The Shiite-led government is cracking down on U.S.-backed Sunni Arab fighters in one of Iraq's most turbulent regions, arresting some leaders, disarming dozens of men and banning them from manning checkpoints except alongside official security forces.
The moves in Diyala province reflect mixed views on a movement that began in 2007 among Sunni tribes in western Iraq who revolted against al-Qaida in Iraq and joined the Americans in the fight against the terrorist network.
U.S. officials credit the rise of such groups, known variously as Awakening Councils, Sons of Iraq and Popular Committees, with helping rout al-Qaida.
But Iraq's government is suspicious of such groups, fearing their decision to break with the insurgency was a short-term tactic to gain U.S. money and support. The government fears they will eventually turn their guns against Iraq's majority Shiites.
Although there has been no general crackdown on Sunni volunteers elsewhere, some leaders outside Diyala have been arrested in western Baghdad and south of the capital — both one-time al-Qaida strongholds.
Government officials would not comment on specific claims about the push in Diyala. But aides close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, said the government was not willing to tolerate the existence of armed groups with "blood on their hands."
"The continuation of the Awakening Councils as they are now is unacceptable," said Ali al-Adeeb, a close al-Maliki aide and a senior member of his Dawa Party
Dr. iRack views this as the start of the long-awaited move against former insurgents that both he and Marc Lynch have repeatedly warned about. Colin Kahl, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an advisor to Barack Obama who has just returned from a visit to Iraq, warns that confrontation is brewing (via Kevin Drum):
Kahl, who is one of Barack Obama's Iraq advisers, put the blame for the slow pace of political reconciliation on Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki, as well as on American strategy, which he believes is not properly aimed at using U.S. leverage to push Iraq's leaders toward political accommodation.
For example, Maliki has been "slow-rolling" the integration of the Sunni Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi army and police, according to Kahl. Kahl offered some startling statistics about the lack of progress on this front: Of the more than 100,000 Sunni militiamen that were much of the reason for American success over the last year in combating Al-Qaeda in Iraq, 16,000 are "in the pipeline" for integration into the Iraqi Army and police. Of these 16,000, the Iraqi government has only approved 600.
Why? According to Kahl, Maliki, overconfident in the capabilities of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army, believes he would be would be victorious in an inter-sectarian civil war, if it comes to that, and thus has no real interest in integrating these Sunnis into the Iraqi army and police forces.
"Maliki has no interest in integrating these guys -- none," Kahl said. "He thinks they're thugs; he thinks they're hooligans. . . . In fact, there's some evidence that he's trying to pick fights with them, hoping that they will start a fight that he can then turn around and finish them."
Iraq has essentially sat in a holding pattern for the better part of a year now, with violence dying down as various parties assessed their ability to secure their power. The Sunnis appear to be losing patience with the stalled pace of integration, and Maliki's government appears to have little interest in any such integration. Something has to give, but it's impossible to say what, where, or when. One can only hope that Maliki and his allies can be cajoled into permitting greater Sunni integration, at least quickly enough to prevent a return to full-blown insurgency, but it doesn't look as though that's going to happen anytime soon.
UPDATE: The NY Times has an article today about the volatile situation in Kirkuk, and how the Sunni-Shiite conflict is hardly the only flashpoint in Iraq.