For U.S. Unit in Baghdad, An Alliance of Last Resort
Saturday, June 9, 2007
BAGHDAD, June 8 -- The worst month of Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl's deployment in western Baghdad was finally drawing to a close. The insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq had unleashed bombings that killed 14 of his soldiers in May, a shocking escalation of violence for a battalion that had lost three soldiers in the previous six months while patrolling the Sunni enclave of Amiriyah. On top of that, the 41-year-old battalion commander was doubled up with a stomach flu when, late on May 29, he received a cellphone call that would change everything.
"We're going after al-Qaeda," a leading local imam said, Kuehl recalled. "What we want you to do is stay out of the way."
"Sheik, I can't do that. I can't just leave Amiriyah and let you go at it."
"Well, we're going to go."
The week that followed revolutionized Kuehl's approach to fighting the insurgency and serves as a vivid example of a risky, and expanding, new American strategy of looking beyond the Iraqi police and army for help in controlling violent neighborhoods. The American soldiers in Amiriyah have allied themselves with dozens of Sunni militiamen who call themselves the Baghdad Patriots -- a group that American soldiers believe includes insurgents who have attacked them in the past -- in an attempt to drive out al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Americans have granted these gunmen the power of arrest, allowed the Iraqi army to supply them with ammunition, and fought alongside them in chaotic street battles.
To many American soldiers in Amiriyah, this nascent allegiance stands out as an encouraging development after months of grinding struggle. They liken the fighters to the minutemen of the American Revolution, painting them as neighbors taking the initiative to protect their families in the vacuum left by a failing Iraqi security force. In their first week of collaboration, the Baghdad Patriots and the Americans killed roughly 10 suspected al-Qaeda in Iraq members and captured 15, according to Kuehl, who said those numbers rivaled totals for the previous six months combined. He is now working to fashion the group into the beginnings of an Amiriyah police force, since the mainly Shiite police force refuses to work in the area.
"This is a defining moment for us," said Kuehl, who commands the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, attached to the 1st Infantry Division.
But aligning Americans with fighters whose long-term agenda remains unclear -- with regard to either Americans or the Shiite-led government -- is also a strategy born of desperation. It contradicts repeated declarations by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that no groups besides the Iraqi and American security forces are allowed to bear arms. And some American soldiers worry that standing up a Sunni militia could have dire consequences if the group turns on its U.S. partners.
"We have made a deal with the devil," said an intelligence officer in the battalion.
The U.S. effort to recruit indigenous forces to defend local communities has been taken furthest in Anbar province, where tribal leaders have encouraged thousands of their kinsmen to join the police. In the Abu Ghraib area, west of Baghdad, about 2,000 people unaffiliated with security forces are now working with Americans at village checkpoints and gun positions.
Kuehl said he recognizes the risks in dealing with an unofficial force but decided the intelligence that the gunmen provided on al-Qaeda in Iraq was too valuable to pass up.
"Hell, nothing else has worked in Amiriyah," he said.