U.S. Strategy on Sunnis Questioned

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 18, 2007

BAGHDAD, July 17 -- Shiite and Kurdish officials expressed deep reservations on Sunday about the new U.S. military strategy of partnering with Sunni Arab groups to help defeat the militant organization al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"They are trusting terrorists," said Ali al-Adeeb, a prominent Shiite lawmaker who was among many to question the loyalty of the Sunni groups. "They are trusting people who have previously attacked American forces and innocent people. They are trusting people who are loyal to the regime of Saddam Hussein."

Throughout Iraq, a growing number of Sunni groups profess to have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq because of its indiscriminate killing and repressive version of Islam. In some areas, these groups have provided information to Americans about al-Qaeda in Iraq members or deadly explosives used to target soldiers.

The collaboration has progressed furthest in the western province of Anbar, where U.S. military commanders enlisted the help of Sunni tribal leaders to funnel their kinsmen into the police force by the thousands. In other areas, Sunnis have not been fully incorporated into the security services and exist for the time being as local militias.

Some of these groups, believed to be affiliated with such organizations as the Islamic Army or the 1920 Revolution Brigades, have received weapons and ammunition, usually through the Iraqi military, as well as transportation, food, handcuffs and direct assistance from U.S. soldiers. In Baghdad's Amiriyah neighborhood, a local group of Sunnis who call themselves the Baghdad Patriots were driven around earlier this month in American and Iraqi vehicles and given approval by U.S. forces to arrest suspected al-Qaeda in Iraq members.

One of the main unanswered questions for American commanders leading these efforts has been to what degree the Iraqi government would support their plans to fashion local Sunnis into these neighborhood defense forces.

In an interview Friday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Newsweek that some American field commanders "make mistakes since they do not know the facts about the people they deal with." Maliki went on to say that arming the tribes is appropriate in certain circumstances "but on the condition that we should be well aware of the tribe's background and sure that it is not connected with terror."

Other Shiite politicians are openly opposing the strategy.

"We cannot take weapons from certain insurgents and militias and then create other militias," said Abbas Bayati, a Turkmen Shiite lawmaker who is part of the majority bloc in parliament. "You need to open recruiting centers and provide training; now what is going on is giving weapons and money to the tribes and individuals."

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator, acknowledged the potential benefits of reducing the strength of al-Qaeda in Iraq but said of Sunni Arab groups: "They take arms, they take money, and in the future they will be a problem. Politically, they are still against the Americans and the Iraqi government."

One senior Iraqi government official described the American military policy of partnering with local Sunni groups as "nonsense."

"Every three months they have a new strategy. This is not only a distracting way to conduct policy, it is creating insecurity for all. I don't think these strategies have been thought through deeply. It is all about convenience," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"In reality, they are forcing the Iraqi government and the Shia and the Kurds to reconcile with the Saddamists," the official added. "This is similar to going to the South in 1865 and forcing the Confederates to reconcile immediately with the Northerners. And this is not going to happen."

American military commanders involved in the partnerships with Sunnis say they intend to quickly train and register them under the aegis of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police force. In Anbar province, tribesmen have received training and become policemen, and receive salaries from the Interior Ministry, according to U.S. military officials. The officials have said that as long as the Sunni groups are watched closely and kept from mistreating people, the intelligence they provide about al-Qaeda in Iraq makes them valuable partners.

Mithal Alusi, a secular Sunni lawmaker, said he supported the U.S. military efforts because "al-Qaeda is danger No. 1 in Iraq."

"The prime minister has to understand this is not a one-man show," Alusi said. "We cannot trust the government to deal with al-Qaeda, to play this game alone. We are very thankful for the American process and the American point of view."

Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Maliki, said the government would like to absorb anyone who wants to decrease violence as long as they accept the political process and are recruited in a systematic way to ensure that they are not using their newly official status for nefarious purposes.

Meanwhile Sunday, a car bomb exploded west of Baiji in northern Iraq, targeting an Iraqi military convoy, said Capt. Raad al-Janabi of the Siniyah police. The blast killed four people, including two soldiers, and wounded 12 others, he said.

A suicide attacker blew himself up in a crowd near Fallujah, killing six people and injuring 14, according to Lt. Mohammad al-Dulaimi of the Fallujah police. Mohammed Ismael of Fallujah General Hospital said many of the injured were in critical condition and the death toll could rise.

The U.S. military said three American soldiers were killed on Saturday by explosions, two in Baghdad province and one in the northern province surrounding Kirkuk. Another soldier was wounded in the Baghdad attack.

Also over the weekend, U.S.-led forces killed 10 suspected insurgents and detained 20 others while finding bomb-making materials during a series of missions targeting al-Qaeda in Iraq in Baghdad, Mosul, Anbar province and elsewhere, the U.S. military said.

In one operation targeting a suspected Libyan militant near Karmah, west of Baghdad, U.S. troops took fire from seven people in a building, then responded by killing six and wounding the other, the military said.

Special correspondents Dalya Hassan and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company