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.
"They will clear the neighborhood of anyone who belongs to al-Qaeda or JAM [a Shiite militia] or even carries a bullet," the man said. "We want you, sir, to give us the green light. They are ready."
"You have the green light," Gibbs answered. "But they have to follow the rules. You can't just shoot anybody. No vengeance . . . But the bad guys -- I don't care. Go get them."
Gibbs, commander of the 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, estimates that he needs up to 6,000 new police officers and 18 more police stations in Rasheed. "I am looking for a group of loyal Iraqis who will carry weapons and go after the same people we want," he said in an interview. "We will teach them U.S. rules of engagement and tell them to capture them, not kill them," he said. He said some of the men coming forward may have worked with insurgents in the past in order to survive.
The U.S. military will use its funds to "jump-start" the local forces in stages, U.S. officers said. Initially, the military will pay local residents who call in successful tips that turn up roadside bombs or weapons, or lead to the capture of insurgents. Next, it will identify residents for the security forces, vet their names and take their fingerprints, and require them to take an oath of loyalty to the government. Finally, it will train them in weapons usage and American "rules of engagement" and "put them on a key location" to provide security, Gibbs said.
Yet in districts such as Rasheed, where tensions run high between Shiite-dominated National Police forces, Shiite militias and residents of Sunni enclaves, some U.S. commanders say extreme caution will be required in introducing the armed neighborhood protection groups.
A chief concern for U.S. troops will be how to prevent intentional or accidental conflicts between the groups, said Lt. Col. George A. Glaze, commander of 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, who oversees the Sadiyah neighborhood where the 250 Sunnis volunteered. "I see the firefight on the street corner" between Iraqi police and local forces, he said, "and I have to pick a side?"
More than one influential Sunni in Rasheed indicated they had ambitions beyond securing their immediate neighborhood. "Our first priority is to go after al-Qaeda. Then we can support the Americans in fighting Jaish al-Mahdi," said one Sunni leader, referring to the Shiite militia that operates in the district. The Sunni leaders at the meeting requested anonymity for fear they would be targeted.
Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar, the Iraqi commander overseeing the five-month-old U.S.-Iraqi security plan, has given only verbal approval for Iraqi security forces to allow the new armed groups to operate unhindered in specific areas that he has visited, such as Abu Ghraib and Mansour, said Campbell, who escorted the Iraqi general to the areas.
A major obstacle is the lack of written orders recognizing the groups from the Interior and Defense ministries and the prime minister's office, he said.
Moreover, despite U.S. urging, the Interior Ministry has failed to approve the hiring of the neighborhood forces as full-fledged police officers, including more than 2,000 recently recruited from Abu Ghraib.
"The government of Iraq has to make some tough decisions. If they don't do this, we will lose out on a huge opportunity," Campbell said.
Two months ago, Petraeus created a "strategic engagement" committee, headed by a two-star British general, that oversees the outreach to grass-roots security groups and works with Iraqi government ministries to advance the process.
Some U.S. officers were not optimistic that the Iraqi government would ever put the local Sunni forces on the payroll. "Wild success is these guys being integrated into honest-to-God, badge-holding cops. That would be a magnificent sign," said one U.S. military officer in Baghdad. More likely, he said, the American military will "contract them as little Iraqi Blackwaters to guard their neighborhoods," he said, referring to a private U.S. security contractor. The worst outcome is that the forces will be actively targeted by the Iraqi government, he said.
Targeting the Sunni recruits would be easy for the government after their names are provided for vetting, Campbell said. "What we have to make sure is they don't take those names and turn around and say, 'Hey, this is our targeting list.' We're very cognizant of that."
In the Sunni enclave of Doura in east Rasheed, where sewage water floods the streets and electricity wires hang in disrepair, residents asked about their security problems offered that they believed a local force would best serve the neighborhood, long one of the most contested insurgent strongholds in Baghdad but now relatively calm after recent U.S. military operations.
"The best solution is the people who live here, who know the neighborhood, who know the bad people, they protect it," Ahmed Ali Hussein, a traffic police officer, said as he sat sweating in stifling 120-degree heat in his Doura home. But, he added, "we need some support from American forces like weapons, money, salary."