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Iraqi sects start to put aside their animosity

Times Staff Writers

Despite persistent sectarian tensions in the Iraqi government, war-weary Sunnis and Shiites are joining hands at the local level to protect their communities from militants on both sides, U.S. military officials say.

In the last two months, a U.S.-backed policing movement called Concerned Citizens, launched last year in Sunni-dominated Anbar province under the banner of the Awakening movement, has spread rapidly into the mixed Iraqi heartland.

Of the nearly 70,000 Iraqi men in the Awakening movement, started by Sunni Muslim sheiks who turned their followers against Al Qaeda in Iraq, there are now more in Baghdad and its environs than anywhere else, and a growing number of those are Shiite Muslims.

Commanders in the field think they have tapped into a genuine public expression of reconciliation that has outpaced the elected government’s progress on mending the sectarian rift.

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“What you find is these people have lived together for decades with no problem until the terrorists arrived and tried to instigate the problem,” said Lt. Col. Valery Keaveny, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 509th Airborne unit in the Iskandariya area south of Baghdad. “So they are perfectly willing to work together to keep the terrorists out.”

As late as this summer, there were no Shiites in the community policing groups. Today, there are about 15,000 in 24 all-Shiite groups and 18 mixed groups, senior U.S. military officials say. More are joining daily.

Here in Qarghulia, a rural community east of Baghdad, the results are palpable. Killings are down dramatically and public confidence is reviving.

“Sunnis-Shiites, no problem,” said Obede Ali Hussein, 22, who stood at a checkpoint built by the U.S. Army along the Diyala River. “We want to protect our neighborhood.”

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For commanders in areas where Sunni-Shiite warring had brought normal life to a standstill, the unexpected flowering of sectarian cooperation has proved a boon.

“I couldn’t do it without them,” said Capt. Troy Thomas, whose 1st Cavalry unit is responsible for securing the Qarghulia area.

Thomas said 42 of the 49 traffic checkpoints in his area are manned by local groups, including Sunnis and Shiites. He said they both extend his reach and perform with a sensitivity that no U.S. soldier could match.

“They grew up in the area,” Thomas said. “They know who should be there and who shouldn’t.”

At his checkpoint, Ali Hussein eyed a steady stream of cars, farm trucks and motor scooters weaving down the rural Diyala River road toward the main north-south highway.

“Nobody could drive through the street six weeks ago,” he said. “The street was empty.”

Before this year’s troop buildup, U.S. soldiers seldom ventured into Qarghulia. The area was patrolled by two Baghdad-based companies, or about 160 men, said Col. Wayne Grigsby, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team. National police had little presence there, either, and when they did show up, were mistrusted by the populace.

In this lawless climate, Al Qaeda in Iraq held sway in the chronically violent Sunni city of Salman Pak, while Shiite militias enforced mafioso-style protection in Qarghulia.

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In early May, Thomas set up a 90-strong outpost dubbed Patrol Base Assassin in Qarghulia’s Four Corners area, a crossroads where the rural population shops in rows of concrete strip malls.

When he arrived, about half the shops were shuttered, and those still doing business were paying protection money to the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, Thomas said.

To restore security in the 150-square-mile area, Thomas sought help. National police units would augment his patrols with checkpoints on the busy highway, but he remained exposed along the rural roads to the east and west.

He didn’t hesitate when the local sheiks, who had heard of the spreading Concerned Citizens movement, approached him.

The first group, formed in September, now maintains about a dozen checkpoints along the Diyala River on the area’s western edge and patrols back roads. The sheiks, both Sunni and Shiite, selected a Sunni farmer, Abu Ammash, to be the group’s leader and filled its ranks with their followers, who came from both sects.

Over a recent two-day period, Thomas, a Minnesota-bred martial arts specialist, spent a considerable amount of time in the company of sheiks, who were starting a second Concerned Citizens group to protect his eastern flank.

