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Twelve months ago, al-Anbar province, east of Baghdad, was the domain of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a nightmarish place to live and the scene of mounting casualties for the United States.

Then, a group of a dozen tribal sheiks took a hard look at the direction their region was heading.

On the one hand, they saw increasing violence and the imposition of a harsh version of Islamic law in Anbar that was anathema to the largely secular sheiks. On the other, they had an offer of jobs and cash from the U.S. military if they'd expel al-Qaeda and co-operate.

Though the sheiks had opposed the U.S. invasion five years ago - their followers were among the first to take up arms against the occupation - they felt they now had another, more immediate, enemy to battle.

"We have suffered for two years from al-Qaeda in Anbar. Most of Anbar was destroyed," said Sheik Ali al-Hatem, the head of Iraq's powerful Dulaimi tribe, explaining his decision to help form the Sahwa, or "Awakening," councils. There was another reason too, he confesses: "The American army right now is the power on the ground. We have to be realistic."

Mr. Hatem, who says his tribe has about three million members, cultivates an image of being both a modern political leader and a man who derives his power from the Dulaimis and their long history in Iraq. He wears a stylish goatee, but long traditional dishdasha robes and a red-and-white tribal scarf. His mobile phone is constantly at his ear, but equally important is the pistol at his hip. The 37-year-old is brash about his ability to keep Anbar under control. "We have warned the other movements and tribes not to get weapons or fight the Americans or the police and army. Anybody who carries weapons is against us," he said in an interview at his family's expansive villa in Baghdad's Karada neighbourhood. "Guns and tribes, this is my power."

The decision by Mr. Hatem and the other sheiks to embrace "realism" has had dramatic effects. Since their formation, the Sahwa councils enlisted 80,000 men to their ranks, drawing many former insurgents to switch sides in exchange for salaries of anywhere from $250 to $450 a month from the United States.

While Iraq is still the scene of daily gun battles and devastating bombings, violence is down 60 per cent across the country from the worst of the bloodshed in 2006 and 2007 and, remarkably, Anbar is now one of the safer provinces in Iraq.

While U.S. political leaders like to highlight President George W. Bush's "surge" strategy of more U.S. troops on the ground to explain the relative calm, local commanders say much of the credit has to go to the Sahwa, as well as a decision last year by radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to impose a temporary ceasefire on his militia, the Mahdi Army.

A document discovered by the United States, believed to be written by the presumed leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayub al-Masri, speaks of the "disillusionment" of their fighters in Anbar now that the Sahwa is keeping them from carrying out attacks. "We have lost cities and afterwards villages. ... We got away from people and found ourselves in a wasteland desert," one section of the 39-page document released by the U.S. military reads.

The turnaround has been far from smooth. Attacks attributed to al-Qaeda have killed at least 150 Sahwa fighters in the past six months. The movement's driving force, Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, was killed in September, and by his count Mr. Hatem has survived six attempts on his own life.

While Mr. Hatem cautions that it's folly to consider al-Qaeda in Iraq defeated, the Sahwa councils have radically changed the security situation not only in Anbar, but in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad - Saddam Hussein's ancestral homeland - and in many Sunni areas in and around the capital as well.

Four months ago, the north Baghdad neighbourhood of Aadhamiya was seen as an al-Qaeda stronghold, violently hostile to the U.S. Army and effectively a no-go area for the Iraqi army and police. Then in November, after a spate of young men from the neighbourhood were killed in fighting, the neighbourhood decided to form a Sahwa group and to oust al-Qaeda.

"We saw the bad condition of our families and our society, these criminal groups ... all they were doing was kidnapping and killing and destroying our city," said Farouk Abu Omar, who heads a force of 32 men that searches all cars entering Aadhamiya and escorts foreigners to ensure their safety.

But now the Sunnis want their payback. Forget $250 a month, they want real jobs and a share of power in Baghdad. So far, that's been slow in coming, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government dragging its feet and finding positions for only a fraction of the Sahwa's 80,000 fighters.

Sunnis were the privileged class under Saddam Hussein's regime, and Mr. al-Maliki's Shia-dominated government is clearly in no hurry to empower them once more "This is a red line for us," Mr. Abu Omar said, sitting at his desk under the old flag of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, rather than the banner recently redesigned by the country's new government. "[Aadhamiya]was difficult for both the Americans and the government to enter. They couldn't come in. This victory was carried out by our sons, people from Aadhamiya. If they don't accept us into the army and police, we will withdraw our fighters from the street."

Given how precarious Iraq's recent "calm" is, observers worry that the Sahwa success could be on the verge of unravelling.

"The problem now is that the Sahwa feel they have saved the security situation ... and now they're looking at the government and saying, 'We've done all this, we need you to come in and fix the irrigation system, and there's no electricity and no clean water.' They desperately want the government to come in and support them," said Rusty Barber, head of the Iraq mission for the United States Institute of Peace. "The whole problem of the Awakening Councils, of how they're going to be brought into the Iraqi security forces or some kind of labour program, is a critical, critical issue right now."

Other analysts worry that the Sahwa councils are taking the American cash for now, but in reality are preparing for resumed hostilities with the Mahdi Army and other Shia militias after an eventual U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.