U.S., Iraq at odds over Sunni groups

Lt. Matt Lacki (center) confers with local security contractors about the location of a homemade bomb in Baghdad's Saidiyah neighborhood.
Lt. Matt Lacki (center) confers with local security contractors about the location of a homemade bomb in Baghdad's Saidiyah neighborhood. Leila Fadel / MCT

BAGHDAD — The Baghdad neighborhood of Saidiyah is becoming the focal point of a growing battle between the U.S. military and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government over the burgeoning number of U.S.-financed armed groups known as "concerned local citizens."

U.S. officers in the neighborhood said that the Shiite Muslim-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is undermining American efforts to bolster the volunteers, who are predominantly Sunni Muslims. At the same time, U.S. soldiers acknowledged that some of the volunteers could be sympathizers of al Qaida in Iraq and other anti-government organizations.

Saidiyah, in southwest Baghdad, remains a battle zone between Sunni and Shiite forces in a capital where sectarian cleansing has turned most formerly mixed neighborhoods into either Sunni or Shiite enclaves.

"Saidiyah is that final frontier, which is why it has the attention of the prime minister," said Lt. Col. Johnnie Johnson, the commander for the 4th Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart, Ga. The 4-64 took over U.S. responsibilities in the neighborhood more than a month ago. "The government is still stoking the fires of sectarianism," he said.

"The thing that makes Saidiyah a hotbed is you still have friction zones between the Sunnis and the Shiites," added Capt. Sean Chase, the commander of Bravo Company of the 4-64 Armor who meets frequently with "concerned citizens" leaders. "Whereas you go to these other areas where the Sunnis have been pushed out and it's primarily Shiite, things are calmer."

U.S. officials credit the new citizens groups, whose members are each paid about $10 a day to participate, with the drop in violence throughout much of the country. But Maliki advisers fear that the U.S. is organizing a largely Sunni armed force that's capable of rivaling the mostly Shiite Iraqi security forces. They complain that the groups are expanding much faster than their members' loyalties can be reliably vetted.

U.S. officials have offered various numbers for how many "concerned citizens" are enrolled nationwide, evidence of how fast new members are being added. The current U.S. figure is 69,000, up nearly 10,000 from a week ago, though less than the previous figures of 72,000 and 77,000 that U.S. officials have cited in recent days.

U.S. officers in Saidiyah said that Maliki's office has taken a deep interest in developments there, including demanding that the U.S. not let the mostly Sunni volunteers guard checkpoints. They've been relegated to guarding only mosques and schools.

"This is the only volunteer force that I'm aware of that's not allowed to man checkpoints with the Iraqi security forces," Johnson said.

Chase said the prime minister's office calls regularly about reports of Shiites being targeted in Saidiyah.

Saidiyah is wedged between an area that's controlled by the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr in the north and west and an al Qaida in Iraq stronghold in the east. With two key bridges that cross the Tigris River, the area is considered key to a Shiite strategy to seize control of the southwest quadrant of Baghdad and provide an unbroken Shiite-controlled corridor to the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in the south.

Saidiyah's population is about 75 percent Sunni, though it's unclear what the ethnic makeup was before the last year of fighting. About 40 percent of Saidiyah's residents have been displaced, Johnson said.

The local governing council is made up of eight Shiites. Six Sunnis were added at the urging of the U.S. military, but while they can attend the meetings, they can't vote.

U.S. officers said that the "concerned local citizens" group in Saidiyah comprises 360 members paid by the U.S. military.

Maliki's office asked that the group not be allowed to man checkpoints after reports that its members were tagging innocent Shiites as members of the Mahdi Army, said Sami al Askari, a Shiite lawmaker who speaks to Maliki daily and has spoken to U.S. officials about government concerns in Saidiyah.

"They (Sunnis) realized the Shiites would win if they allied themselves with al Qaida, and so they shifted themselves to working with the Americans," he said. "The Shiite people, they were actually forced to leave, and now no one will dare to come back, and these volunteers will not allow them."

Soldiers from the 4-64th said that the Sunni volunteers rarely offer tips on al Qaida and that they also have doubts about their loyalties.

"I think most of them are al Qaida or at least linked," said 1st Lt. Brendon McGann, 24, of Bethesda, Md. "They only give us Shiite JAM targets," he added, using the acronym for the Mahdi Army's Arabic name.

It's unclear how much the Americans know about their new partners. One volunteer, Maj. Mohammed Khalid, led the Americans to a roadside bomb that was carefully hidden under a blast wall that separates Saidiyah from the Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Dora. Asked how he knew it was there, he responded, "I have my sources."

But he also said that he'd been an Iraqi intelligence officer under Saddam Hussein and a bodyguard for the late dictator, who was Sunni. He followed Saddam's name with the words "Allah yirhamu," God rest his soul. When he realized that the military interpreter hadn't translated that, he repeated the phrase several times, waving his hand in the air.

Mohammed Hassan Halab, the head of the volunteer security forces and a former general in Saddam's military, acknowledged that al Qaida in Iraq was once accepted in the area. "Al Qaida in the beginning wasn't killing our women and children. You can say we were in a truce with them," he said.

But then al Qaida began targeting residents, and Halab and his men turned to the Americans for help. Now, he said, the danger comes from the Mahdi Army, which recently attacked the Ibrahim al Khalil mosque, a Sunni mosque.

Halab said that before they were pulled from the streets, his men had helped capture tens of Mahdi Army members and commanders. Then on Oct. 3, the prime minister's office banned them from manning checkpoints.

"We were thunderstruck with the order to stop us from deploying in the streets," he said. "Isn't the state pleased if there is security and stability?"

Since then, Mahdi Army activity has increased, residents say.

"I can't even go there," Hassan Ali Abdullah, a Sunni barber, said as he pointed to a traffic circle a short distance from his shop. A young boy piped in, "I can't go to school; my school is there."

Mahdi Army members flee "when they see the Americans," said Ali Abid Inad, 32, a shop owner. But the U.S. soldiers aren't always around, and with the Sunni volunteers no longer allowed to patrol, residents say they don't trust the Iraqi Army's Muthanna Brigade, which has been assigned there.

Chase, however, isn't certain that the new volunteers can be trusted, either.

"The Iraqi security volunteers are borderline between al Qaida and the coalition," he said. "Right now they're more pro-coalition because we're paying the bill. As soon as you stop paying them, why should they help us? Why won't they go work for al Qaida?"