Iraqi Sunnis And Shiites Work Together, Distrustfully




 
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Iraqi Sunnis And Shiites Work Together, Distrustfully
 
February 22nd, 2008  
Team Infidel
 
 

Topic: Iraqi Sunnis And Shiites Work Together, Distrustfully


Iraqi Sunnis And Shiites Work Together, Distrustfully
Los Angeles Times
February 22, 2008 Volunteers from both groups are helping the U.S. military drive insurgents from some areas, but their rivalry could make the gains temporary.
By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
MUQDADIYA, IRAQ —The room seethed with anger as Sunni Arab members of a neighborhood guard force brought in a freed captive, who stood mute amid the raised voices and swirling cigarette smoke.
Eyeing a visiting U.S. Army officer, the burly gunmen in camouflage coaxed the man to raise his arms and display the brown shoelaces that bound his wrists. The man, a fuel vendor, said he had been stopped by Shiite guards who demanded to know his sect. When he told them he was Sunni, he said, "they tied my hands, they slapped and kicked me. They stole fuel from me too."
He was released, he said, when he told his captors that his relatives were Shiite.
Both the Sunni and Shiite guards are helping the U.S. military defend Muqdadiya's Matar district from Sunni extremists who forced the city into a self-styled Islamic caliphate for more than a year. But though the two groups run checkpoints around the corner from each other, each takes every opportunity to convince the Americans that the other is not to be trusted.
The rivalry illustrates the difficulties the U.S. military faces as it tries to duplicate in religiously mixed regions of Iraq a strategy that produced a dramatic turnaround in Anbar, an overwhelmingly Sunni province.
U.S. commanders and residents agree that the fighters, once dubbed concerned local citizens by the Americans, and now known as Sons of Iraq, have played a key role in forcing the group Al Qaeda in Iraq and affiliated Sunni insurgents out of Muqdadiya, about 60 miles northeast of Baghdad. But as the militant organizations have retreated, rival bands of Sunni and Shiite guards have raced to stake claims to the vacated areas, raising the specter of sectarian bloodshed.
Lt. Col. Mark Landes, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, in Muqdadiya, called the rivalry "a huge concern." Landes' hope is that by working on the same side, they will find a way to overcome their differences. But there is little sign of that yet. The U.S.-allied Sunni fighters who gathered in a tiny office at a hospital-turned-security base in Matar were blunt about relations with their Shiite counterparts.
"In this country, there are two enemies," said one of the Sunni leaders, a giant of a man in a bulletproof vest who gave his name only as Abdulrahman. "Now we are fighting Al Qaeda, but in the future we must deal with another enemy, the Mahdi Army."
Abdulrahman accuses the Shiite guards of belonging to that militia, a group affiliated with radical cleric Muqtada Sadr that he says terrorizes Sunni civilians such as the fuel vendor. Shiite fighters counter that Abdulrahman's men have been infiltrated by Al Qaeda in Iraq extremists.
U.S. officers warn that the reluctance of the heavily Shiite police hierarchy to incorporate Sunni members into their ranks could one day spur the Sunnis to turn their guns against the Shiite-led government.
The government embraced the Sunni tribesmen, whose unexpected rebellion last year helped drive Al Qaeda in Iraq out of large parts of Anbar, west of Baghdad. Thousands of them now fill the ranks of the province's depleted security forces.
But the Iraqi government has resisted U.S. attempts to recruit Sunni allies in Baghdad, Diyala and other areas that include large numbers of Shiites, because it fears the Shiites could become targets once U.S. forces are no longer there.
Iraq's defense and interior ministers have made it clear that the volunteers would have to join the police and army or find alternative employment. But they said there was room in the official security forces for only about 20% of the more than 80,000 volunteers working with the Americans in central and northern Iraq.
In Muqdadiya, a city of about 200,000, the U.S. military is paying more than 1,000 volunteers about $10 a day to help police their neighborhoods.
The city's Sunni mayor, Najim Harbie, is a strong proponent of the program. But he says the central government has agreed to hire only 120 of the volunteers, who include roughly equal numbers of Shiites and Sunnis.
U.S. officials, who say they respect the government's wishes and cannot continue paying the volunteers indefinitely, are proposing training to help the rest find civilian jobs.
But Harbie said, "In Iraq right now, there are no jobs apart from the police and army." If the Americans stop paying the volunteers, he said, "it will be back to square one."
Muqdadiya, an ethnically and religiously mixed city on the edge of the verdant Diyala River valley, has suffered successive rounds of sectarian fighting among Shiite and Sunni militants since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
By mid-2006, it was essentially under the control of Sunni insurgents. U.S. troops, whose priority was to secure Baghdad and the Diyala provincial capital, Baqubah, did not attempt to reclaim Muqdadiya until a year later.
Despite the U.S. troop buildup, the American soldiers say they do not have the numbers to hang on to Muqdadiya and pursue the insurgents hidden in outlying farming villages without the help of the citizen groups. When they broached the subject with the mayor in October, the local tribesmen were ready.
"The next day, 150 dudes showed up at the mayor's office in camouflage, black masks and AK-47s," said Capt. Eric McMillan, a company commander who helped with recruiting. "It was freaky. I mean, they looked like the guys we were fighting."
The men in brown combat trousers, yellow reflective belts and woolen hats in the colors of the Iraqi flag are now a common sight across the city. The Sunni and Shiite fighters help the police and army run checkpoints, guard markets and mosques, and operate safe houses in every neighborhood. "Al Qaeda used to brag about how they could walk past our trucks," said Capt. Christopher Blaha, another company commander. "If they didn't have a weapon, what could we do? But they can't walk past the CLCs [citizen guards] because they know who they are."
Residents, who remain suspicious of the heavily Shiite and notoriously corrupt Iraqi security forces, credit the guards of both sects with restoring security to the city. Shops have started to open amid the rubble and life has returned to the once-deserted streets.
Remaining militants have directed many of their goriest attacks against the volunteers. At least five human heads appeared in and around the city in the week before U.S. forces launched their latest offensive against the insurgents in early January. One included a note scrawled across the forehead with a black marker warning that this would be the fate of any U.S. collaborators.
Abdulrahman keeps pictures of the heads stored on his cellphone as a reminder of why he fights the militants.
U.S. officers say many of the Sunni guards are members of the 1920 Revolution Brigade, a nationalist group that joined forces with Al Qaeda in Iraq and others to fight the U.S. occupation. The Brigades grew disenchanted when their allies, said to be foreign-led but with mostly Iraqi foot soldiers, tried to enforce their harsh brand of Islam.
The Shiite guards were mostly recruited from the Tamimis, one of two major tribes in the area, but include some Mahdi militia influences, according to the Americans.
As the threat posed by the Sunni insurgents has receded, both sides have sought to consolidate their power in the city. "It's kind of like the Sopranos," McMillan said. "They care about influence and power and security and money."
Sunni guards said they would like the Americans to hire 40 more from their sect to join the Shiites on the checkpoint where the Sunni fuel vendor was harassed. Capt. Joseph Salgado told them it was a good idea -- provided the Shiites agreed.
Eager to show off their professionalism, the volunteers formed a guard of honor for the departing Americans. A man on crutches hopped after them.
"I lost my leg in a suicide bombing, but I am still fighting," he told them. "Even my baby is fighting Al Qaeda."
 


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