U.S. Widens Push to Use Armed Iraqi Residents

Gen. David H. Petraeus, left, commander of U.S. military forces in Iraq, walks with Col. Falah of the Iraqi army in the Kadhimiyah area of Baghdad.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, left, commander of U.S. military forces in Iraq, walks with Col. Falah of the Iraqi army in the Kadhimiyah area of Baghdad. (By Chris Hondros -- Getty Images)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 28, 2007

BAGHDAD, July 27 -- The U.S. military in Iraq is expanding its efforts to recruit and fund armed Sunni residents as local protection forces in order to improve security and promote reconciliation at the neighborhood level, according to senior U.S. commanders.

Within the past month, the U.S. military command in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq ordered subordinate units to step up creation of the local forces, authorizing commanders to pay the fighters with U.S. emergency funds, reward payments and other monies.

The initiative, which extends to all Iraqis, represents at least a temporary departure from the established U.S. policy of building formally trained security forces under the control of the Iraqi government. It also provokes fears within the Shiite-led government that the new Sunni groups will use their arms against it, commanders said.

The goal is to put the new, irregular forces in place quickly -- hiring them on contracts and providing them with uniforms without waiting for access to lengthy police and army training programs.

In the long term, commanders say, the goal is to incorporate the units into the Iraqi security forces. The initiative arises out of efforts underway by some U.S. military units to enlist forces from local tribes as well as insurgent groups in different neighborhoods, most of which have been predominantly Sunni.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, called the development of the grass-roots forces the most significant trend in Iraq "of the last four months or so" and one that could help propel slow-moving efforts at national reconciliation among Iraq's main religious sects and ethnic groups.

"This is a very, very important component of reconciliation because it's happening from the bottom up," he said in an interview Friday. "The bottom-up piece is much farther along than any of us would have anticipated a few months back. It's become the focus of a great deal of effort, as there is a sense that this can bear a lot of fruit."

U.S. commanders acknowledge that there is a risk that the Iraqi government will refuse to hire some or all of the local force members and will instead use the names of the Sunni recruits as target lists.

"What the government is afraid of, and we understand that, is they don't want another armed militia of some sort. So what we're looking for is sort of an interim measure . . . to take advantage of these groups," said Brig. Gen. James Campbell, deputy U.S. commander for Baghdad, where he said 18,000 more police officers and 30 police stations are needed.

And while local residents are often the best choice for securing their own streets, the risk exists that they will overstep their bounds in Baghdad's densely populated, mixed sectarian districts, Petraeus said. "You have to make sure that the neighborhood watch doesn't end up watching someone else's neighborhood."

Over a luncheon of chicken and rice in Baghdad's Rasheed district this week, Col. Ricky D. Gibbs, the U.S. commander in the area, met with half a dozen influential Sunni leaders to discuss forming neighborhood protection groups, as well as to share intelligence.

A local Sunni leader, a bespectacled man in a red striped shirt, leaned across the table and handed Gibbs a list of 250 names of Sunni residents willing to serve in a local force.

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