whacking a beehive.
We drove out to the club house where Abu Maruf lived and worked. The Sahawa were out in force after the attack, and there were plenty of Sahawa guards along the roads, around the house and on the roof. One of the guards had a machete on his belt. A machete! Why does anyone outside of jungle need a machete? Did I mention the guns? Everyone had a gun, not a single reflective vest anywhere.
Abu Maruf was rattled, and his hand was bandaged up. We had a nice conversation with this guy, who was the former number 3 AQI guy for most of Al Anbar province. During the conversation, I noticed a Sahawa guy walking around with a funny looking hat. I thought it was some sort of yamaka with a thick edge. Yamaka…probably not. I eventually got a good look at the ‘hat,’ turns out it was a rolled up ski mask. He must have just returned from a whacking. The guy’s name was Theeb, which is Arabic for wolf, neat guy.
As the day wore on, I took the time to look around and saw that we were surrounded by the Sahawa. Dozens and dozens of former insurgents who would have killed me six months ago. I would have dropped a bomb on that house six months ago. Now, we were enjoying tea and joking about nonsense.
Since this meeting, I’ve walked past the spot where the three Soldiers were kidnapped. I wasn’t wearing my helmet or flack vest, just waltzing along on our way to a Sheik’s house for a goat feast. Six months earlier and I would’ve been on the AQI YouTube channel.
Let’s go back to an important part. Most of the Sahawa fighters WERE FORMER INSURGENTS. They attacked American Soldiers. They killed American Soldiers. Now, we had the choice of rejecting them for their past, or incorporating them into the security plan for the area. Refusing to let them reconcile was a mistake. We had to bring them into the fold and use them against AQI. Sitting down and talking to these guys made me feel…dirty. There’s a quote, which I’m about to butcher, that goes “The only thing worse than defeat is to compromise with evil.” In order to win the fight, we had to work with these former insurgents.
But, it is was all worth it. In fifteen months, our Brigade lost only one Soldier to enemy action. Very few wounded. The last averaged losing one Soldier every single week, and many more wounded, until the Sahawa came on the scene. All the money paid to the Sahawa barely amounted to the cost of a single Apache helicopter. By not taking casualties or losing humvees to IEDs, the United States Government saved a great deal of money by paying the Sahawa. What a bargain! A bit heartless, but true.
With all the security, the Iraqi Army isn’t fighting for its life anymore, and has time to grow and become more professional. The Iraqi Government can repair infrastructure (no insurgents to blow it up) and provide essential services to the population. City markets are open, and the people aren’t afraid of being kidnapped and murdered. Great success! All we had to do was set aside our anger with these former terrorists, and be their friends.
In the end, we can say we’ve won this war because of our cooperation with the Sahawa. But it feels like a victory won by cheating.
There’s a great episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that encapsulates the Sons of Iraq problem. A little back ground, the Federation is losing a war against the Dominion, and the main character thinks up a plan to bring another ally into the war with the help of a former spy. If they can recruit the new ally, the Federation could win and it will preserve their way of life. How to recruit the new ally gets into a very moral dark area.
We can live with the Sons of Iraq.