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Leila Fadel, Baghdad Bureau Chief of McClatchy Newspapers speaks to Paul Jay about the recent escalation in violence in Iraq’s capital. She says the former fighters termed the “Sons of Iraq” who have turned on al- Qaeda and joined the US are now being persecuted by the Iraq government. She says the Maliki government is afraid of the power they’ve accumulated in the neighborhoods they were put to protect by the US and many are now in exile or in hiding.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you from the McClatchy offices in Washington, DC. Clashes have broken out between Iraqi security forces and the Sons of Iraq fighters (awakening councils) in Baghdad over the weekend. Leila Fadel is McClatchy Newspapers’ Baghdad Bureau Chief. She joins us from Baghdad. She’s covered the war in Iraq since 2005. She just recently returned from Diyala province, and she’s joining us now from Baghdad. Thank you for joining us, Leila.


JAY: So what is the fighting that’s broken out in Baghdad? And what is the significance of it?

FADEL: Well, there was a detention of a Sons of Iraq leader named Adil Mashhadani in central Baghdad on Saturday, which—and his men rose up and started to fight the security forces for the detention. The reason it’s significant is it’s one of a series of detentions of top leaders of the Sons of Iraq in Iraq across the country, specifically in Diyala and Baghdad. And this program, the Sons of Iraq, which is really a part of the reason the US military can claim what they call success now with the lower levels of violence, because these guys either turned on al-Qaeda or stopped shooting and were on US payroll, and now they’re being transferred to Iraqi government control. And with that control, it seems that they are trying to weaken these groups, and some of that can lead to violence, as Fadhil clearly showed over the weekend.

JAY: So they’re targeting some of the leaders of these groups at the same time that they are incorporating some of the ordinary members? Or are they actually targeting the whole organization, “they” being the Iraqi government?

FADEL: Right. The transfer of authority started in October of last year, where the US military said, “Here are these 100,000 guys who we’ve been paying $300 a month and who’ve been in their streets to their neighborhoods to secure them. Now you take them.” The government has always said, “We believe most of these guys are former insurgents. We don’t trust them. We don’t want them. We won’t give them amnesty.” And so, finally, the government said, “Give them to us. We want to take them.” So now the authority technically is the Iraqi government in most of Iraq. Not all of them have been transferred. Salah ad Din, I think, is still not transferred. And during that time, and before that, they’ve—when I say “target,” they’ve gone after them with arrest warrants on accusations of crimes they’ve committed, but the Sons of Iraq themselves are saying they feel targeted. They feel that the leaders who stood up and took a risk, and went against the people that were destroying their neighborhoods, and also maybe changed their minds about things of the past, where they would attack US forces or government forces as their enemy, are now being betrayed and being arrested for those crimes of the past.

JAY: But didn’t the Americans offer them a sort of a parole or excuse, saying that anything that happened in the past would be forgiven if you join the fight now?

FADEL: Right. At first, when, according to a lot of the Sons of Iraq, and even the Americans in the beginning, when they would talk to these guys, they would talk to them as a sort of reconciliation thing. You know, come into the fold and we’ll work with you to fight and secure your neighborhood, and things of the past we’ll forget about as long as the future is good. But that’s not a promise the American military could make. Although they may have forgiven them for attacking US soldiers, the Iraqi government has not forgotten and is not forgiving. Now, people like Adil Mashhadani, I’m not saying they’re saints. I mean, this guy definitely has committed things that may be considered crimes in the past, and he’s definitely killed people, and, you know, there have been accusations that there’s extortion, and he checks people’s IDs when they come into the neighborhood. But a lot of those guys are like that, in the sense that they’ve taken control of their little fiefdom. And that’s what’s happened across the country, and it worries the Iraqi government. But they were also made a promise: if you take this risk, we’ll bring you into the mainstream; you will have a viable role in the security forces or the Iraqi government. And they’re not seeing that come to fruition. I mean, of these 100,000—.

JAY: Yeah, go ahead.

FADEL: Sorry. Of these about 100,000, depending on when you count them, about 5,000 have been incorporated to the Iraqi police. Only 20 percent are going to be allowed to be incorporated to the Iraqi security forces. A lot of them haven’t been paid in months. And it may be—you know, the American military said it’s just a glitch in the system, but three months of no pay in Diyala province and having your colleagues and leaders arrested or fleeing the country is not that encouraging.

JAY: Now, these awakening councils, Sons of Iraq, have played a fairly important role, as I understand it, in suppressing the al-Qaeda type of forces. If this is now seen as a betrayal of them and they stop fighting these forces, does that create the conditions for a resurgence of the more extremist forces and these kinds of suicide bombings of mosques and such?

FADEL: Right. Well, I think there are two different things. One of the concerns is that these guys themselves were the extremist forces in the streets, and once you started giving them cash, they stopped. The other issue is that if they’re not in the streets, that the more extremist forces, as you said, will become more powerful in the streets because they’re not out there watching, although it has to be said that there is definitely a weakening of al-Qaeda. But part of that is the eyes and ears of these groups, and the American military has credited them with a huge amount of that success. Now, it isn’t 100,000 people being detained, but there are hundreds of them being detained, and the people that are being detained or are in exile are the ones that were the faces of the movement when it was really dangerous, when if you joined the police, you were killed, where there were headless bodies in the streets of Diyala province. You know, this was at a time where this was a really dangerous thing to do. And those types of guys, if you look at it now, are the ones that are really getting targeted. You know, Abu al-Abed, for example, who was the head of the Amariya Sons of Iraq, he was known as the first guy to stand up in all of Baghdad. He’s in exile in Jordan. Arrest warrant’s out for his arrest. I’m not saying he didn’t commit crimes; I’m just saying that this was the face, and now he’s gone. [inaudible]

JAY: So why is the Iraqi government doing this?

FADEL: They say they feel that these guys are dangerous. But others say that they think they’re threatened by them, the power of them. They don’t want people who are going to come in who are not happy with their government, people like Adel Mashhadani, for example, who was definitely in his own ways a thuggish-type guy. He’s proud to talk about his connections to the Ba’ath Party. You know, I interviewed him the day before he was arrested. I was out doing some reporting on Sons of Iraq. And he told me he’d like a former Ba’athist to be the leader of Iraq. But he was open about that, very open about his past, saying that he had fought the Americans, that he had fought anybody he thought threatened his neighborhood, and when he felt there was a conspiracy to push out Sunnis from Baghdad, he put his hands with the Americans, and now he’s been betrayed by them. His people say that the American military are vile and untrustworthy. The day before, they said the Americans were honorable. And so this is the concern, that all these guys who had received some type of promise, or at least they believe they did receive that, feel betrayed. Now, he’s not the only one. A lot of people haven’t reported this, but in Qadisiyyah, also, a Sons of Iraq leader was detained, and he was known for a great relationship with the American military and a pretty good relationship with the Iraqi army, and it was quite surprising to hear he was detained.

JAY: How popular or unpopular are these leaders amongst Sunnis, amongst the more general population? Or are they seen as sort of thugs that people not mind if they’re gotten rid of?

FADEL: Well, you know, it really does actually depend on which neighborhood you’re in and who these guys are, because they’re not a unified force; they’re little militias in each neighborhood that were backed by the US military and now are somewhere in limbo between the state and outside the state. And so, in a place like Fadhil, it’s very hard to tell, because they were very much in control of that neighborhood. I don’t think people would speak against them. If I pulled a camera out of my purse in that area, a guy would drive up to me, like that. They definitely controlled it. And according to the Iraqi government, this guy had committed crimes and was extorting people. In other areas less so. So it really depends on which neighborhood you go to. But there is a feeling among some people, especially among the Shia, that these were the same guys that were killing and maiming before the American military started paying them. And I think it just depends. Just like the Sunni insurgency, just like any group, the Shia militias, it’s not a unified thing. Some are worse than others.

JAY: The Iraqi government and Maliki, they have to be aware of the consequences of arresting these guys, the possibility of renewed violence because of it, but they’re doing it anyway.

FADEL: Well, you know, I think Maliki is—again, he’s playing a power game. I mean, this is a very—it could be a very sound way to divide and conquer. You have them unmasked; you know who they are now. You take them into your security forces. You act on all the information you had in the past, now that they’re weaker. And maybe, if he plays it right, he can get the people he wants without having too much of a resurgence of violence. But already this month we are seeing a small uptick in violence. We’re hearing rumors of Shia militias being back on the streets in some places. It’s nothing phenomenal, in the sense that I’m seeing a huge phenomenon and everything, but there are little whispers that are frightening, that things could reverse. And this is all happening when the US is about to draw down. And the thing that the Sons of Iraq are most afraid of are the US drawing down. In Diyala, for example, there was a man named Sheikh Bashir, who was detained last year. He was a leader in the Sons of Iraq in Diyala, or the popular councils, as they call them there. And he was detained, and he died. He went to the hospital. The police say he died of kidney failure. But there’s a video of his corpse, and his corpse is purple and so bruised. And there are drill holes in his foot, in his stomach, and scabs on his back, and it’s very clear this man was beaten to death. Anybody who sees the corpse will know that. And since that time, the American military, according to the Sons of Iraq in that area, have been putting a lot of pressure on the police in Diyala not to treat them like this. They say that since Sheikh Bashir died, there hasn’t been torture of that kind. And Abu Talib, one of his comrades, I guess, he turned himself in last month, because he had four arrest warrants out for him and he was fleeing and, you know, every night sleeping in a different place. So he finally turned himself in, and because of American pressure he was treated well, and because of American pressure and American eyes, they didn’t beat him, they didn’t do anything to him, he said begrudgingly. And they used to call him “the son of the Americans” as a joke—not the Sons of Iraq. And so he’s very worried that although he feels betrayed by the Americans in the sense that Sheikh Bashir is dead and others that he worked with are either in exile or in detention, he also worries that when they leave, who will put the pressure to make sure that he isn’t beaten to death and drilled in an Iraqi detention facility? And so there’s so much concern about this group in so many ways. Are they good or are they bad? These are questions that you always have to ask. Are they going to be protected and those promises fulfilled? If the US leaves, what happens to these guys that have given their names to the government?

JAY: Occupation makes strange bedfellows. Thanks for joining us, Leila.

FADEL: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Leila Fadel is the chief of the Baghdad bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She has covered the war in Iraq for Knight Ridder and now McClatchy on and off since June 2005, as well as the 34-day war in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel in the summer of 2006. Prior to joining the McClatchy team she worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a crime and higher education reporter.

Fadel graduated from Northeastern University in Boston in 2004 and has lived in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. She speaks conversational Arabic. She was named print journalist of the year by the Houston Press Club for her work in 2005 and won a Katie Award from the Dallas Press Club in 2006 for her portfolio of work.

Her Iraq reporting won her Print Journalist of the Year honors from the Houston Press Club citing her work from "Bedford (Texas) to Baghdad."