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Abu Zainab, an Iraqi militiaman

Latest update : 2008-01-26

Abderazak Abdelkarim, aka Abu Zainab, joined the Sunni Sahwa militias to fight al Qaeda terrorists on the streets of Baghdad. He tells us about his daily routine and his fears.


Abderazak Abdelkarim’s nom de guerre is Abu Zainab – Zainab being the name of his daughter. Before the US-led invasion in 2003, this 35-year-old Sunni Baghdadi says he worked as a driver for the Iraqi Transport Ministry. When the regime of Saddam Hussein fell, he was relieved. “I was almost happy when the Americans arrived to free us from Saddam Hussein.”

But disillusion quickly followed. “The Americans only brought trouble to Iraq, no progress; the situation here only worsened,” he says.

He is wary of too much questioning, prudent and brief about the years after the US toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. He says simply, “I stayed at home.”

Today, he has joined the militias of the “Sahwa,” or Awakening in Arabic. These groups of Sunni militiamen are financed by the US and in charge of keeping the peace on the streets. The movement was initiated by the late Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Reesha who switched allegiance from al Qaeda to US forces in the Anbar region in September 2006.

Since then Sahwa groups have sprung up around Iraq, and they appear to have reduced violence and pushed back al Qaeda. In December 2007, US commanders reported that the "surge" - the deployment of thousands of extra US troops, mostly to Baghdad - along with the formation of some 300 Sahwa groups across the country, has helped reduce the number of attacks since June by 62%.

According to Peter Harling, an Iras specialist at the International Crisis Group, a lot of Iraqis, sickened by the violence of al Qaeda militants, now support the tribal Sunni chiefs, many of whom were financed by Saddam Hussein and had disappeared from the political scene.

Patrolling the streets of Baghdad

“Our relations with local residents are very good, because we are their sons and children,” says Abu Zainab, who has lived all his life in Baghdad. It is there that he obtained a B.A. in economics in 1996 and then started working for the transport ministry. Today, he has a family and young children living in the Iraqi capital.

Sahwa militants, confirms Harling, are usually recruited locally. “Everybody knows each other in these neighbourhoods,” he says.

“Our job is to patrol the streets and man the checkpoints, but we aren’t allowed to capture suspects,” Abu Zainab told FRANCE 24 in a telephone interview. “If we suspect anything, we pass on information to the national guards, the police or the intelligence services who decide whether or not to launch an operation,” he says. “It’s only in the very violent areas that the Sahwa groups can work alone.”

Since November, Abu Zainab has been working in the Tunis neighbourhood, north of Baghdad, a mixed area home to Sunnis, Shias and Christians, though Sunnis predominate. Many educated Iraqis privileged by Saddam Hussein’s regime lived in this affluent district.

Abu Zainab says his goal is to fight al Qaeda and other local militias. “We work to get rid of all other militias so that there aren’t any armed men on the streets," he says, adding, “And we have almost succeeded."

To disarm others but not themselves… Abu Zainab is paid by the Americans but his weapon, a Kalashnikov assault rifle, is not supplied by the US army. “The Sahwa use their own weapons,” confirms Harling, “Americans are reluctant to give them too many weapons", for fear the Sahwa should turn against them.
“Drawing youngsters back into the right path”

Abu Zainab maintains he's not a fighter but that he works to defend his neighbourhood against al Qaeda. He says he does not want his children to have to pay the price for al Qaeda atrocities. The Islamist organisation, he says, recruits among the young and pushes them to commit suicide attacks. “We want to draw youngsters back into the right path.”

According to Abu Zainab, some Sahwa armed militiamen work openly, manning checkpoints and patrolling the streets while others, more infiltrated into the Iraqi population, report on activities in their neighbourhood. “We have open telephone conversations with the national guards, intelligences services and the police,” says Abu Zainab.

In the wake of an onslaught against members of the militia dating from early December, Abu Zainab admits he is afraid when he goes out on patrols. He fears al Qaeda attacks but for him joining the Sahwa is the “only solution to fight terrorism.”

Iraq's Shia-led government has in the past expressed concern that the mainly Sunni groups could turn into armed opposition. In early January, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki came out for the first time in bold support of the Sahwa militia.

Date created : 2008-01-14