By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
BAGHDAD, Oct. 2 -- The largest Shiite political coalition in Iraq demanded Tuesday that the U.S. military abandon its recruitment of Sunni tribesmen into the Iraqi police, saying some are members of "armed terrorist groups" and are engaged in killing, kidnapping and extortion under the guise of fighting the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The statement by the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite bloc of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is the most direct rebuke to a policy that U.S. military officers hold up as one of their most important achievements over the past year.
U.S. forces have given wide support to thousands of Sunni tribesmen across the country who have pledged to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. U.S. officials describe the effort as promoting grass-roots reconciliation that brings disenfranchised Sunnis into the government and provides protection for their neighborhoods.
U.S. officials acknowledge that many of the recruits have been involved with various Sunni insurgent groups; expressions of antipathy toward the Iraqi security forces and government are common among them.
"We condemn and reject embracing those terrorist elements which committed the most hideous crimes against our people," the United Iraqi Alliance statement said. It also condemned "authorizing the groups to conduct security acts away from the jurisdiction of the government and without its knowledge."
The statement went on: "We demand that the American administration stop this adventure, which is rejected by all the sons of the people and its national political powers."
The U.S. military credits the partnerships with local Sunnis, a concept developed in Anbar province and replicated in many Sunni areas in and around Baghdad, as a primary factor in the declining violence over the past several months. In Washington on Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, described these partnerships as a "success story" and said 1,700 volunteers from the town of Abu Ghraib graduated last week after a month of police academy training.
"Anbar now stands as an inspiring example to the rest of the country for what is possible, as citizens come together to reject extremist behavior," Odierno said.
But some Iraqi and U.S. officials have long expressed reservations about whether the experience in Anbar province, which is largely Sunni, could be repeated in areas with mixed populations, such as Baghdad.
"Now the problem is that the American Army has started to arm some Sunni groups . . . and give them salaries, and they've enabled them to control some mixed areas," Humam Hamoudi, a senior Shiite leader in the coalition, said in a recent interview. "This has provoked astonishment, rejection and rage."
Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, said there are insufficient U.S. and Iraqi troops to defeat the extremists, so the local tribes provide an important supplement. He said the recruits should be accountable to the Iraqi security forces.
"At this particular moment, we need these tribes. It might be for a short period," he said in an interview. "I can't understand the fears. Frankly, it's people talking nonsense, that these tribes might turn into militiamen the next day and be a threat to the Shias and attack whomever."
Also Tuesday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Baghdad and announced that his country would withdraw 1,000 troops from Iraq by year's end, a nearly 20 percent decrease in forces and twice the number of troops previously expected to leave.
Brown said he thought Iraqi security forces could assume full control of Basra province, in the south, in the next two months.
Speaking to reporters outside a British military compound in Baghdad, Brown said the remaining 4,500 British soldiers in Iraq would shift from a combat role to one of "overwatch," in which they would be responsible for training Iraqi security forces and remain ready to intervene if the violence in southern Iraq overwhelmed the 30,000 Iraqi troops based there.
In earlier announcements, British officials had said the size of Britain's force in Iraq would shrink by 500 by year's end.
"I believe that the 30,000 security forces that have been trained up are capable of discharging these responsibilities for security," Brown said, adding: "The final decisions will be taken based on what happens on the ground."
The drawdown of British troops, the largest contingent of foreign soldiers in Iraq after those of the United States, accelerates a movement away from a combat role in Basra, which has been the main British area of operations since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
British troops last month abandoned their sole remaining base in downtown Basra. They now conduct limited patrols, primarily around the airport and along the border with Iran, said Lt. Col. Nick Goulding, a British military spokesman.
In recent months, fierce fighting has broken out between rival Shiite militias in Iraq's south, and two provincial governors have been assassinated.
"The government welcomes the transfer of security responsibility in November," said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih. "The drawdown is based on an assessment of the security environment in Basra."
As part of a broader effort to uproot violent Shiite militias, the U.S. military for the first time has begun direct meetings with local leaders in Baghdad's vast Shiite district of Sadr City, Odierno said Tuesday. The meetings were focused on improving security in Sadr City, where U.S. troops and Iraqi police have had only one small base, the general said.
Odierno said that he seeks eventually to establish half a dozen more bases, known as joint security stations, with Iraqi and U.S. forces in the district. "We've just started, but I am encouraged" by the talks, he said.
U.S. military officials are having similar discussions with Shiite groups in Taji, north of Baghdad, and Mahmudiyah, south of the capital, to encourage them to join the Iraqi security forces, he said.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington and special correspondent Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.