The new group will be headed by Hamed Gitan Khalaf, a Shiite and former sergeant major in the Iraqi army.

Gitan said sect plays no part in his command, which will be split almost evenly between Sunni and Shiite.

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“All of us are hand in hand,” he said.

The new group had a rocky initiation one morning when a squadron consisting of Thomas’ soldiers, Gitan and his retinue of personal guards, a truckload of uniformed national police and a couple of carloads of civic officials descended upon the presumably abandoned house chosen to be its headquarters. They came face to face with a woman in a black hijab surrounded by scruffy children.

After an animated debate, Thomas vetoed Gitan’s plan to forcibly move the family across the highway to an abandoned industrial building.

“What I need you to do is find a legitimate place,” he told Gitan. “I know they’re pretty much squatting here, but we’re not going to be like Jaish al Mahdi” -- the Mahdi Army.

Later that day, the scene was repeated with a better plan. The family agreed to a payment and a promise of an equivalent house.

Next, Thomas brought all of Gitan’s entourage behind the concrete walls of his base for screening -- retinal scans and digital fingerprinting -- and issued them badges and the sand-colored T-shirts of the Concerned Citizens.

“I don’t want an American convoy to come down here and see a bunch of guys with guns and shoot them up,” he said.

The exact size of the group was yet to be determined. Gitan said he had 1,500 volunteers, most of them unemployed. Thomas thought he needed only a dozen more checkpoints, enough to pay only a tenth of them.

Like other leaders, Gitan will probably put more men on the job and spread the money thinner to get the maximum number of youths employed.

Several guards interviewed by The Times said they were making between $100 and $125 a month -- about half the starting wage for a government worker, but real cash for a young man probably living with his family.

They emphatically said, however, that money was not their primary motivation.

“We are challenging the terrorists and we are ready to give our blood for the country,” said Saddam Hadi Rasheed, 19, who was unemployed before joining Gitan’s guard.

In some cases, Sunni and Shiite guards are being kept at arm’s length. But Sunni and Shiite sheiks in Qarghulia said they have consciously put different tribes and sects into the field together to avoid any perception of favoritism.

So far, the handshake agreements among the sheiks and their followers have held up.

Still, infiltration by either Shiite militias or Al Qaeda in Iraq is a constant threat, as is the possibility of a group evolving into a new militia.

“Is this is just another way that someone can position himself to siphon his share in the community and be the godfather?” Col. Martin Stanton, chief of the Multinational Corps’ reconciliation unit, said he wondered when he took the assignment.

But he said his skepticism has waned.

“That hasn’t really happened on a large scale,” he said. “You’ve got the will on the ground amongst the Iraqi people to stop fighting.”

Sitting in his headquarters with a coterie of junior officers and sheiks, Qarghulia Concerned Citizens leader Abu Ammash foresaw big things. He said talks were underway with the Interior Ministry to transform his organization into the local police force for the area.

But, based on individual assessments of the men who make up the force, as well as simple math, U.S. commanders expect no more than a third of the Concerned Citizens to transition into the Iraqi security forces, whether the army, national police or local police.

The U.S. plan is to dismantle the Concerned Citizens groups once the economic revival that it hopes will be facilitated by their presence begins generating civilian jobs for them.

Until then, Ali Hussein, a day laborer before he became a guard, will remain at his post across the Diyala River from the Mahdi Army, ready to face enemy fire.

Although none of the new groups rising up against the Mahdi Army has yet been tested in combat, the danger is real. Last week, in a Sunni area just south of Baghdad, five members of a Concerned Citizens group were killed repelling an Al Qaeda in Iraq assault.

And one day recently, this graffiti appeared on several metal roll-up doors in a dingy strip mall here: “For the leaders of the Awakening and everybody who is involved with it, Warning: Death.”

Ali Hussein didn’t flinch.

“Most of their challenge is only with slogans,” he said. “They are not courageous enough to face us. Even if they want to come, we are here ready to face them.”

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doug.smith@latimes.com


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