Soldiers hope the enemy of their enemy is their friend

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 31, 2007 

BAQOUBA, Iraq — Several months ago, Abu Haider was aiming his weather-beaten AK-47 rifle at American soldiers. Now it pointed to the floor.

At a makeshift police station that once served as a farmer's union hall in Baqouba, the U.S. effort to enlist former Sunni Muslim insurgents in the battle against al Qaida in Iraq coalesced this week into an uneasy truce.

Abu Haider, as he called himself, and about 80 other mostly Sunni residents — some of them former members of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, a fiercely nationalistic insurgent group — had arrived to register as security volunteers. An American soldier photographed and cataloged the recruits. The result: a neighborhood watch program with ammo.

Working with the Shiite Muslim-dominated Iraqi army, the volunteers will patrol neighborhoods and ask residents for tips on where to find insurgents. U.S. forces want to take advantage of the enmity that al Qaida in Iraq has generated among Shiites and Sunnis here and elsewhere in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.

"We have a truce with the unbelievers," said Abu Haider, glancing at about a dozen American soldiers from the 520th Infantry Battalion of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, based at Fort Lewis, Wash. "Now, we're going to fight khawraj," the name he calls al Qaida in Iraq. The Khawraj, members of a sect who claimed to be true Muslims, fought Muslims after the Prophet Muhammad died.

American officials hope to replicate the success that a similar tactic had in curbing violence in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, west of the capital. Some U.S. military officials suggest that co-opting former enemies in Diyala, home to Shiite and Sunni Arabs and Kurds, could serve as a template for the rest of the country.

American commanders here said that fighting a common enemy that kidnapped, tortured and imposed a brutal brand of fundamentalist Islam could lead to broader security, sectarian reconciliation and a politically palatable U.S. military exit strategy.

It's a tall order, and the new alliance is a risky gambit. There's no guarantee that the mostly Sunni security volunteers won't target Shiite civilians, calcifying a perception either that the United States has chosen sides in a sectarian war or is in the unhappy position of backing both sides.

Moreover, if they succeed against al Qaida in Iraq, the former insurgents could use the intelligence they gain working with Americans to turn their guns on U.S. soldiers or on the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces, which are armed and trained by the U.S. but heavily infiltrated by Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen.

The omens aren't promising. Once he's finished rousting al Qaida from Baqouba, Abu Haider indicated, he and others will go back to fighting American troops. "Our aims," he said, "are to get the occupation forces out."

'GUARDIANS OF BAQOUBA'

There was little interaction between the American and Sunni allies at the police station, except for punctuated demands from a U.S. soldier that the volunteers form two straight lines for photographs. The volunteers quickly disobeyed the orders that pinged off the white walls of the station's windowless garage.

U.S. Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, who's in charge of operations in Diyala, calls the homegrown security forces "the guardians of Baqouba." Some Iraqis call them public committees. Abu Haider said, "We are Hamas of Iraq."

It's unclear what ties, if any, Abu Haider's band has to Hamas, the Palestinian Sunni Islamist organization that won control of the Gaza Strip in June. The United States, Canada and the European Union have listed Hamas as a terrorist organization.

However, Abu Haider said his group received arms and support from Iraqi politician Harith al Dhari and his Muslim Scholars Association, which called for boycotting Iraqi elections and has a long-standing dispute with the U.S.-backed Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Representatives of al Dhari couldn't be reached for comment.

"We should take (Abu Haider) at his word," said Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of "The New American Militarism — How Americans Are Seduced by War."

"Were I a battalion commander, I would be tempted to do what they have done," said Bacevich, a former Army colonel who recently lost a son in Iraq. "It's a way to lower the level of violence in their area of operation."

But co-opting insurgents "from a strategic or political perspective, makes no sense," he said, later adding, "It strikes me as bizarre."

The closest historical analogue, he said, is America's tactical partnership with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s.

"The deal paid great dividends in the short run until the mujahedeen, in the form of Osama bin Laden's al Qaida, turned against us," he said. "I expect the same thing will happen in Iraq."

'THIS IS YOUR TOWN'

Sgt. 1st Class Corey Oliver, 28, from Rifle, Colo., and the 35 men of Alpha Company's 3rd Platoon peeled themselves off the rooftop and beds of a home in Old Baqouba, where raw sewage drains in straight rivulets from homes.

The Americans had kicked out a family of four the night before.

The family patriarch protested, saying he had nowhere to go, but he relented. The man, a boy and two women slipped away down a darkened street during a nighttime curfew that's been in place since mid-June, when U.S.-led forces mounted a military offensive here, code-named Operation Arrowhead Ripper. A sergeant radioed other units in the neighborhood not to fire.

Oliver and other members of his platoon said it was unfortunate that they had to roust some Iraqi families but that it was the price the community had to pay for security.

The house overlooked a trash-strewn plaza lined with shops that had been closed for months, since the provincial government essentially abandoned its posts in the face of insurgent violence.

Almost all the residents whom McClatchy reporters talked to blamed al Qaida in Iraq, although U.S. military officials and others said Shiite militias also had been active in the province.

Oliver's men watched as community volunteers helped Iraqi soldiers distribute flour, rice and bottled water. The sacks each weighed more than 100 pounds, about as much as some of the elderly women who stood in line. The flour and rice were to arrive in 5 kilogram (11-pound) bags. Some 1,400 people received food; about 4,000 were turned away when supplies ran out.

"When we first started this program, I had my doubts about it," Oliver said of allying with Sunni insurgents. "So far it's been successful. It needs time to work."

When he and his men arrived in Baqouba in March, they encountered heavy fighting. The city offered the full menu of insurgent strikes, from booby traps and coordinated ambushes to car bombs and grenades, he said.

Since U.S. and Iraqi forces went door to door, house to house, violence has dropped off, soldiers and residents said.

As Oliver spoke, Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Goodine, 35, originally from Calais, Maine, huddled with six security volunteers wearing brown T-shirts and lime-green fluorescent bands draped over their shoulders. The volunteers didn't want to knock on doors in unfamiliar neighborhoods or where they believed that danger lurked.

"I'm not here to make some block safe," Goodine said through an interpreter. "This is your town. You have to make all of Baqouba safe."

He pleaded with the volunteers not to kill those they detain but to hand them over to Iraqi or U.S. troops.

Oliver wadded copious amounts of Copenhagen dipping tobacco between his upper lip and gum. He's lost 12 of his original 35 men, six of them to a roadside bomb May 6 that wiped out their Stryker vehicle. When he was pressed as to how he felt about befriending a former foe, he exhaled.

"Six of my soldiers are dead. Another six are stateside, some with permanent disabilities," he said. "I don't want to be walking out of this situation without doing something for them."

(Drummond reports for The Charlotte Observer. He blogs from Iraq at http://drummondiniraq.blogspot.com. Khalifa is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)

2007 McClatchy Newspapers

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service