More than 80,000 Sunnis have joined a network of ‘Awakening councils,’ neighborhood watch groups that are driving al Qaida terrorists out of their towns and cities. Will this movement save Iraq—or lead to a civil war with the Shiites?

What is the Sunni Awakening?
It’s a movement to bring former insurgents into the Iraqi mainstream, and it has become the fragile linchpin of U.S. efforts to pacify Iraq. The Awakening councils were first established two years ago by Sunni tribal elders in Anbar province, in an angry rebellion against the harsh sharia law imposed by jihadists from al Qaida in Iraq. The same Sunnis originally were allied with the al Qaida extremists in fighting the U.S. occupation and the new Iraqi government. But when the jihadists sought to rule them under strict Islamic law, and brutally murdered any Sunni who didn’t adhere to their dictates, the Sunnis realized they’d made a mistake. In effect, they awoke to reality. Sunni leaders began approaching the U.S. military for help in fighting al Qaida; realizing that the Sunnis could be valuable allies, the military began to work with them in rooting out nests of jihadists. As part of the new counterinsurgency strategy established by Gen. David Petraeus last year, the U.S. military fully embraced the Awakening by actively establishing councils in cities and villages throughout Iraq.

Did the U.S. find many takers?

More than anyone had expected. By the end of the year, more than 80,000 Iraqis—the vast majority of them Sunni—had signed on, and there are now councils in 12 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The U.S. pays each “volunteer,” as they are called, about $300 a month and provides supplies and gear. The U.S. does not arm the recruits, but they typically provide their own weapons. So essentially, the U.S. has forged a network of Sunni militias, many of whose members are bitterly distrustful of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and still resent the U.S. for invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein’s Sunni government. “You’d be a fool not to worry about it,” said 1st Sgt. Bobby Colella of the 1st Cavalry Division. “But at the same time, you’d be a fool not to try something new, because what we have been doing in the past couple of years wasn’t working.”

What do these councils do?
It’s what they’re not doing that’s really the point. As former insurgents, many of the council members were killing American troops and Iraqi Shiites as recently as last year. A key purpose of the councils is to provide jobs to young men who otherwise would be prone to the angry message of extremists and militias, and to give them a stake in Iraq’s stability. They patrol neighborhoods, provide security, and serve as conduits between the coalition forces and local communities. They also help the U.S. weed out al Qaida in Iraq and other armed militants. “Those guys have come to the table,” said Lt. Col. Morris Goins. “They have been a big part of security.”

Are they really making a difference?
A significant one. In early 2007, Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, was Iraq’s deadliest region for U.S. troops. Now there are 3,000 Awakening Council members there, and violence has subsided. Information provided by one council led to the discovery of more than 500 improvised explosive devices that had been planted along roads. Tips also led to the arrest of 265 suspected al Qaida members. Nationwide, intelligence provided by councils has resulted in the seizure of tens of thousands of pounds of explosives and thousands of rockets, grenades, and suicide vests. The U.S. says the councils have proven their reliability and should be integrated into the Iraqi military and police.

Does the Iraq government agree?
Emphatically not. In fact, the Shiite-run government wants the Awakening councils disbanded as soon as possible. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, does not believe America’s new allies can be trusted. “Many people believe this will end with tens of thousands of armed people, primarily Sunnis,” said Safa Hussein, a top al-Maliki aide, “and this will excite the Shiite militias, and in the end it will grow into a civil war.” The Shiites’ suspicion is not surprising, considering that Sunnis brutally ruled over Iraq’s Shiites during the Saddam era.

How have the Sunnis responded?
They defiantly say they don’t care, because they want no part of the new Iraqi government. Many of the Sunnis who signed up for the councils are former Saddam loyalists who were fighting against the Iraqi army until just a few months ago. Take Adel Mashadani, a burly former member of Saddam’s Republican Guard who runs the council in Baghdad’s Fadhil neighborhood. Since Mashadani’s men have been on patrol, sectarian violence in the area has virtually disappeared. But while Mashadani is willing to work with Americans, he refuses to deal with the Iraqi government. “These guys are a bunch of conspirators who belong to Iran,” he said.

So what’s going to happen to the councils?

The answer to that question may determine the fate of Iraq. The U.S. has been pressuring al-Maliki to integrate the councils into his forces. Some Shiite leaders are urging him to do so, for the good of the country. But so far, the government has approved security jobs for only 1,700 Sunnis. Fearing that armed and jobless young Sunni men might return to waging war against the government, the U.S. command now wants to establish a massive civilian public-works jobs program for them. But that seems a long way off, too. For Americans, some of the initial excitement about the councils has been tempered by the realities on the ground. In recent weeks, there have been reports of rival councils battling over turf, and clashes have broken out between councils and Iraqi security forces. “It’s the case with any franchise organization,” said Maj. Gen. John R. Allen, deputy commander in Anbar province. “Sooner or later you lose control over the standards.”