U.S. sponsorship of Sunni groups worries Iraq's government

Sunni Iraqis at prayer
Sunni Iraqis at prayer

BAGHDAD — The American campaign to turn Sunni Muslims against Islamic extremists is growing so quickly that Iraq's Shiite Muslim leaders fear that it's out of control and threatens to create a potent armed force that will turn against the government one day.

The United States, which credits much of the drop in violence to the campaign, is enrolling hundreds of people daily in "concerned local citizens" groups. More than 5,000 have been sworn in in the last eight days, for a total of 77,542 as of Tuesday. As many as 10 groups were created in the past week, bringing the total number to 192, according to the American military.

U.S. officials said they were screening new members — who generally are paid $300 a month to patrol their neighborhoods — and were subjecting them to tough security measures. More than 60,000 have had fingerprints and DNA taken and had retinal scans, American officials said, steps that will allow them to be identified later, should they turn against the government. The officials said they planned to cap membership in the groups at 100,000.

But that hasn't calmed mounting concerns among aides to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who charge that some of the groups include "terrorists" who attack Shiite residents in their neighborhoods. Some of the new "concerned citizens" are occupying houses that terrified Shiite families abandoned, they said.

It also hasn't quieted criticism that the program is trading long-term Iraqi stability for short-term security gains.

"There is a danger here that we are going to have armed all three sides: the Kurds in the north, the Shiite and now the Sunni militias," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who's now at The Brookings Institution, a center-left policy organization in Washington, D.C.

Underscoring the division, Sunni politicians said the creation of the groups was justified because it made up for the U.S. decision to disband Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led army shortly after Baghdad fell in 2003. They also said the groups helped balance the infiltration of Iraq's security forces by Shiite militias during the rapid U.S.-sponsored expansion of those forces in 2004 and 2005.

"Those who fear are the ones who have militias blatantly operating from within the official institutions and law enforcement agencies and outside them," said Omar Abdul Sattar, a leading member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni group in parliament.

Dr. Safa Hussein, Maliki's deputy national security adviser and the head of a committee tasked with reconciling Iraq's rival factions, said the government was increasingly concerned about what would take place once the United States no longer was supervising the "concerned citizens" groups closely.

"We have tens of thousands of people who are carrying weapons on a contract basis, and when their contracts are finished where will they go?" he asked. "The Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense can't absorb them all, and the problem is they are growing very rapidly and the Iraqi government doesn't have any control over that."

"When the U.S. leaves, what we'll have are two armies," said Sami al Askari, a Shiite lawmaker who speaks to Maliki daily. "One who's loyal to the government and one not loyal."

American officials have hailed the decision to create the "concerned citizens" groups as the reason that violence has dropped throughout much of Iraq. Military commanders credit the groups with dramatic drops in violence, from Anbar province to areas south of Baghdad formerly known as the Triangle of Death.

But the campaign also has been criticized for sanctioning armed groups that include people who were attacking American troops only months ago, a fact that Riedel said should give U.S. officials pause.

"All of these factions and all of these militias are our friends only as long as it suits their interests," he said. "At any time they can change their affiliation. Once they come to the conclusion that the Americans are leaving, then they'll start to want to see how do they want to position themselves, post-American presence in Iraq, as heroes of resistance."

Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the top U.S. spokesman in Iraq, said American officials had discussed the concerns with Maliki and that the reconciliation committee headed by Deputy National Security Adviser Hussein was intended to find ways to absorb the new groups into the security forces or other service-related jobs.

"This is not a militia; it's more than 190 distinct groups of individuals," Smith said. "It's not like the creation of a 70,000 militia in any form."

Brig. Gen. John Campbell, a deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, defends the program, which he said was never meant to comprise only Sunnis and that now included Shiites in some areas.

"There are people inside the government who are telling the prime minister, 'Hey, the Americans are arming these volunteers. It's a U.S. militia,' and that's absolutely false," he said. "We really got out ahead of the Iraqis here. We found people that wanted to fight al Qaida and we brought them on board."

U.S. officials hope that about a third of the men will be incorporated into local police forces. Currently 49,301 men are under contract with the U.S. military at $300 a month, for a total of almost $15 million a month. Of those, 21,390 are requesting to join the Iraqi Security Forces.

But Hussein said the Iraqi government couldn't process such large numbers and also vet the recruits for loyalty.

He also said that while the campaign might have worked in Anbar, where the population is nearly all Sunni, its results were mixed in areas such as the Saidiyah neighborhood in Baghdad or Diyala province, north of Baghdad, which include both Sunnis and Shiites.

Sectarian battles continue in those areas, and the Sunni groups are threatening Shiite residents or are the same people who'd threatened or displaced them in the past, he said.

"The problem is growing faster than our capacity," he said.

The new groups are proliferating so quickly that some American officials are taken aback. Maj. Mark Brady, who deals with tribal engagement and reconciliation in Baghdad, lauded the program but described it as "building a plane while flying in it."

In Mahmudiyah, a city of 116,000 south of Baghdad, at least 18,000 men have been enrolled in "concerned citizens."

Tensions are evident. In Baghdad's Saidiyah neighborhood, "concerned citizens" were removed from standing guard at checkpoints under orders from Maliki's office. Campbell said they'd now been assigned to mosques and schools.

In Amil, a once mixed-sect neighborhood that's been all but purged of Sunnis, Shiite leaders complained during a recent reconciliation meeting that a Sunni member of the volunteer organization had pointed a gun at one of them when he tried to enter a Sunni area at the invitation of Sunni tribal leaders.

While U.S. officials tout the drop in violence and the standing up of these groups as the start of national reconciliation, Riedel warns that it could instead set the stage for the final divide.

"As the Shiites see the Sunnis getting closer to the Americans, that will only reinforce their concern that this is a hostile measure designed somehow to undermine their government," he said.

(McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this report.)