U.S. alliances with tribesmen draw Iraqi ire
When U.S. soldiers moved into an abandoned wool factory near here two months ago, they were pounded with bombs, mortar rounds and bullets.
“We were not really well received,” Capt. David Fulton said with deliberate understatement.
The fighting around the factory north of Baghdad went on for a month, until local Sunni Muslim tribesmen decided they had had enough of the extremists in their midst and started working with the Americans. About 220 of those tribesmen now staff checkpoints and have started cooperating with Shiite counterparts who once were their enemies, said Fulton, a U.S. Army company commander from Yucaipa.
Experiences like these have led the U.S. military command to step up efforts to recruit residents to set up local protection forces, authorizing officers to use emergency cash and other funds to strike contracts with tribal leaders.
On Saturday, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, credited the strategy with beginning to turn around an insurgent haven as he toured the region of dusty villages, citrus plantations, fish farms and palm groves near Taji, about 12 miles north of the capital.
But the Shiite-led government, which has been under intense U.S. pressure to dismantle Shiite militias, has complained that the policy legitimizes what they regard as the Sunni equivalent.
“They solve one problem by creating another,” said Sami Askari, an aide to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and member of his Islamic Dawa Party. “This is a seed for civil war.”
Maliki wants to screen the Sunni volunteers before they are allowed to carry weapons, and he wants them incorporated into security forces under the government’s control, Askari said.
The U.S. strategy has been the subject of heated discussion between Maliki and Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, both sides acknowledged Saturday.
But Petraeus dismissed as “ludicrous” a report that Maliki felt he could no longer work with the general.
“This is really, really hard stuff, and occasionally people agree to disagree,” he said.
With the country’s largest Sunni bloc suspending participation in his Cabinet, Maliki’s coalition needs the support of its Shiite conservative members, who are angry over U.S. raids and airstrikes targeting Shiite militants in areas such as Baghdad’s Sadr City and the southern city of Karbala.
“Petraeus is not answerable before the Iraqi people. Maliki is,” said Haider Abadi, another of the prime minister’s aides. “There is mounting pressure on Maliki because of these casualties.”
Petraeus acknowledged the government’s concerns about working with Sunni tribes.
“Obviously there is a concern, particularly in the areas where Al Qaeda had sanctuaries, that some of them may have had ties with them before,” he said. “But at the end of the day, situations like this historically have been resolved by the local citizens helping with local security.”
The goal, he said, is to get the tribal volunteers jobs in the Iraqi security forces. But getting them screened and trained can take months.
In the meantime, “we applaud when they turn their guns against Al Qaeda,” Petraeus said.
U.S. commanders are not allowed to put the fighters on salaries. But they can dip into their discretionary funds to offer rewards or pay for short-term, renewable contracts to protect what the military deems “critical infrastructure.” Around Taji, local tribesmen run checkpoints; guard schools and water-treatment plants; and once rebuilt a blown-up bridge in 24 hours.
Compensation typically runs $100 to $300 a month per person, said Col. Mike Meese, a member of Petraeus’ staff. The deals are signed by sheiks, who must vouch for their men. U.S. soldiers also collect each person’s name, address, fingerprints and retinal scan, among other information, Meese said.
Petraeus said the U.S. military is authorized to provide weapons only to official security forces, but his commanders help the volunteers with food, fuel and occasionally ammunition.
U.S. commanders report a significant drop in attacks in the areas where they are working with the tribesmen. They say insurgents offer $300 to $30,000 for the planting of one bomb in areas under tribal volunteers’ control, a sign of how difficult it has become to do the job.
Petraeus arrived at a strip of stores southwest of Taji in a snaking convoy of armored Humvees that kicked up a huge cloud of dust. Helicopters circled overhead as the general bounded from his vehicle and strode down the street, accompanied by the head of the local volunteers, an Iraqi army colonel and the police chief. He stopped to buy sodas at a tiny grocery, and chatted with a man who was building more shops in a market that was all but deserted in January.
Petraeus said the cooperation between the Iraqi security forces and local tribesmen was bringing security and commerce back, and that their combined efforts had Al Qaeda in Iraq “knocked off balance.” He cited the capture of a local Al Qaeda in Iraq leader.
“Yes, he was my friend,” commented Abu Azam, a tribal chief in a beige dishdasha with a pistol hanging from a holster.
“Please, please,” Petraeus said, as he jokingly covered his ears.
“That was before he sided with Al Qaeda,” Abu Azam hastily added.
In Baghdad on Saturday, police recovered the bodies of 20 men shot execution-style, some with signs of torture. And a car bomb exploded in the central Karada neighborhood, killing at least four people and injuring 10, police said. Just two days before, a bomb in a parked truck in a busy area of Karada killed 61 people.
In other violence, four Iraqi special forces commandos were killed and four injured when a bomb struck their patrol in Samarra, police said. The patrol opened fire after the attack, injuring five civilians, according to police and hospital officials.
Gunmen targeted the home of a Turkmen political leader in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing six people and injuring six others, police said. An Iraqi soldier was killed and two others injured in a roadside bombing in the city.
The chairman of the lawyers union in the southern city of Basra was assassinated by gunmen Friday night on his way home.
Times staff writers Said Rifai and Raheem Salman in Baghdad and correspondents in Baghdad, Basra, Hillah, Samarra and Kirkuk contributed to this report.