Middle East

Iraq's militia leaders reveal why they turned on al-Qaeda

Many Iraqi militias which initially opposed the US invasion in 2003 later switched sides to fight against al-Qaeda alongside the American troops. The movement, known as the Awakening, was critical in bringing the conflict towards an end.

"First of all we started seeing bodies filling the streets. Then they managed to capture five of my people and slaughtered them. Then they killed my brother," says Abdel Jabbar.

Sheikh Jabbar - as he is known locally due to his status as a tribal leader - is telling me, in his matter-of-fact way, about the horrors inflicted by al-Qaeda on his family and friends.

The period he is describing, three years after the overthrow of Saddam in 2003, represents the low-point in the tempestuous history of modern Iraq.

At first, following the invasion, a hatred of the American occupiers had united the insurgents.

Sheikh Jabbar, who had built up a lucrative construction business under the old regime, had been one of their major financial backers, supporting the insurgents at Falluja.

But by 2006, in one of the many unintended consequences of the invasion, foreign fighters such as the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had pledged themselves to al-Qaeda and received funding directly from Osama Bin Laden, had come to dominate the insurgency. Their control extended over vast swathes of Iraq.

Their ruthless exercise of power threatened to rip the country apart.

As Gen Jack Keane, the former vice chair of the US Army Defence Staff candidly admitted: "[Until that point] we made a conscious decision not to protect the [Iraqi] population.

"The security situation in Iraq by late 2006 was the worst it had ever been and it was getting worse by the day - that was the reality."

Confronting al-Qaeda

For Sheikh Jabbar, desperate times required desperate measures and this was the moment he triggered what would become the Awakening, a military counter-offensive in which he and his supporters joined forces with their former enemies, the Americans, to confront al-Qaeda.

Image caption Sheikh Jabbar sought help from the Americans to break al-Qaeda's hold on Anbar province

In late 2006, he arranged a meeting with Col John Tien of the US army in which he asked for weapons and ammunition for his men to take on al-Qaeda.

The Awakening had begun, marking a key turning point in the fortunes of Iraq.

Although at the time they numbered in the dozens, the forces who would later be known as the Sons of Iraq, swelled to a 100,000 or so.

"People ask me what was the tipping point in Anbar province," says Col Tien.

"I would say 22 November, the day Sheikh Jabber entered my tactical operations centre and said, 'I want you to help me take back my neighbourhood.'"

Today Sheikh Jabbar, who has not spoken before in public about his role in the Awakening, looks more like a local bank manager than an insurgency leader.

"Well at the beginning, our first enemy was the Americans but when al-Qaeda started killing us, killing our people, al-Qaeda became enemy number one and second the American," he says.

But with the American combat troops leaving Iraq this summer, and with uncertainty once again clouding the country's future, he felt the time was right to tell his story.

And a grim story it is, too.

A story of Iraqis caught smoking in public having their fingers cut off and, in one particularly gruesome incident, a story of an old man who had sold cigarettes to American soldiers who was publicly beheaded in front of his family and local community by al-Qaeda men.

Risk and retribution

Another who joined the ranks of the Awakening was Sheikh Ali Hatem, from a wealthy landed family in Anbar province.

Image caption Sheikh Ali Hatem was a major financial backer of the Awakening

With his immaculately starched dishdash and perfectly manicured nails, he makes an arresting visual contrast to Sheikh Jabbar, but his views on al-Qaeda are equally uncompromising.

"In the beginning we thought al-Qaeda was an Islamic group wanting to fight Americans. So we supported them all over Anbar," he says.

"But then they took over every aspect of life and they began to control us. And we started seeing bodies filling the streets.

"What opened the eyes of the people of Anbar to the vileness and the awfulness of the regime is their attempt to take over Anbar by cutting off the heads of some of the leaders before daring their families to pick up their bloody remains.

"They would pull women by their hair when they came to ask for the release of their husbands."

For Ali Hatem and his followers, only one response was appropriate - retribution.

He described to me, with chilly detachment, an incident outside a mosque in which his followers took the law into their own hands against al-Qaeda.

"At Friday prayers they arrested 12 al-Qaeda members and dragged them outside the mosque. The evidence was presented to the crowd. They arrested three of them and then they shot nine of them on the spot."

Personal risks

Leaders of the Awakening such as Sheikh Jabbar were taking huge personal risks in confronting al-Qaeda.

One of his brothers had already been killed by al-Qaeda when further bad news reached him.

"I had a brother who lived in Baghdad. Al-Qaeda managed to kidnap him and they wanted to bargain with me," he says.

"They contacted me asking me to release the 30 [al-Qaeda] members I had in my police station. So I refused them.

"I would never allow it. So I said if they killed my brother it would be better than if they killed innocent people. They killed my brother because I refused."

For the followers of Sheikh Jabbar and Ali Hatem, disgust at the behaviour of al-Qaeda provided the key motivation behind their decision to take up arms alongside their old enemy, the Americans.

Money played a part, too, and the salaries they were paid to join the Sons of Iraq were clearly attractive in a war-torn country with few legitimate means for earning a living, but according to those I spoke to, it was rarely the prime reason.

Uncertain future

The leaders of the Awakening feel understandably aggrieved that their role in virtually destroying al-Qaeda and restoring what passes for order in Iraq has not been properly recognised.

Launched in Anbar province in late 2006, the Awakening had spread to Baghdad and beyond by the following summer. The results were immediate.

In July 2007 American casualties dropped sharply. The Awakening had removed many of America's enemies.

Sectarian killings also tailed off.

Other factors played a part, not least the surge in US troops under the leadership of Gen David Petraeus who arrived in Iraq in early 2007.

But these extra American troops were far outnumbered by the newly recruited Sons of Iraq, and, as one American soldier put it, it was the Awakening, not the Surge, that was "the game changer".

Yet according to one of the key architects of the Awakening, Sheikh Jabbar, the future of Iraq itself remains far from assured.

The Sons of Iraq, most of whom are Sunni, are being disbanded by the Shia-dominated government. They have been promised civilian jobs to replace their military ones, but these have been slow to materialise.

The power vacuum at the centre of government - the search for a coalition is still going on a full six months after the March general election - adds to the uncertainty.

Al-Qaeda is indeed much diminished, with their followers now numbering in the hundreds not the thousands. But they still pose a deadly threat.

On my recent travels around the country while filming Secret Iraq, I repeatedly heard the same concerns expressed by former Sunni insurgents, from the once notorious but still tense resistance stronghold of Falluja, scene of the two major US assaults in 2004 to Mahmoudiya, an hour south of Baghdad, which retains its well-earned nickname, "the triangle of death".

Yes, the former insurgents were glad to see the back of the Americans. And yes, they hold out hope for a democratic, peaceful and united Iraq.

But, if they fail to achieve these goals through the political route now on offer, the danger remains that they will once again take up arms to protect their interests.

The two part series Secret Iraq is on BBC Two at 9pm on Wednesday 29 September and 6 October or afterwards via BBC iPlayer.

More on this story

Around the BBC