BAGHDAD, Iraq _In a swirl of business suits and elegant robes, a delegation of community leaders from Iraq's most rebellious province slinked into a Baghdad hotel Saturday to give a news conference arranged by American handlers.
One sheikh promptly hid behind a door. Another insisted that not even his voice be recorded. With obvious reluctance, just three of the Sunni Muslim leaders agreed to speak on camera about the purpose of their visit: an unusual request for U.S. protection against attacks by Shiite militias and security forces.
The palpable discomfort among the delegates from Anbar province, home to the insurgent-infested towns of Ramadi and Fallujah, reflects a line from page 15 of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's report on the war: "Sunnis are confronted by paradoxes: they have opposed the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq but need those forces to protect them against Shia militias."
It's a humbling dilemma for a proud minority.
Iraq's Sunni Arabs, the backbone of the anti-American insurgency, continue to issue vehement calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Privately, however, many of them describe American troops as the only reliable buffer between Sunni Arab enclaves and the Shiite-led government's militia-ridden security forces.
Now, even Sunni tribesmen accused of supporting attacks against American troops are taking U.S.-chauffeured helicopter rides to meet with officials in the fortress-like U.S. and Iraqi headquarters known as the Green Zone. Americans escorted the Anbar leaders to the Rasheed Hotel, where visitors in Saddam Hussein's era stepped on an inlaid mosaic of the elder President Bush's face as they entered.
"We trust only Sunni security forces and they must be supported by the Americans. We must have our Sunni police and army that the Americans must build and support," said Falih al Dulaimi, an Anbar councilman.
In recent weeks, Sunni demands for U.S. help have triggered soul-searching among tribesmen, clerics, politicians and workaday Iraqis who are torn between their fury over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the struggle to defend their communities from both Shiite militia and Sunni insurgent attacks. Their predicament puts American troops squarely in the middle of the sectarian violence, and hints at a potential bloodbath if they leave too soon.
As the Shiite-dominated government began flexing its power this fall—and, some argue, emboldening the Shiite militias and death squads—Sunnis began turning to U.S. troops for help. That top Sunni leaders are now willing to work publicly with coalition forces speaks to their weakened state.
"Now, when we see an American checkpoint, we are less worried than when we see an Iraqi checkpoint," said Jassim al-Samurraie, who lives in the Sunni neighborhood of Adhemiyah. "It's a fact, but it's a fact introduced by them. America worked very hard to make the situation like this so that Iraqis would prefer them to stay than ask them to leave."
U.S. officials are reassessing their approach to Iraq in light of the newly released Iraq Study Group findings, which essentially rejected the Bush administration's Iraq and Middle East policies as failures. Bush appears reluctant to accept the group's key recommendations and is conducting an internal administration evaluation of how to adapt his policy. He intends to present his policy changes to the American people in a televised address, probably before Christmas.
U.S. embassy officials here had advocated bringing the minority Sunnis into the political process, but that angered the majority Shiites, who felt forced into working with politicians they accused of association with "terrorists."
One idea under study in Washington is the so-called "80 percent solution," which calls for the United States to bolster its ties to the Shiites and Kurds, who make up four-fifths of the Iraqi populace. Instead of working with Sunni leaders, the plan calls for U.S. troops to step up the fight against Sunni insurgents.
But in Baghdad, U.S. military officials said they would neither pick a side nor sit out the fight.
"We don't just stay on the sidelines and see people get hacked up," said Col. Nelson McCouch, senior spokesman for the U.S. command. "We let the Iraqi army and police, who are in charge, decide when they need assistance."
The Shiite-led government, however, mostly has turned a blind eye to the militias and death squads carrying out revenge attacks against Sunnis, the sect that enjoyed favored status under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime. Sunni groups, along with the Iraq Study Group report released last week, describe heavy Shiite militia infiltration of the Iraqi security forces and an apparent lack of political will to fix it.
Of particular concern is the Mahdi Army militia of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who's led two deadly uprisings against U.S. forces.
As Mahdi Army fighters, often in Iraqi police uniforms and vehicles, encroach on Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad, locals grudgingly look to Americans for backup. In some neighborhoods, mosque loudspeakers order residents to "fire on all strangers except American forces coming to help."
McCouch, the U.S. military spokesman, said calls on a local hotline to report sectarian and other violence are "off the scale." Recent statements from the U.S. military also indicate the willingness of some U.S. units to enter the sectarian fray by stopping mortars lobbed between warring neighborhoods, taking out rocket launchers in a Shiite enclave, and responding to a torched mosque.
For now, several residents said, enlisting the Americans is the Sunni trump card in dealing with Shiite militias.
"Saidiyah has been closed off for nine months, with only one exit and one entrance, and the Iraqi police commandos are surrounding us," said Sobhi al-Neimi, who lives in the restive Baghdad district. "We went to the commandos and told them, face to face, that if they sent a force inside without Americans, we would target them. They said, `no problem.'"
The Ghazaliyah district of Baghdad is another Sunni stronghold where sectarian fighting is fierce. Amir al-Qaisi said he and his neighbors were skeptical when American troops distributed an emergency number for help in case of attack. But when they called the number to report a massing of Shiite militiamen, he said, the U.S. Army responded.
Al-Qaisi said a code is now emitted from mosque loudspeakers to signal that gunmen are entering the district without American escorts. That means neighborhood men are required to keep firing until they hear the reassuring rumble of U.S. armor.
"When we hear the Americans coming, we stop so that they will not think we are firing at them," al-Qaisi said. "Some Sunnis might be saying the Americans should withdraw, but I'm certain that deep down, they're not convinced."
Still, al-Qaisi said he knows better than to believe U.S. forces help solely out of goodwill.
"This is not going to be a second Rwanda or Bosnia simply because this is an American project and they will not let themselves have such a major failure," he said. "They will respond faster in Iraq. This is their project."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.