BAGHDAD, Iraq—Under cover of darkness, a convoy of Bradley Fighting Vehicles and M-1 tanks loaded with American soldiers pulled up to a mosque Monday night in the al-Qaida-dominated neighborhood of Amariyah.
More than a dozen members of the anti-American insurgent Islamic Army of Iraq and some local residents waited for them, armed with AK-47 rifles and dressed in track suits and T-shirts.
But the two forces didn't clash. Instead, they shared information and supplies, in a growing push by the Islamic Army of Iraq and neighborhood residents to push al-Qaida's foreign fighters from Amariyah.
Capt. Andy Wilbraham, the commander of Delta Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, of the 1st Cavalry Division, from Fort Hood, Texas, called the men the "honorable insurgency" and "the good bad guys." He said the Iraqis' decision to ally with the Americans, in the battle against al-Qaida at least, had given him hope that Baghdad's Sunni Muslims would follow the lead of tribal heads in Anbar province and help the Americans drive out al-Qaida.
That won't necessarily mean they'll be long-term allies, however.
One of the men present, who called himself Abu Bilal, said privately that he remained committed to expelling the Americans from Iraq. But for now, the battle was against al-Qaida's fighters, who he said had turned his neighborhood into a dump for garbage and bodies.
"They oppressed the area," he said. "They are kidnapping the innocents, destroying the houses and dumping dead bodies in the garbage."
Amariyah's problems with al-Qaida came to a head in the past month, as tribal leaders in Ramadi and Abu Ghraib to the west pushed the foreign fighters from their areas. The fleeing fighters came to Amariyah, which had long been where they treated their wounded and rested before returning to battle.
However, now they were heavily targeting American soldiers, said Maj. Chris Rogers, the second in command of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment. Homemade bombs claimed 11 of the battalion's men in May; in the previous five months only one man had died. The Americans couldn't seem to find the attackers. "It's like fighting ghosts," Wilbraham said. "I can't tell an Iraqi from an Iraqi."
The violence was also hard on residents. Last week, two were kidnapped and later killed. An imam called the battalion seeking help. "We are taking this into our own hands, and we are going to do something about it," Rogers recalled the imam saying.
Which is how Wilbraham and his men came to be at the mosque Monday.
Walking into the courtyard, Wilbraham asked for his contact. The man, who'd be identified only by his nom de guerre, Abul Abd, walked up. With him was Abu Bilal. A young boy clutched Abu Bilal's arm. His son. The sight of a child gave Wilbraham some relief. The Americans knew little about the men they were meeting.
The two groups sat down in the dark courtyard. Wilbraham got out a map and shone a flashlight on it.
"Mark the houses you are going to," he said.
This wouldn't be an American-led operation. Abul Abd had been leading about 40 men since Thursday in the local fight against al-Qaida. Tonight, they'd raid houses occupied by al-Qaida fighters. He pointed to the places they planned to go.
A U.S. soldier set something on a table. "This is reflective tape," Wilbraham said to Abul Abd. "Tell your men to wear it." It would make sure that the Americans didn't accidentally shoot men who'd be their allies tonight.
Rogers said it hadn't been a simple decision to help these men. The Americans don't really know them. They're local residents who call themselves freedom fighters, Rogers said. None has acknowledged his insurgent ties to the Americans, though out of earshot of the U.S. troops Abu Bilal admitted his role in the Islamic Army.
"Yes, I'm a leader of a cell in the Islamic Army," he said. Last week, al-Qaida raided his home and beat his wife. "We are from here; they are from somewhere else," he said of al-Qaida.
"It is a measured risk we're taking," Rogers said. "It's time to take a measured risk in a place like Amariyah."
As Monday turned to Tuesday, Wilbraham headed out with his men in tanks. Abul Abd's men already were gone. Wilbraham's men would respond only if the fighter signaled for help.
The night was eerie. Amariyah once had been a wealthy, beautiful neighborhood. Now its villas largely are abandoned, piles of garbage cover the roadsides and bushes are overgrown. Craters pock the streets where bombs have exploded.
The American soldiers kept their distance.
"We don't want to accidentally shoot one of them," 1st Lt. David Virginia said.
By 3 a.m. the fighters signaled that they'd finished. They'd detained 15 men, and turned them over to the Americans.
By phone Tuesday, Abul Abd said he wasn't an insurgent. His fighters wanted to become a legitimate security force and recruit more men, he said.
Rogers said the U.S. military agreed. There are no police in Amariyah now. The police are dominated by Shiite Muslims, and Amariyah is a Sunni area. People fear that police would become Shiite death squads.
"They felt that the Iraqi police in Amariyah would be the local Shiite hunt club," Rogers said.
What will happen now?
On Monday, the Islamic Army of Iraq issued an Internet statement justifying its Amariyah uprising against al-Qaida in Iraq, blaming al-Qaida's leaders for the suffering of Sunnis, whose neighborhoods, under al-Qaida rule, have become oppressive and violent places.
However, the group said it was still "anti-occupation."
"We will continue our jihad for the sake of Almighty God ... driving out the two occupations: The American and the Persian Iranians," the statement said.
Abul Abd said his goal was more near-term. "We can't leave the neighborhood as it is now," he said. "We need help."