Hurdles Stall Plan For Iraqi Recruits

By Joshua Partlow and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 12, 2007

BAGHDAD -- The U.S. effort to organize nearly 70,000 local fighters to solidify security gains in Iraq is facing severe political and logistical challenges as U.S.-led forces struggle to manage the recruits and the central government resists incorporating them into the Iraqi police and army, according to senior military officials.

Gen. David H. Petraeus and other top commanders have hailed the initiative to enlist Iraqi tribes and former insurgents in the battle against extremist groups, but leaders of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government have feared that the local fighters known as "volunteers" -- more than 80 percent of whom are Sunni -- could eventually mount an armed opposition, Iraqi and U.S. officials said.

In some cases, the government has confined the fighters to their headquarters or local mosques. Nevertheless, the volunteers pour in by the hundreds every week, forming a massive but cumbersome force lacking common guidelines, status, pay or uniforms. The effort represents an opportunity to shore up local police and eventually relieve U.S. troops, but one that could prove fleeting or backfire if the volunteers are not organized quickly, officials said.

"To give you a sense of the bureaucratic challenge here, the entire British army is just under 100,000," said Maj. Gen. Paul Newton, the British counterinsurgency expert tapped by Petraeus to lead the effort. "What we've seen in this campaign is already therefore three-quarters of the size of the British army, without any kind of human resource management structure to recruit it, train it, vet it," Newton, 51, said in an interview.

Since taking the job in early June, Newton has met with tribal sheiks, Sunni insurgents, Shiite militia leaders and Iraqi politicians in an attempt to "glue together" the local armed groups with the Iraqi government. But as the local initiatives proliferate, Newton said, the effort is like "trying to sprint while putting your socks on."

More than 67,000 people across 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces are registered under the military designation Concerned Local Citizens, and 51,000 of those have been screened and had their names, fingerprints and other biometric data recorded by the U.S. military, Newton said. Such information is entered into a vast database that soldiers can use to help identify past criminal behavior, such as by matching fingerprints on a roadside bomb component. Eighty-two percent of the volunteers are Sunni and 18 percent are Shiite, he said. About 37,000 are being paid about $300 a month through contracts funded by the U.S.-led military coalition.

Although U.S. commanders stress that the coalition is not forming a Sunni militia, Iraqi leaders complain that paying the fighters is tantamount to arming them. The Iraqi government so far has balked at permanently hiring large numbers of the volunteers, resisting pressure from U.S. commanders to lift caps on the number of police in Anbar and Diyala provinces. Only about 1,600 of the volunteers have been trained and sworn in to the Iraqi security forces, primarily with the police.

"It's admittedly slow progress," said Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a military spokesman in Baghdad, who said the goal now is to have 17,000 hired as police officers.

Last month, the Shiite political alliance of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on the U.S. military to halt its recruitment of Sunnis. Referring to Sunni fighters, Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie told Washington Post reporters, "The more they depend on the coalition, it is seen as undermining the Iraqi government."

Iraqi officials are concerned about the past behavior of many of the men now working with the Americans, citing problems arising from the infiltration of the police by Shiite militias. "We ended up with a police force that is not loyal to the government and to the country," said Sami al-Askiri, a Shiite legislator and Maliki adviser. "If we copy this and do it with Sunnis, we will just create another problem."

"We have to take the Sunnis inside the police and the army. They are part of the Iraqi society, but we have to check them, we have to check all their backgrounds," Askiri said. "If we do this the wrong way, we will end up with another militia inside the police force, but a Sunni one, not a Shiite one."

In Sadiyah, a southwestern Baghdad neighborhood where fighting between militias and insurgents has forced thousands of families to leave, the Iraqi government's wariness about the U.S. partnership with Sunni residents prompted a public condemnation: an Oct. 2 statement by the ruling Shiite coalition saying that the residents were involved in "kidnapping, killing and extortion."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company