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."
Sitting cross-legged in the dim abandoned house, Abu Lwat said he seeks a new government in Iraq. "We don't want to be like the people who sit in the Green Zone and take orders from Bush," he said, referring to the American president. "We want to free people and fix their problems."
So, soon after U.S. and Iraqi forces moved into western Baqubah recently to conduct a large-scale offensive designed to flush out insurgents, Abu Lwat came to the area with about 40 fighters.
Within two weeks, 400 to 500 fighters were encamped in groups of about a dozen at about 30 or 40 safe houses in western Baqubah, with several more joining every day. The fighters are loosely organized around leaders such as Abu Lwat, who recruit them, U.S. military officials said.
U.S. troops say the armed locals have moved quickly to help find roadside bombs and prevent insurgents from returning to the neighborhood, especially from al-Qaeda in Iraq and an umbrella group it is said to have founded, the Islamic State of Iraq. The former insurgents "knew where the caches were, they knew all the names of the al-Qaeda leaders," said Capt. Zane Galvach, a platoon leader for the Army's 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.
Until the recent U.S. offensive, the Islamic State had a strong grip on western Baqubah, lacing the area with dozens of deeply buried bombs and houses rigged to explode.
In a sign that the Islamic State feels threatened by the local rebellion, leaflets bearing its name were dropped one night in mid-July at an intersection in Baqubah. One flier found by U.S. soldiers chastised residents for their "alliance with the ill-directed groups such as the 1920 Revolution Brigade" and warned that they and their families "will all be murdered."
When U.S. soldiers stopped recently at a safe house at the edge of the Khatoon neighborhood, local fighter Khalid Mahmood Mohammed, 35, led them to two weapons caches. Then he pressed his visitors for ammunition and more freedom to conduct offensive operations.
Mohammed and his men described coming under fire nightly from al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters who bypass checkpoints and come through nearby fields.
"They attack us every day and night and we have to shoot back with our AK-47s, but we don't have enough ammo -- only 10 bullets each," Mohammed told Capt. Andy Moffit, whose platoon patrols the area. "We don't get a lot of support from you guys," he said, adding that some of his 40 fighters have recently grown fearful and quit. After joining Mohammed's men to search several houses, Moffit urged him to ask for reinforcements from other local fighter cells in the area.
"We're going to fight them with the ammo we have, and then they can kill us," Mohammed complained.
"When you run out of ammo, you pick up your knife," Moffit replied.
"They have PKC [machine guns] with 1,000 rounds," Mohammed said.
"You have to sneak up on them, brother," Moffit said.
Exasperated, Mohammed asked bluntly: "Will you give us ammo?"
"No," Moffit said, ejecting from his M-4 rifle a 5.56mm round, incompatible with the AK-47. "Do you want this?"
U.S. soldiers and commanders voiced wariness over the intentions of the former insurgents. "Some of them want to be reintegrated back in society, they want to push al-Qaeda out. Others want to be the next thug group that goes around and demands electricity payments. We're watching them closely," said Capt. Mike Edwards, an intelligence officer with the 3rd Brigade.
Overlooking western Baqubah from a small U.S. outpost set up in an abandoned house, Sgt. 1st Class Eric Beck said he is uneasy about cooperating with former insurgents, calling them "the best of two evils."
"I think they want control of the area," said Beck, of San Bernardino, Calif., whose platoon has spent the past year combating insurgents and Shiite militias in and around Baghdad. "How will the Iraqi army deal with them once we leave? Will they be able to control them like we are?" he asked. "They are good for a quick fix, but in the end, it could backfire."
The former insurgents also risk being killed mistakenly by U.S. troops; several accidental shootings have occurred already.
At his headquarters at Warhorse, a dusty military base in Baqubah, Col. Steve Townsend, the U.S. commander overseeing the city, met late last month with local Sunni armed groups to hammer out basic guidelines. "The whole purpose of the meeting was, if you follow these rules, we won't kill you," Townsend, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, said afterward.
The fighters agreed on the name Baqubah Guardians and pledged to provide protection within their communities and register with the U.S. military by furnishing their names, fingerprints and other biometric data. The U.S. military is giving the fighters a uniform of a gray T-shirt imprinted with the Iraqi flag and a neon safety belt to be worn across the chest.
In return, the local fighters are to receive preferential status for employment with the Iraqi police or army, Townsend said. Baqubah is authorized to have nearly 6,000 policemen and hopes to gain approval for 3,000 more. But he estimated that the city has only 1,200 policemen available for duty, with 800 on the streets at any given time.
Beyond the day-to-day risks of dealing with the new groups of armed irregulars, U.S. troops must remain coolheaded in the company of men who not long ago tried to kill Americans.
"I assume they . . . have killed some of us," Townsend said. "We have killed a lot of them. If they are willing to move forward with us, I'm willing to keep an open mind."