WASHINGTON — A U.S. program to combat al-Qaida in Iraq by arming Sunni Muslims undercuts the Iraqi government and years of U.S. policy, and is a tacit acknowledgment that the country's violence is really a civil war, some U.S. military officials in Washington and foreign policy experts say.
The program, which Bush administration officials have hailed as a sign of progress in Iraq, has sparked heated debate among military and foreign policy analysts. It is opposed by the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Supporters see it as a welcomed change in the American approach in Iraq, one whose benefits have been obvious in the drop in violence in Iraq's Anbar province, where al-Qaida formerly held sway. They say it could give impetus to the Shiites and Kurds to make political concessions.
But others contend the program has long-term repercussions that can only be guessed at now. By giving weapons and training to Sunnis in Anbar and Baghdad who've been previously associated with Sunni insurgent groups, the program endorses unofficial armed groups over official Iraqi forces as guarantors of Iraqi security, military officers who oppose the program say.
Those officers also say it abandons the long-stated U.S. goal of disarming militias and reinforces the idea that U.S.-trained Iraqi forces cannot control their country.
At the Pentagon, at least six officers who served in Iraq shook their heads when asked about the idea of arming the Sunnis. They said they had little faith in a Sunni community that was aggressively killing their comrades just months ago.
"Why did we spend all that capital disarming them last year?" asked one military officer who served in Iraq last year under former Iraq commander Gen. George Casey. "As a military man, I cannot fathom the logic of putting more weapons out there." The officer declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the matter.
By specifically aiding Sunni groups, it also seems to be an acknowledgement that Iraq is mired in a civil war that pits Sunnis against better-armed Shiite militias, some say.
"It is the U.S. basically acknowledging that Iraq is in a civil war," said Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiism at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan foreign policy organization. "And that the (Iraqi) government is irrelevant."
In Baghdad, the mostly Shiite government already is saying it cannot be expected to disarm militias if Sunni groups are receiving arms from the Americans.
Maliki, a Shiite, voiced his opposition to the program directly to Petraeus, according to Sami al-Askari, a close adviser to Maliki.
"It's a sort of militia, when we are trying to get rid of the current militias," Askari said. "By arming these tribes we'll make it worse."
In the western Baghdad neighborhood of Amariyah, U.S. forces are working with the Islamic Army and local residents, an anti-American insurgent group that considers itself a resister of the "occupation." In recent months the group that once worked with al-Qaida has severed ties, blaming al-Qaida for destruction of infrastructure and suffering of Sunnis in their neighborhoods.
But Maliki told Newsweek that U.S. forces are making "mistakes by arming tribes sometimes." He said coalition forces don't know the backgrounds of tribes they're backing. Askari, his aide, said Maliki has given orders to Iraqi Security Forces to treat the U.S.-armed groups as "outlaws."
U.S. officials say they want to build on the momentum spurred in the once-restive Anbar province. In a matter of months, residents turned on al-Qaida after years of considering it an ally in their battle to expel U.S. troops. Since then, U.S. troop deaths in Anbar have dropped precipitously.
They insist Iraq's mostly Shiite government backs their plan.
"There is risk, but we are at a point in this endeavor where we think, and the government of Iraq generally thinks, that some risk must be taken. You cannot just continue to do what we were doing, in some areas, and expect to have different results," said Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb, deputy commander for Multi-National Force-Iraq in an e-mailed statement.
"It's about getting the local population to reject the extremists and to embrace the legitimate processes of government. And that's what the coalition, together with the government of Iraq, is trying to do."
But Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, acknowledged that the government was worried about the new plan.
"Sure they are concerned," he said. "They want to make sure that we are not forming a Sunni militia that will fight the government."
Odierno said that the Sunnis working with U.S. forces are checked closely and are asked to sign a statement that they will not fight U.S. forces or the government.
But in Amariyah Abu Bilal, a leader of an Islamic Army cell working with the U.S. military there, said he is committed to expelling the "occupation."
"We fight the occupation to liberate our lands," he said.
He added that his was a legitimate resistance group, not killers of civilians like al-Qaida.
"Have we ever put a car bomb in a market?" he asked. "We don't do things like this."
Outside Iraq some military officials see the decision as a sign of desperation after an increase in U.S. troops in Iraq triggered little improvement in overall rates of violence.
"The specter of defeat opens the ground to new ideas," said Loren B. Thompson, a military analyst for the Lexington Institute, a think tank in the Washington, D.C., area. "We are at the end" of options.
Since the United States began adding troops to Baghdad as part of a surge intended to cut violence in Baghdad and Anbar, the number of attacks and civilians killed has not changed, according to the Defense Department's quarterly report to Congress last week.
One retired Army general who communicates regularly with current military leadership came to a dispiriting conclusion: "It could be the only thing we can do now."
Iraq's Sunni leaders defend the U.S. arming of their sect by noting that Shiite militias operate openly, often displaying their arms on the streets and setting up checkpoints where they search cars. In contrast, U.S. and Iraqi forces have disarmed the Sunnis over the past 18 months, leaving them unable to defend themselves.
"Why not make use of (the Sunnis) in such a situation?" said Alaa Makki, a Sunni legislator. "If you want al-Qaida out you have to push and encourage these groups to face al-Qaida."
Fadel reported from Baghdad.