You’re either with our jihadists or with their jihadists.
BAGHDAD: With the four-month-old increase in American troops showing only modest success in curbing insurgent attacks, American commanders are turning to another strategy that they acknowledge is fraught with risk: arming Sunni Arab groups that have promised to fight militants linked with Al Qaeda who have been their allies in the past.
American commanders say they have successfully tested the strategy in Anbar Province west of Baghdad and have held talks with Sunni groups in at least four areas of central and north-central Iraq where the insurgency has been strong. In some cases, the American commanders say, the Sunni groups are suspected of involvement in past attacks on American troops or of links to such groups. Some of these groups, they say, have been provided, usually through Iraqi military units allied with the Americans, with arms, ammunition, cash, fuel and supplies.
But critics of the strategy, including some American officers, say it could amount to the Americans’ arming both sides in a future civil war. The United States has spent more than $15 billion in building up Iraq’s army and police force, whose manpower of 350,000 is heavily Shiite. With an American troop drawdown increasingly likely in the next year, and little sign of a political accommodation between Shiite and Sunni politicians in Baghdad, the critics say, there is a risk that any weapons given to Sunni groups will eventually be used against Shiites. There is also the possibility the weapons could be used against the Americans themselves.
Although the American engagement with the Sunni groups has brought some early successes against Al Qaeda, particularly in Anbar, many of the problems that hampered earlier American efforts to reach out to insurgents remain unchanged. American commanders say the Sunni groups they are negotiating with show few signs of wanting to work with the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. For their part, Shiite leaders are deeply suspicious of any American move to co-opt Sunni groups that are wedded to a return to Sunni political dominance.
With the agreement to arm some Sunni groups, the Americans also appear to have made a tacit recognition that earlier demands for the disarming of Shiite militia groups are politically unachievable for now given the refusal of powerful Shiite political parties to shed their armed wings. In effect, the Americans seem to have concluded that as long as the Shiites maintain their militias, Shiite leaders are in a poor position to protest the arming of Sunni groups whose activities will be under close American scrutiny.
But officials of Maliki’s government have placed strict limits on the Sunni groups they are willing to countenance as allies in the fight against Al Qaeda. One leading Shiite politician, Sheik Khalik al-Atiyah, the deputy Parliament speaker, said in a recent interview that he would rule out any discussion of an amnesty for Sunni Arab insurgents, even those who commit to fighting Al Qaeda. Similarly, many American commanders oppose rewarding Sunni Arab groups who have been responsible, even tangentially, for any of the more than 29,000 American casualties in the war, including more than 3,500 deaths. Equally daunting for American commanders is the risk that Sunni groups receiving American backing could effectively double-cross the Americans, taking weapons and turning them against American and Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government forces.
The requirement that no support be given to insurgent groups that have attacked Americans appeared to have been set aside or only loosely enforced in negotiations with the Sunni groups elsewhere, including Amiriya, where American units that have supported Sunni groups fighting to oust Al Qaeda have told reporters they believe that the Sunni groups include insurgents who had fought the Americans. The Americans have bolstered Sunni groups in Amiriya by empowering them to detain suspected Qaeda fighters and approving ammunition supplies to Sunni fighters from Iraqi Army units.
In Anbar, there have been negotiations with factions from the 1920 Revolution Brigades, a Sunni insurgent group with strong Baathist links that has a history of attacking Americans. In Diyala, insurgents who have joined the Iraqi Army have told reporters that they switched sides after working for the 1920 group. And in an agreement announced by the American command on Sunday, 130 tribal sheiks in Salahuddin met in the provincial capital, Tikrit, to form police units that would “defend” against Al Qaeda.
Lynch said American commanders would face hard decisions in choosing which groups to support. “This isn’t a black and white place,” he said. “There are good guys and bad guys and there are groups in between,” and separating them was a major challenge. He said some groups that had approached the Americans had made no secret of their enmity.
“They say, ‘We hate you because you are occupiers’ ” he said, ” ‘but we hate Al Qaeda worse, and we hate the Persians even more.’ ” Sunni militants refer to Iraq’s Shiites as Persians, a reference to the strong links between Iraqi Shiites and the Shiites who predominate in Iran.
Looks like a promising basis for a strong alliance.
An Iraqi government official who was reached by telephone on Sunday said the government was uncomfortable with the American negotiations with the Sunni groups because they offered no guarantee that the militias would be loyal to anyone other than the American commander in their immediate area.
And there isn’t even any guarantee of that.
“The government’s aim is to disarm and demobilize the militias in Iraq,” said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Maliki. “And we have enough militias in Iraq that we are struggling now to solve the problem. Why are we creating new ones?”
Despite such views, Lynch said, the Americans believed that Sunni groups offering to fight Al Qaeda and halt attacks on American and Iraqi forces met a basic condition for reestablishing stability in insurgent-hit areas: they had roots in the areas where they operated, and thus held out the prospect of building security from the ground up. He cited areas in Babil Province where there were “no security forces, zero, zilch,” and added: “When you’ve got people who say, ‘I want to protect my neighbors,’ we ought to jump like a duck on a junebug.”