Sunni Fighters Find Strategic Benefits in Tentative Alliance With U.S.

U.S. troops visit safe houses of former Sunni insurgents in Baqubah that are identified by the letters CLN  --
U.S. troops visit safe houses of former Sunni insurgents in Baqubah that are identified by the letters CLN -- "concerned local nationals." (By Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007

BAQUBAH, Iraq -- The Sunni insurgent leader lifted up his T-shirt, revealing a pistol stuck in his belt, and explained to a U.S. sergeant visiting his safe house why he'd stopped attacking Americans.

"Finally, we decided to cooperate with American forces and kick al-Qaeda out and have our own country," said the tough-talking, confident 21-year-old, giving only his nom de guerre, Abu Lwat. Then he offered another motive: "In the future, we want to have someone in the government," he said, holding his cigarette with a hand missing one finger.

Abu Lwat is one of a growing number of Sunni fighters working with U.S. forces in what American officers call a last-ditch effort to gain power and legitimacy under Iraq's Shiite-dominated government. The tentative cooperation between the fighters and American forces is driven as much by political aspirations as by a rejection of the brutal methods of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, U.S. officers and onetime insurgents said.

"This is much less about al-Qaeda overstepping than about them [Sunnis] realizing that they've lost," said Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, a planner for the U.S. military command in Baghdad. As a result, Sunni groups are now "desperately trying to cut deals with us," he said. "This is all about the Sunnis' 'rightful' place to rule" in a future Iraqi government, he said.

Across Iraq, a variety of Sunni insurgent groups, political parties and tribes are coming forward to help provide fighters for local policing efforts, with an estimated 5,000 having been rallied in Baghdad alone in recent months, according to Col. Rick Welch, head of reconciliation for the U.S. military command in the capital.

"Some of the insurgent leaders may have a political agenda and want to run for office at some point," said Welch, who has helped negotiate with Sunni insurgent groups including the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Army of Truth and the Islamic Army.

The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is "worried that the Sunni tribes may be using mechanisms to build their strength and power eventually to challenge this government. This is a risk for all of us," Welch said.

The long-term goal of incorporating the local fighters into the security forces is aimed at mitigating the risk of their using arms against the government and promoting their political participation, he said.

The Iraqi government has tried to exclude fighters who have connections to current insurgents from joining the police. "That wasn't good news because that cut right into the heart of the problem of reconciliation," Welch said. But he said a special reconciliation program recently has made headway in vetting such fighters so they can join the police.

Former insurgents like Abu Lwat are making a push for influence in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province. Sunni insurgent groups and Shiite militias have fought fiercely for territory here against each other and U.S. forces. But earlier this year, leaders of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, with an estimated several thousand fighters, started cooperating with U.S. forces.

Abu Lwat, who fought with the 1920 group, said he had grown disillusioned after seeing his community decimated. "When first al-Qaeda got here, they called themselves the mujaheddin and said they would fight for the country. All the people liked them," Abu Lwat said. But what followed were executions and beheadings of local leaders, bans on smoking and mandatory veils for women that defied true Islamic values and "killed the life here," he said.

"We have no people in government now, so we are trying to do as much as we can to tell people to join the army and police," Abu Lwat said. "That way, they can control the area and government, and American forces can go back to their country."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company