To the Dismay of Local Sunnis, Shiites Arrive to Police Ramadi
Saturday, May 7, 2005
RAMADI, Iraq -- At a checkpoint on a bridge into this volatile Sunni Muslim city, an Iraqi platoon frisked a row of men and rummaged through their cars and trucks for explosives. The men scowled silently, making the soldiers uneasy.
"Of course they don't like us," said one of the soldiers, Anwar Abas, whose unit is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim. "They don't like people from the south, so when we search them, they make faces at us." Abas and his fellow soldiers were recruited from tribes in the cities of Najaf and Diwaniyah, both more than 100 miles to the south.
Watching nearby, an out-of-work Ramadi policeman chafed at the sight of outside Iraqi forces. "Ramadi people need to be at the checkpoint," he said. "We need to control the city, not have someone from the south come do it."
But Ramadi has no functioning local security force. Fearful of or complicit with insurgents, it disbanded before January's national elections and now consists of a handful of traffic officers. As a result, hundreds of predominantly Shiite forces -- including ad hoc militia groups such as the Defenders of Baghdad -- are flowing into Ramadi as part of the latest strategy by Iraq's central government and the U.S. military to stem insurgent violence here.
Outside troops have been dispatched to trouble spots throughout Iraq in a bid to keep a lid on violence in areas where insurgent death threats have rendered the local police ineffective. As a short-term counterinsurgency strategy, such forces have several advantages. First, they and their families are less subject to intimidation than when the forces are in their own area. Also, as Iraqis, they are far more familiar with the territory and less likely to be viewed as occupiers than are U.S. troops.
Yet by pitting Iraqis from different religious sects, ethnic groups and tribes against each other, the strategy also aggravates the underlying fault lines of Iraqi society, heightening the prospect of civil strife, U.S. military analysts said.
In Ramadi, the influx of outside forces totals at least 1,500 troops in five battalions, including Public Order forces and irregular militias such as the 2nd Special Police Commandos and the Defenders of Baghdad, according to U.S. military officials.
U.S. officers say the surge in such external forces is needed to counter the insurgency's immediate grip on Ramadi, the capital of restive Anbar province in the Sunni Triangle, 60 miles west of Baghdad. It is one of Iraq's most dangerous cities, rocked daily by explosions. The city of 400,000 has lacked a functioning local security force since last winter, when the police and Iraqi National Guard disbanded wholesale as insurgents blew up all but one of Ramadi's police stations, the mayor's office and other government buildings.
But U.S. commanders worry that the strategy of importing troops to keep the peace also carries the risk of inciting sectarian violence between the outside Shiite forces and the local Sunni population.
"You get a Shiite outsider shooting a local policeman, and with a big incident like that, you can see the whole city rising up," said Capt. Bart Nagle, an intelligence officer with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Ramadi. "This is the new dynamic, the new stage. I don't expect a quiet summer."
Adding to the volatility in Ramadi is the parochial bent of the Iraqi militia arriving in the city, part of a nationwide phenomenon in which tribes, religious sects and political parties are recruiting armed forces more loyal to their group than to the ideal of an impartial Iraqi military, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
"All these units came out of the woodwork after the elections" on Jan. 30, said Col. Edward Cardon, whose 3rd Infantry Division brigade is stationed in central Baghdad. "This is sort of a militia society."