Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article misstated the regiment of Lt. Col. Robert Balcavage, a commander working with tribal leaders in the Iraqi province of Babil. He belongs to the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division. This version has been corrected.
Sheiks as 'Security Contractors' for U.S.

In Iraq, a Perilous Alliance With Former Enemies

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 4, 2007

FORWARD OPERATING BASE ISKAN, Iraq -- Inside a brightly lit room, the walls adorned with memorials to 23 dead American soldiers, Lt. Col. Robert Balcavage stared at the three Sunni tribal leaders he wanted to recruit.

Their fighters had battled U.S. troops. Balcavage suspected they might have attacked some of his own men. The trio accused another sheik of having links to the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. That sheik, four days earlier, had promised the U.S. military to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq and protect a strategic road.

"Who do you trust? Who do you not trust?" said Balcavage, commander of the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division, his voice dipping out of earshot.

An hour later, he signed up some of America's newest allies.

U.S. commanders are offering large sums to enlist, at breakneck pace, their former enemies, handing them broad security powers in a risky effort to tame this fractious area south of Baghdad in Babil province and, literally, buy time for national reconciliation.

American generals insist they are not creating militias. In contracts with the U.S. military, the sheiks are referred to as "security contractors." Each of their "guards" will receive 70 percent of an Iraqi policeman's salary. U.S. commanders call them "concerned citizens," evoking suburban neighborhood watch groups.

But interviews with ground commanders and tribal leaders offer a window into how the United States is financing a new constellation of mostly Sunni armed groups with murky allegiances and shady pasts.

The two-week-old initiative, inspired by similar efforts underway in Baghdad, Anbar and Diyala provinces, has more than halved attacks here against American troops, from 19 a day to seven, U.S. commanders said. But in a land of sectarian fault lines and shifting tribal loyalties, the strategy raises concerns about the long-term implications of empowering groups that steadfastly oppose the Shiite-led government.

Shiite leaders fear that the United States is financing highly trained and well-armed militias that could undermine the government after American troops withdraw. Shiites worry such groups could weaken central authority and challenge democratic institutions that many would like to see take root.

U.S. generals said they vet the backgrounds of every recruit, but ground commanders here said that is all but an impossible task.

"Officially, we will not deal with those who have American blood on their hands," said Balcavage, 42. "But how do you know? You don't. There's a degree of risk involved. A lot of it is gut instinct. That's what I'm going on. They didn't teach me how to do this at West Point."

'It's Like Rent-a-Cop'

In this fertile region, divided by the Euphrates River and torn by violence, U.S. soldiers are overstretched and Iraqi troops are in short supply. Isolated Sunni tribal lands have provided extremists with havens that are off-limits to U.S. patrols and Iraq's mostly Shiite security forces.


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