By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 30, 2007
The U.S. military is enlisting hundreds of fighters each day from tribal and insurgent groups in alliances aimed at countering al-Qaeda in Iraq, the top U.S. general in Baghdad said yesterday, calling it a "very positive development" but one that requires caution to ensure it works to promote security.
Maj Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., commander of Multinational Division Baghdad, said U.S. and Iraqi troops control nearly half of the capital's neighborhoods, but that hard fighting remains as operations continue to clear out insurgents from the rest of the city. Overall attack levels in Baghdad remain constant, he said, but casualties have fallen among Iraqi civilians and Iraqi security forces and risen for U.S. troops as their operations and numbers intensify.
In the Abu Ghraib region outside Baghdad, about 1,500 fighters have agreed to renounce violence against U.S. and Iraqi government forces, and join the Iraqi police. About 300 are signing up each day, said Fil, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division. A similar program is underway in the western Baghdad district of Ghazaliyah, he said.
"Some of them, who have previously been fighting us, have come to us, . . . and they want to fight with us. They are tired of al-Qaeda and the influence of al-Qaeda in their tribes and in their neighborhoods, and they want them cleaned out," Fil said. "We're excited about it. But we are, frankly, being cautious."
Senior U.S. military and Pentagon officials have said negotiations with such groups have also progressed in Iraq's western province of Anbar as well as in northern Iraq, where they say a group of 130 tribal sheiks around the town of Tikrit have joined forces against the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. In some regions where such alliances exist, attacks have fallen and the number of roadside bombs discovered before they detonate has risen to as high as 80 percent -- about double the nationwide average, the officials said.
Fil said the U.S. military in Baghdad is not arming the tribes, former insurgents or militias, and that U.S. cooperation with them is "conditional" and required them first to take an oath of allegiance to Iraq and renounce violence. Next, they are organized into groups under the auspices of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense or interior, and "carefully vetted" by the tribal leadership, as well as the U.S. military, which takes their fingerprints and biometric data, he said.
"They must all serve to assist in the stability of Baghdad and be brought into the existing governmental security agencies," said Fil, who said he hopes to expand it to include Shiite groups in eastern and western Baghdad. "It's a deliberate program. I think it's got huge promise," he said.
As the U.S. military undertakes large-scale operations in Baghdad's outskirts to deny insurgents sanctuary, Fil said he sees "steady progress" inside the capital where U.S. and Iraqi troops have established a presence, adding that of Baghdad's 474 neighborhoods, 229 -- or 48 percent -- are under control. That is in contrast to April, he said, when about a quarter of the neighborhoods were under control.
Although large numbers of U.S. troops have been dispatched to the periphery of the city, rather than concentrated in Baghdad, Fil said he has not "seen a degradation" of U.S. capabilities in the capital. Still, Fil acknowledged that any U.S. commander would welcome additional troops. "I would be very pleased to take more," he said.
Attacks in Baghdad, such as car bombs, are less effective in killing and wounding Iraqi civilians, because U.S. and Iraqi forces have created walled neighborhoods and markets as well as roadblocks and checkpoints that make it harder for insurgents to strike in crowded streets, Fil said.
Nevertheless, casualties are up among U.S. troops as they push into Baghdad neighborhoods to conduct patrols, raids and other operations in greater numbers, Fil said, with about 10,000 more U.S. troops inside Baghdad proper than before the U.S. troop increase began in January.
"To be sure, the enemy is fighting back, hard, in some of these areas that we've taken away," Fil said, referring to al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters who remain entrenched in the districts of Rasheed, Doura and elsewhere.
Fil said the five U.S. soldiers killed and six wounded Thursday in Rasheed were struck by gunfire, rocket-propelled grenades and a large explosive device hidden underground. Such "deep-buried" bombs -- often composed of several artillery shells, large quantities of homemade explosives and mines -- are one factor in the rising U.S. death toll. To prevent the attacks, Fil said, the U.S. military is welding shut access covers on sewage systems and also watching carefully for drainage ditches that pass underneath roads and other avenues for emplacing the explosives.