By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007
U.S. forces in Iraq are striking a variety of "handshake agreements" with Iraqi insurgents and militia groups, sometimes resulting in the release of fighters detained for attacking coalition forces, U.S. military officials said in several recent interviews.
Such informal deals mark a significant tactical shift in the Iraq war and represent a potentially risky effort to enlist former U.S. foes in the battle against hard-line militants. Despite a White House report last week concluding that a formal amnesty initiative would be "counterproductive" for Iraq today, U.S. military officials in Iraq believe that successful counterinsurgency campaigns almost always involve some form of forgiveness as a means to ending the fighting and achieving political reconciliation.
Though no formal arrangement exists for granting amnesty to insurgents, the current deals amount to a kind of don't-ask-don't-tell pardon system. U.S. forces cooperate with former enemies in exchange for information about roadside bombs, weapons caches and sanctuaries of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the mainly Iraqi group that has sought to intensify the country's low-level civil war.
"Our engagement efforts with groups who were once adversaries is about getting them to point their weapons at al-Qaeda and other extremists," Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said in a briefing yesterday, offering the most extensive public comments on the subject thus far. "We are ready and willing to engage with key leaders of any groups opposing AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] or other extremist groups." He said that U.S. forces have reached deals with a variety of groups, both Sunni and Shiite, "throughout Iraq," citing Baghdad, the provinces of Anbar and Diyala, the towns of Taji and Iskandariyah, the Arab Jabour region, and southern Iraq.
"They're all very different; they're all very localized," Odierno said of the arrangements. But, he added, they tend to follow three basic steps.
First, the leaders of the groups agree to stop attacking U.S. and Iraqi forces. Then they pledge to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. Finally, U.S. and Iraqi officials try to get them to become part of Iraqi security forces, usually the police.
"There are no signed agreements," Odierno added. "They are . . . handshake agreements."
He did not offer details about the number of agreements struck or the number of people with whom they were reached. Other U.S. officials in Iraq have declined to provide any information on the effort. One reason is their belief that the Iraqi government's Shiite leaders would object to any formal program that appeared to forgive Sunni insurgents.
A senior U.S. official in Baghdad said that the number of detainees released to tribal leaders so far is "very small" and "on a case-by-case basis." He and others noted that the number of detainees held by the U.S. military in Iraq has increased to almost 22,000, from 15,400 six months ago, when the current counteroffensive began.
The issue carries a lot of emotional freight, added a member of the staff of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. "Look at World War II, Korea, Vietnam," he said. "At some point in time, we've talked to, worked with those who were actually shooting at us and killing us."
In a report last week on the Iraqi government's progress toward key political and security benchmarks, the White House stated that "little progress" has been made on legislation to enact a formal amnesty program. It went on to argue that such an initiative "would be counterproductive in the current environment," mainly because no major insurgent group or militia has signaled a willingness to renounce violence.
A U.S. military intelligence official involved in Iraq matters explained that the United States "will release people to tribal or other key leaders -- including former insurgent leaders who are now working to fight AQI -- as long as they are legitimate leaders in their areas."
The detainee releases recognize the reality of today's Iraq, said a retired Special Operations colonel who is working as a contractor in Iraq. "Most of those guys won't be prosecuted by the Iraqi criminal system, anyway. So why not use them as a bargaining chip?" he said.
Also, said one person directly involved in the discharges, "I understand that many of the folks we are releasing have killed U.S. soldiers. But we have killed many of their family members, as well."
Even so, the prisoner releases are likely to provoke grumbling among troops over what they call "catch and release" programs. Few detainees are held for more than one year, leading soldiers to object about having to recapture Iraqis originally apprehended months earlier for planting a roadside bomb or for shooting at coalition forces.
"One of the most common complaints I've heard from our troops with regard to the detention system is it returns the bad guys to the street in about six months, at which point they understand our tactics better and have made a lot of new friends in prison," said Army Capt. Kyle Teamey, a military intelligence officer who has served in Iraq. "The prison system has continually released individuals who have killed Americans and Iraqis alike."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.