Tactics on the Ground: Making Deals With Onetime Enemies
Signing Up Sunnis With 'Insurgent' on Their Résumés
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
NASR WA SALAM, Iraq -- Naiem al-Qaisi was imprisoned for four months, beaten, shocked with electric probes and, he said, forced to witness fellow Sunni male prisoners being raped by Shiite soldiers of the Iraqi army.
Now he wants to be a policeman. The American military recruited Qaisi and thousands like him to fight the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, but Qaisi's most feared enemies are soldiers in the Iraqi army's Muthanna Brigade, and his allegiance does not lie with the government he is now being trained to serve.
"We don't trust this government. This government belongs to Iran," said the 29-year-old former security guard for a soft-drink company. "The Iraqi government knows we are innocent guys, but they want to kill us."
In the villages around the Abu Ghraib district on the western outskirts of Baghdad, American commanders have achieved their goal of enlisting more than 1,000 of these local Sunni recruits into the Iraqi security forces. For the past few months, the recruits have operated checkpoints, pointed out al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters and located caches of weapons.
On Aug. 20, several hundred of the Sunnis -- given the name "Volunteers" by the Americans -- lingered in a parking lot guarded by U.S. tanks, waiting for Chinook helicopters to fly them to eastern Baghdad for their month-long training course to become policemen. One of their leaders, a bearded, beige-robed fighter who goes by the nickname Abu Zaqaria, looked out over the crowd of young men, some with machine guns, and estimated that 50 percent of them used to be insurgents who battled the Americans.
"We started feeling there was another occupation of Iraq, and it was coming from Iran, not from the U.S.," he said. "That led us to the situation we're in now, where we decided to negotiate with a strong force like the Americans."
The American soldiers who have coordinated this effort -- members of the 1st Cavalry Division's 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment -- do not ignore the pedigree of their new allies.
"Some of my soldiers want to line them all up and shoot them. But that ain't how we are," said Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Pluhar, 37, a 19-year Army veteran from Miles City, Mont. "Because we also see, back then we had [roadside bombs] left and right, small-arms fire, grenades being thrown at us when we were in the villages and towns. But now, hardly anything."
Most of the soldiers focus on these tangible benefits: Since the unit deployed in November, violent attacks in their area have dropped by two-thirds -- from about 80 a month to about 25 a month -- before rising recently as the unit pushed into new territory in the western desert. They have captured more suspected insurgents, found more weapons caches and are inundated with intelligence provided by the Volunteers.
"You all ready to get trained?" Lt. Col. Kurt Pinkerton, the battalion commander, asked a bleary-eyed classroom full of Volunteers on their first day of training at the police academy. "It's time to change, and start treating everybody with dignity and respect, and you're going to start right now."
"Inshallah," the men said in near-unison. "God willing."
The Volunteers have already been accused of being overzealous. In early August, a group of them acting on a faulty tip broke into the home of a leading Shiite tribal leader.