By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
It was about 2 a.m. on May 30 when Capt. Andy Wilbraham, a 33-year-old company commander, first heard military chatter on his tank radio about rumors that local gunmen would take on al-Qaeda. Later that morning, a noncommissioned officer turned to him with the news: "They're uprising."
"It was just a shock it happened so fast," Wilbraham said.
By noon, loudspeakers in mosques throughout Amiriyah were broadcasting a call to war: "It is time to stand up and fight" al-Qaeda. Groups of men, some in black ski masks carrying AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, descended on the area around the Maluki mosque, a suspected al-Qaeda in Iraq base of operations, and launched an attack. For the most part, Kuehl's soldiers stood back, trying to contain the violence and secure other mosques, and let the gunmen do their work.
The next day, a Thursday, al-Qaeda counterattacked. Using machine guns and grenades, its fighters drove the militiamen south across several city blocks until they were holed up in the Firdas mosque, soldiers said. "I was getting reports every 10 minutes from one of the imams: 'They're at this point. We're surrounded. We're getting attacked. They're at the mosque,' " Kuehl recalled. He dispatched Stryker attack vehicles to protect the militiamen.
"We basically pushed that one back just by force," said Capt. Kevin Salge, 31, who led the Stryker team of about 60 men to the mosque. "We got in there. Our guns are much bigger guns. Then freedom fighters, Baghdad Patriot guys, started firing."
Spec. Chadrick Domino, 23, was with a Stryker unit that drove north of the mosque to set up a perimeter to prevent others from joining the fight. About noon, he was the first member of his team to walk into a residential courtyard. He may not have had time to see the machine gunner who killed him.
To the Americans, the fighters on both sides appeared nearly identical. They wore similar sweat suits and carried the same kind of machine guns. "Now we've got kind of a mess on our hands," Salge remembered thinking. "Because we've got a lot of armed guys running all over the place, and it's making it very hard for us to identify which side is which."
By afternoon, the Americans had secured the Firdas mosque and were helping treat the wounded who lay in the courtyard. Kuehl drove out from his headquarters to meet with the leaders of the militiamen and work out the terms that would guide their collaboration in coming days. Kuehl agreed to help if the militiamen did not torture their captives or kill people who were not affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq. The militiamen agreed to hold prisoners for no more than 24 hours before releasing them or handing them over to the Americans. They in turn wanted the Americans not to interfere and to provide weapons.
"We need them and they need us," Kuehl said. "Al-Qaeda's stronger than them. We provide capabilities that they don't have. And the locals know who belongs and who doesn't. It doesn't matter how long we're here, I'll never know. And we'll never fit in."
The militiamen, who call themselves freedom fighters, are led by a 35-year-old former Iraqi army captain and used-car salesman who goes by Saif or Abu Abed. In an interview, he said he had devoted the past five months to collecting intelligence on al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters in Amiriyah, whose ranks have grown as they have fled to Baghdad and away from the new tribal policemen in Anbar province. He has said his own group numbers over 100 people, but American soldiers estimate it has closer to 40. At least six were killed and more than 10 wounded in the first week of collaboration with Americans.
"These guys looked like a military unit, the way they moved," Wilbraham said. "Hand and arm signals. Stop. Take a knee. Weapons up."
Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, a leader of the Sunni Dulaimi tribe who works in Anbar and Baghdad, said many of the fighters in Amiriyah belong to the Islamic Army, which includes former officers from Saddam Hussein's military and is more secular than other insurgent groups. The fighters have been organized and encouraged by local imams.
"Let's be honest, the enemy now is not the Americans, for the time being," Suleiman said. "It's al-Qaeda and the [Shiite] militias. Those are our enemies."
The American soldiers initially asked their new allies to wear white headbands and ride around in the Strykers to point out al-Qaeda households. But the joint patrols didn't work because the local fighters were disoriented after riding in the enclosed Strykers and couldn't find the right houses, Salge said.
Before long, he added, "people everywhere were wearing headbands, and I'm pretty sure that a lot of them were al-Qaeda."
The Americans then supplied reflective armbands that could be seen from their vehicle scopes, and had the fighters ride in Iraqi army Humvees instead of Strykers. They also gave the fighters plastic flex cuffs, to subdue captives, and flares -- red to use if they are in trouble and green to signal when a raid is over.
On June 1, a Friday, the fighters directed the soldiers to a large weapons cache. Sniper rifles, Russian machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and thousands of rounds of ammunition were stashed in a secret room, accessible only by removing a circuit-breaker box and crawling through a hole. While the Americans were tallying the haul, an explosive detonated outside, wounding several soldiers, including one whose feet were blown off.
In return for their services, the militiamen had one request: Give us the weapons in the cache.
"Who are these guys really?" Salge remembered worrying. He told them to talk to the battalion commander.
Kuehl said later that he would probably supply weapons to the militiamen, but in limited amounts. The fighters have given the Americans identification, including fingerprints, addresses and retinal scans, so the soldiers believe they could track down anyone who betrayed them. "What I don't want them to do is wither on the vine," Kuehl said.
On Wednesday, a week after the fighting broke out, the Islamic Army issued a statement declaring a cease-fire with al-Qaeda in Iraq because the groups did not want to spill more Muslim blood or impede "the project of jihad." American soldiers played down the statement and suggested it did not reflect the sentiments of the men they are working with in Amiriyah.
Later that night, Wilbraham led his tank unit on an overnight mission to allow the militiamen to arrest seven al-Qaeda in Iraq members. The raids were to begin at 1 a.m., but two hours later the tanks were waiting on deserted streets, with no sign of the group. Then Wilbraham was told the militiamen had called off the raids.
The tank driver, Spec. Estevan Altamirano, 25, expressed skepticism about his new partners.
"Pretty soon they run out of al-Qaeda, and then they're going to turn on us," he said. "I don't want to get used to them and then I have an AK behind my back. I'm not going to trust them at all."