By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
"They came, they broke our doors, beat our women and beat even a crippled guy who lost his leg. They beat them over the heads," Muhsin Ali al-Tamimi told a recent meeting of tribal leaders. "We have lost four cars and weapons and money and none of that has been returned to us."
Pinkerton said Tamimi has since vowed to cooperate with the Volunteers, and the group's leaders have disciplined those responsible for the raid.
In all, Pinkerton marshaled 2,400 men willing to become policemen, but the Interior Ministry agreed to accept 1,700 of them, at a salary of $600 a month. When it came time to enroll, Pinkerton realized that 23 percent of the names he had submitted had been changed by the Iraqi government -- raising his suspicion that officials want to disrupt his efforts. "Who are they?" he wondered. "And where'd they come from?"
Pinkerton acknowledged that real animosity lingers between the Volunteers and the Muthanna Brigade, which patrols Abu Ghraib. More than 1,000 citizens nearly rioted against the Muthanna Brigade in April when it came to arrest members of the Volunteers. The U.S. military intervened -- Pinkerton called in a British Tornado fighter jet to disperse the crowd -- and freed the detainees.
"If the American Army wants this area to be safe, they have to abolish the Muthanna Brigade," Qaisi said.
Iraqi army officers say they will arrest unofficial bands of gunmen on the street regardless of who they are or whether they are partners with the Americans.
"There is some sensitivity within the army about this subject," said Brig. Gen. Falah Hassan, a brigade commander in western Baghdad. "There are no orders to cooperate with the Volunteers. Some of them have hurt the army or the people."
Senior American military commanders often say they do not arm these groups. But two soldiers in Pinkerton's battalion said that when they find weapons caches, they often let the Volunteers keep AK-47 rifles and ammunition.
"We do that as a means to benefit them and to curry favor," one soldier said, on condition of anonymity. The soldier agreed that security had improved greatly in the area since the Volunteers began cooperating, but asked what would follow the defeat or ouster of al-Qaeda in Iraq: "I think there is some risk of them being Volunteers by day and terrorists by night."