BAGHDAD (AP) — They were known as the Sahwa, or the Awakening Councils — Sunni militiamen who took extraordinary risks to side with U.S. troops in the fight against al-Qaida during the Iraq War. Once heralded as a pivotal step in the defeat of the bloody insurgency, the Sahwa later were pushed aside by Iraq's Shiite-led government, starved of political support and money needed to remain a viable security force.
Now, the Obama administration is looking at the Sahwa, which still exist in smaller form, as a model for how to unite Sunni fighters against the rampant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that has swept across most of the nation's north. Also known as the Sons of Iraq — "sahwa" is Arabic for "awakening" — U.S. officials say they hope Sunnis will be similarly stirred to fight back against the new insurgency.
As many as 3,000 core ISIL fighters, many of them foreign, are believed to be in Iraq. But U.S. intelligence officials fear twice that many Iraqi Sunnis are vulnerable to being lured into the violence — pushing the country into an outright civil war. That has prompted the White House, State Department and CIA to look for incentives to keep as many disgruntled Sunnis as possible from joining the fight.
"Hundreds of Sahwa fighters have given up during the past months. Either they have stayed home or joined insurgent groups," said Ramadi militiaman Abu Humam, who would only identify himself by his nickname out of fear for his family's safety. He said he will not join the insurgency because "because they do nothing but kill people."
But Abu Ahmed, a Sahwa fighter from Muqdadiyha, said he joined an extremist group to protect himself and his family after receiving threatening text messages. He said he reported the threats to government security forces, "but nobody cared."
"It seems that both the government and the insurgents hate Sahwa," he said.
The Obama administration knows it cannot recreate the original Sahwa security movement, which was supported and bolstered by American troops in Sunni-dominated areas of western and northern Iraq. Over a three-year period after the Sahwa campaign began in late 2006, the U.S. military paid them at least $370 million.
By contrast, there now are no immediate U.S. plans to arm or fund the Sunni security militias, and there are too few American personnel in Iraq now to try to duplicate the original joint force.
It's thought likely that Iraq's Sunni neighbors — notably Jordan and Saudi Arabia — will use their cross-border tribal networks to bolster the security militias with financing or weapons, but it's not clear whether Washington would even support that privately. The U.S. probably would want to vet the tribes before they received any money or arms, even from other nations, to ensure that the aid does not get passed along to ISIL or other extremist groups.
A similar process in Syria has delayed assistance to the frustrated moderate Sunni rebels in their three-year civil war to eject President Bashar Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiism.
Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Thursday with diplomats from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. He hopes to enlist Sunni-dominated Gulf states in the U.S. effort to push Iraq toward creating a more inclusive government that equally empowers Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, and potentially replaces Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as the best option to quell ISIL. He also will talk to Saudi King Abdullah on Friday in a quick visit to Jeddah.
Considering ways to keep Sunni fighters out of the insurgency will be part of the discussions, officials said.
"We're hearing from Sunni leaders across the board that they really want to do something about ISIL. They're figuring out how to do it," said one senior State Department official who, like more than a half-dozen other U.S. officials interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue by name.
He said many of the Sunni tribes first want to unseat al-Maliki.
Offering more autonomy to Sunni regions of Iraq, diluting Baghdad's power and giving more authority to tribes, could be one avenue for appeasing the fighters, according to a second senior administration official. That would give tribes more say in security decisions, although it's not clear how they would be funded. Unlike the Shiite-dominated south and the far northern Kurdish region, there are few oil reserves in in the Iraqi lands mostly populated by Sunnis.
It is also possible that new Shiite leaders in Baghdad will be willing to fulfill al-Maliki's promises and integrate the Sahwa into government security forces with full salaries and benefits. But that would take months, if not years, to complete, the White House official said. Moreover, there is no obvious successor for al-Maliki, who has shown no signs of stepping down.
Requests by The Associated Press for comment from Saudi, UAE and Jordanian diplomats and intelligence officials were either refused or not immediately granted.
Al-Maliki for years promised American officials he would hire the Sahwa to diversify the overwhelmingly Shiite government security forces and ensure the Sunni militiamen would continue to be paid once the U.S. troops left the country. But the vast majority of an estimated 90,000 Sahwa never got government jobs and, if they are paid by local authorities in the areas they protect, they receive less than a few hundred dollars each month.
Betrayed by al-Maliki's broken promises, and threatened by insurgents, many Sahwa now feel that joining forces with extremists is a safer bet. U.S. officials believe a significant number of Sunni tribal fighters are now fighting alongside ISIL, including the Sahwa and an estimated 1,000 former Baathists and others loyal to the late President Saddam Hussein.
There are still large numbers of Sunni fighters who have not sided with ISIL, the officials said, but there is a fear they might join in if Iranian-backed Shiite militias begin playing a prominent role in the fighting. That would mirror the kind of sectarian bloodshed that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war at the time the Sahwa were created.
"The problem is, there are far too many tribes sitting on the sidelines," said retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, who helped build the original Sahwa program and is now a professor at Ohio State University. "But if the Iraqi government can re-form the alliance with the tribes, and present itself to the Arab Sunnis as a government they can support, then I think the portion of ISIL that's composed of foreign jihadists could be defeated in short order."
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.
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