The American soldiers in [the Sunni enclave of ]Amiriyah have allied themselves with dozens of Sunni militiamen who call themselves the Baghdad Patriots -- a group that American soldiers believe includes insurgents who have attacked them in the past -- in an attempt to drive out al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Americans have granted these gunmen the power of arrest, allowed the Iraqi army to supply them with ammunition, and fought alongside them in chaotic street battles.
Lieutenant Colonel Dale Kuehl, a U.S. battalion commander, is trying to form the Baghdad Patriot group into an Amiriyah police force--the mainly Shiite national police force refuses to work in the area. "This is a defining moment for us," says Kuehl.
An intelligence officer in Kueh's battalion said, "We have made a deal with the devil."
Running With the Devil
The U.S. has also recruited indigenous forces to fight in Anbar Province and in the Abu Ghraib area west of Baghdad. But Kuehl's arrangement with locals defies repeated declarations by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that no one but American and Iraqi forces are to carry arms. There's also a danger that "adopted" local allies could turn on their U.S. partners.
Then there's the problem of telling the "good guys" from the "bad guys." They dress alike, they carry the same kinds of weapons. Sure, you can put arm or head bands on the good guys, but the bad guys don't need a whole lot of smarts to figure out they can wear arm or headbands too.
In early June, the Baghdad Patriots led Kuehl's soldiers to a large weapons cache. They asked for the weapons in the cache as reward. Kuehl later said he would probably give the fighters weapons, but in limited amounts.
Many of the Amiriyah Baghdad Patriots are said to belong to the Islamic Army, which contains former officers of Saddam Hussein's military. On Wednesday June 6, the Islamic Army called a cease-fire with al-Qaeda. U.S. soldiers said the cease-fire would not affect the Amiriyah group.
That night, the Americans went on an overnight mission to arrest seven members of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Two hours after the raid was to commence, the tank unit was still waiting on empty streets for the Amiriyah militia group to arrive when they were told the militiamen had called off the raid.
"Pretty soon they run out of al-Qaeda, and then they're going to turn on us," one of the tank drivers said. "I don't want to get used to them and then I have an AK behind my back. I'm not going to trust them at all."
Don't Turn Your Back
One would like to commend a local commander like Colonel Kuehl for showing some initiative. Goodness knows that solutions aren't coming from high command. But aligning your unit with a local militia group of relatively unknown membership and allegiance--brother, that's taking a walk on the wild side. That no-show night raid could easily have been a trap for Kuehl's unit.
According to Partlow, Kuehl understands the risks, but decided the intelligence the Baghdad Patriot provided on al-Qaeda in Iraq was too good to pass up. "Hell, nothing else has worked in Amiriyah," Kuehl said.
Kuehl also said, "We need them and they need us. Al-Qaeda's stronger than them. We provide capabilities that they don't have. And the locals know who belongs and who doesn't. It doesn't matter how long we're here, I'll never know. And we'll never fit in."
We'll never know and we'll never fit in. This is one hell of a kind of war our leaders have stuck our military in.
But General David Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq, is nearly ecstatic about how the local alliances are going in the Anbar province. "What's taken place in Anbar is almost breathtaking," he told CNN in a June 8 exclusive interview. "In the last several months, tribes that turned a blind eye to what al Qaeda was doing in that province are now opposing al Qaeda very vigorously. And the level of violence in Anbar has plummeted; although there clearly is still work to be done."
I'm more inclined to buy the last clause in that statement than any of the rest of it. We've gone in to parts of Anbar again and again, claimed victory, then looked in the rear view mirror and gone "oops!"
It's also interesting how administration has pointed its rhetoric at al-Qaeda lately. As Charles Hanley of the Associated Press points out:
Inside the bloody kaleidoscope called Iraq, the list of enemies and allies is long, shifting and motley, running from “revolution brigades” and Baathists, to Salafists, secularists and suicidal zealots. But one group alone gets routinely tagged “Public Enemy No. 1” by the Americans.
Nine out of 10 times, when it names a foe it faces, the U.S. military names the group called al-Qaeda in Iraq. President Bush says Iraq may become an al-Qaeda base to “launch new attacks on America.” The U.S. ambassador here suggested this week al-Qaeda might “assume real power” in Iraq if U.S. forces withdraw.
Al-Qaeda is a minor contributor to the violence in Iraq. Some 30 distinct groups now claim credit for attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces. The odds of al-Qaeda assuming "real power" in Iraq are slim to none. Steven Simon, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that the Bush administration's warning about al-Qaeda and Iraq “serves mostly to buttress the administration's claim that Iraq's problems are the work of outsiders, and not the result of the administration's mismanagement of the occupation and internal Iraqi factionalism.”
And of course, the constant referrals to al-Qaeda reinforce the subliminal implication that Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 attacks.
So what will this focus on al-Qaeda in Iraq really accomplish? It might drive the Islamic group from the country, but if it does, we'll still have the 29 something other anti-U.S., anti-Iraqi government militant groups to deal with.
And as the young tank driver in Lieutenant Colonel Kuehl's battalion said, "I'm not going to trust them at all."
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword.