Posted on

calm seeds

Calm seeds
In Ramadi, the provincial capital, the American military set up the police stations to be run and staffed by members of the neighborhoods’ dominant tribe. Though unified against Islamic insurgents, two of the police stations were involved in a shootout with each other a few weeks ago. And loyalty to sheiks sometimes trumps loyalty to the law, allowing tribal leaders to commandeer members of the police or army to give them personal protection.

In a Force for Iraqi Calm, Seeds of Conflict

BAGHDAD — The thin teenage boy rushed up to the patrol of American soldiers walking through Dora, a shrapnel-scarred neighborhood of the capital, and lifted his shirt to show them a mass of red welts across his back.

He said he was a member of a local Sunni “Awakening” group, paid by the American military to patrol the district, but he said it was another Awakening group that beat him. “They took me while I was working,” he said, “and broke my badge and said, ‘You are from Al Qaeda.’”

The soldiers were unsure of what to do. The Awakening groups in just their area of southern Baghdad could not seem to get along: they fought over turf and, it turned out in this case, one group had warned the other that its members should not pay rent to Shiite “dogs.”

The Awakening movement, a predominantly Sunni Arab force recruited to fight Sunni Islamic extremists like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, has become a great success story after its spread from Sunni tribes in Anbar Province to become an ad-hoc armed force of 65,000 to 80,000 across the country in less than a year. A linchpin of the American strategy to pacify Iraq, the movement has been widely credited with turning around the violence-scarred areas where the Sunni insurgency has been based.

But the beating that day was a stark example of how rivalries and sectarianism are still undermining the Americans’ plans. And in particular, the Awakening’s rapid expansion — the Americans say the force could reach 100,000 — is creating new concerns.

How, when thousands are joining each month, can spies and extremists be reliably weeded out? How can the men’s loyalty be maintained, given their tribal and sectarian ties, and in many cases their insurgent pasts? And crucially, how can the movement be sustained once the Americans turn over control to a Shiite-dominated government that has been wary, and sometimes hostile, toward the groups?

Despite the successes of the movement, including the members’ ability to provide valuable intelligence and give rebuilding efforts a new chance in war-shattered communities, the American military acknowledges that it is also a high-risk proposition. It is an experiment in counterinsurgency warfare that could contain the seeds of a civil war — in which, if the worst fears come true, the United States would have helped organize some of the Sunni forces arrayed against the central government on which so many American lives and dollars have been spent.

In interviews with Awakening groups in 10 locations — four interviewed during a week in Anbar, and six groups in and around Baghdad interviewed over several days — it was evident that the groups were improving security in their areas. But it is also clear that there is little loyalty, in either direction, between the Sunni groups and the Shiites who run the government.

The Americans are haunted by the possibility that Iraq could go the way of Afghanistan, where Americans initially bought the loyalty of tribal leaders only to have some of them gravitate back to the Taliban when the money stopped.

Col. Martin Stanton, chief of reconciliation and engagement for the Multinational Corps-Iraq, said the military had no illusions about the Awakening members’ former lives or the reasons for what appeared to be their change of heart.

“These weren’t people who were struck by a lightning bolt or saw a burning bush and came over to this side of the Lord,” Colonel Stanton said. “These were people who last year were being hammered from two different directions: by Al Qaeda and by us. It was probably a distasteful choice to make back then because, after all, they viewed us as invaders, and they probably still do, but it was a survival choice and they made it.”

Though the Americans obtain biometric data on every Awakening group member to try to screen out known insurgents, the government and many Shiite citizens say they fear that the movement has spread so quickly that it is impossible to keep track of who has signed up for it. And while government officials are somewhat willing to accept the tribal character of the Awakening groups in Anbar Province, they are leery of the new ones in and around Baghdad, which have more Baathists from the era of Saddam Hussein in their leadership and are active in more mixed neighborhoods.

“Many people believe this will end with tens of thousands of armed people, primarily Sunnis, and this will excite the Shiite militias to grow and in the end it will grow into a civil war,” said Safa Hussein, the deputy national security adviser and a point man on the Awakening program for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

Still, the government has made only the most halting steps toward rapprochement with the Awakening groups, even those who have been fighting insurgents for months in their neighborhoods.

And for the Americans who helped create and nurture the movement, the initial excitement has been tempered by the challenge of managing a huge, and growing, force where many of the men have shadowy pasts.

“It’s the case with any franchise organization,” said Maj. Gen. John R. Allen, the deputy commander in Anbar Province. “Sooner or later you lose control over the standards.”

Anbar Province

In the summer of 2005, the Abu Mahals needed help. A tribe of notorious smugglers by the Syrian border, they were being pushed out of their own area by a competing tribe that had struck a deal with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown extremist group that American intelligence officials say is led by foreigners.

Some of the tribe’s men had been insurgents, killers of American marines, but the border was an out-of-control no man’s land. So when the tribe proposed an alliance, the Americans decided to give it a try. Weapons and training flowed to the tribe, the extremists were pushed back on their heels — and the Awakening was born.

Nearly two years later, after several important tribes around Ramadi joined, the Awakening movement in Anbar has grown to adolescence, acting at once capable and delinquent.

New offices are opening all over the province, marking their presence with yellow satin flags, armed guards and sheiks aiming to start a national political party.

Legitimacy has come with formal employment. Sheiks who signed up early on gave the Americans names of people they wanted hired as police officers, and the provincial force now numbers 24,000, up from 5,200 in June 2006. That is still short of the Marines’ demand for 30,000, but the government has also agreed to a jobs program for 6,000 civil servants.

Attacks in the province, meanwhile, are at roughly a tenth of what they were last year, according to military figures. And in cities like Ramadi that were once largely beyond American control, construction clatter and the slosh of wet concrete has replaced the snap of gunfire.

But as the movement has spread east through Anbar, two responses have emerged: an intense pride in the hard-fought peace, and a sometimes violent scramble for rewards, credit and power.

The fall brought a major setback. In September, a suicide bomber killed Sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, also known as Abu Risha, the Awakening’s charismatic leader, only days after he had met with President Bush. And while his brother Ahmed has stepped forward, American commanders say he has yet to unify the groups under a nationalist banner.

With Abu Risha gone, “it’s not quite as clear it’s a patriotic movement,” General Allen said.

The Americans, meanwhile, are handing out hundreds of million of dollars in aid and reconstruction funds — $223 million to Ramadi and its surrounding areas alone since February. As a result, a dizzying number of sheiks have stepped forward in recent months claiming to be important leaders who fought Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and now deserve money, water plants, new schools and hundreds of jobs for their relatives.

Just to keep track, many American company commanders now travel with thick packets of pictures identifying what one marine described as Anbar’s competing teams: “fake sheiks, little sheiks and big sheiks.”

The Americans, having embraced tribalism to pacify the area, are now having to deal with its consequences. The tribes of Anbar are ancient and secular — many predate Islam — but old rivalries and suspicions have not been erased by steady salaries.

In Ramadi, the provincial capital, the American military set up the police stations to be run and staffed by members of the neighborhoods’ dominant tribe. Though unified against Islamic insurgents, two of the police stations were involved in a shootout with each other a few weeks ago. And loyalty to sheiks sometimes trumps loyalty to the law, allowing tribal leaders to commandeer members of the police or army to give them personal protection.

On one recent afternoon, Second Lt. Stephen Lind, a member of a Marine company patrolling south Ramadi, discovered a handful of armed Iraqi soldiers standing guard outside a sheik’s spacious home — defying a rule that bans the Iraqi Army from the city.

“What are you doing here?” Lieutenant Lind asked one of the men.

They had arrived a day after the sheik had an argument with the local police commander.

“The sheik told us to come,” the man said. As he spoke, a pickup truck filled with a half-dozen others drove out of the compound, and a glance inside showed several more, milling about, their red berets and weapons clearly visible.

Neither the Iraqis nor Lieutenant Lind expressed surprise. “He has a lot of power,” Lieutenant Lind said, walking back to a joint security station a few blocks away. “That’s how the city rolls right now.”

American commanders later sought to play down the significance of the sheik’s use of the army, noting that he was an assassination target, and that the troops stayed for only about 36 hours. Col. John Charlton, commander of the First Brigade Combat Team, Third Infantry Division, which oversees Ramadi and its surrounding area, also said there were plans to start moving policemen to new stations to dilute the tribal concentrations — a proposal that some local sheiks said they would be likely to resist.

The standoff, though, underscored the Awakening’s long-term challenge. The American military has empowered a group of unelected leaders and is now involved in the difficult task of integrating them into a democratic system new to them, to create bonds with a Shiite-led government they do not respect or acknowledge as legitimate.

The Marines have already begun to draw down troop numbers in the province. But with the clock ticking, it remains unclear what the Awakening will become and whether the tribes will stick together or segregate. Nor is it clear whether Iraq’s government will ever meet the tribes’ demands, which range from the simple (more electricity, water and jobs) to the extreme (a wildly disproportionate share of the seats in the Parliament).

In interviews with more than a dozen sheiks in the province, along with police officers, local leaders and imams, not one expressed any trust in the government of Prime Minister Maliki. “They are working only for the Shiites,” said Mahmoud Abed Shabeeb, who acknowledged that 130 members of his tribe were policemen, paid by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry in Baghdad. “Everyone knows that.”

Baghdad

Only a few months ago, the Sunni neighborhood of Fadhil was virtually a no man’s land, shelled relentlessly by Shiite militias, its walls gouged with shrapnel and its streets pooled with sewage because city workers were afraid to enter. Now the neighborhood seems to be waking after a long sleep. Several teahouses reopened in December after being shuttered for months, and old men sat outside on wooden boxes, apparently no longer afraid of neighborhood militants or attacks by outsiders.

The newfound confidence is attributable in large measure to the Fadhil Awakening Council, formed just four weeks ago. Wearing red-checked kaffiyehs and black leather jackets with guns jutting out underneath, the Awakening guards patrol the neighborhood with a casually menacing air.

Calm seeds
He said he was a member of a local Sunni “Awakening” group, paid by the American military to patrol the district, but he said it was another Awakening group that beat him. “They took me while I was working,” he said, “and broke my badge and said, ‘You are from Al Qaeda.’”

In a Force for Iraqi Calm, Seeds of Conflict

BAGHDAD — The thin teenage boy rushed up to the patrol of American soldiers walking through Dora, a shrapnel-scarred neighborhood of the capital, and lifted his shirt to show them a mass of red welts across his back.

He said he was a member of a local Sunni “Awakening” group, paid by the American military to patrol the district, but he said it was another Awakening group that beat him. “They took me while I was working,” he said, “and broke my badge and said, ‘You are from Al Qaeda.’”

The soldiers were unsure of what to do. The Awakening groups in just their area of southern Baghdad could not seem to get along: they fought over turf and, it turned out in this case, one group had warned the other that its members should not pay rent to Shiite “dogs.”

The Awakening movement, a predominantly Sunni Arab force recruited to fight Sunni Islamic extremists like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, has become a great success story after its spread from Sunni tribes in Anbar Province to become an ad-hoc armed force of 65,000 to 80,000 across the country in less than a year. A linchpin of the American strategy to pacify Iraq, the movement has been widely credited with turning around the violence-scarred areas where the Sunni insurgency has been based.

But the beating that day was a stark example of how rivalries and sectarianism are still undermining the Americans’ plans. And in particular, the Awakening’s rapid expansion — the Americans say the force could reach 100,000 — is creating new concerns.

How, when thousands are joining each month, can spies and extremists be reliably weeded out? How can the men’s loyalty be maintained, given their tribal and sectarian ties, and in many cases their insurgent pasts? And crucially, how can the movement be sustained once the Americans turn over control to a Shiite-dominated government that has been wary, and sometimes hostile, toward the groups?

Despite the successes of the movement, including the members’ ability to provide valuable intelligence and give rebuilding efforts a new chance in war-shattered communities, the American military acknowledges that it is also a high-risk proposition. It is an experiment in counterinsurgency warfare that could contain the seeds of a civil war — in which, if the worst fears come true, the United States would have helped organize some of the Sunni forces arrayed against the central government on which so many American lives and dollars have been spent.

In interviews with Awakening groups in 10 locations — four interviewed during a week in Anbar, and six groups in and around Baghdad interviewed over several days — it was evident that the groups were improving security in their areas. But it is also clear that there is little loyalty, in either direction, between the Sunni groups and the Shiites who run the government.

The Americans are haunted by the possibility that Iraq could go the way of Afghanistan, where Americans initially bought the loyalty of tribal leaders only to have some of them gravitate back to the Taliban when the money stopped.

Col. Martin Stanton, chief of reconciliation and engagement for the Multinational Corps-Iraq, said the military had no illusions about the Awakening members’ former lives or the reasons for what appeared to be their change of heart.

“These weren’t people who were struck by a lightning bolt or saw a burning bush and came over to this side of the Lord,” Colonel Stanton said. “These were people who last year were being hammered from two different directions: by Al Qaeda and by us. It was probably a distasteful choice to make back then because, after all, they viewed us as invaders, and they probably still do, but it was a survival choice and they made it.”

Though the Americans obtain biometric data on every Awakening group member to try to screen out known insurgents, the government and many Shiite citizens say they fear that the movement has spread so quickly that it is impossible to keep track of who has signed up for it. And while government officials are somewhat willing to accept the tribal character of the Awakening groups in Anbar Province, they are leery of the new ones in and around Baghdad, which have more Baathists from the era of Saddam Hussein in their leadership and are active in more mixed neighborhoods.

“Many people believe this will end with tens of thousands of armed people, primarily Sunnis, and this will excite the Shiite militias to grow and in the end it will grow into a civil war,” said Safa Hussein, the deputy national security adviser and a point man on the Awakening program for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

Still, the government has made only the most halting steps toward rapprochement with the Awakening groups, even those who have been fighting insurgents for months in their neighborhoods.

And for the Americans who helped create and nurture the movement, the initial excitement has been tempered by the challenge of managing a huge, and growing, force where many of the men have shadowy pasts.

“It’s the case with any franchise organization,” said Maj. Gen. John R. Allen, the deputy commander in Anbar Province. “Sooner or later you lose control over the standards.”

Anbar Province

In the summer of 2005, the Abu Mahals needed help. A tribe of notorious smugglers by the Syrian border, they were being pushed out of their own area by a competing tribe that had struck a deal with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown extremist group that American intelligence officials say is led by foreigners.

Some of the tribe’s men had been insurgents, killers of American marines, but the border was an out-of-control no man’s land. So when the tribe proposed an alliance, the Americans decided to give it a try. Weapons and training flowed to the tribe, the extremists were pushed back on their heels — and the Awakening was born.

Nearly two years later, after several important tribes around Ramadi joined, the Awakening movement in Anbar has grown to adolescence, acting at once capable and delinquent.

New offices are opening all over the province, marking their presence with yellow satin flags, armed guards and sheiks aiming to start a national political party.

Legitimacy has come with formal employment. Sheiks who signed up early on gave the Americans names of people they wanted hired as police officers, and the provincial force now numbers 24,000, up from 5,200 in June 2006. That is still short of the Marines’ demand for 30,000, but the government has also agreed to a jobs program for 6,000 civil servants.

Attacks in the province, meanwhile, are at roughly a tenth of what they were last year, according to military figures. And in cities like Ramadi that were once largely beyond American control, construction clatter and the slosh of wet concrete has replaced the snap of gunfire.

But as the movement has spread east through Anbar, two responses have emerged: an intense pride in the hard-fought peace, and a sometimes violent scramble for rewards, credit and power.

The fall brought a major setback. In September, a suicide bomber killed Sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, also known as Abu Risha, the Awakening’s charismatic leader, only days after he had met with President Bush. And while his brother Ahmed has stepped forward, American commanders say he has yet to unify the groups under a nationalist banner.

With Abu Risha gone, “it’s not quite as clear it’s a patriotic movement,” General Allen said.

The Americans, meanwhile, are handing out hundreds of million of dollars in aid and reconstruction funds — $223 million to Ramadi and its surrounding areas alone since February. As a result, a dizzying number of sheiks have stepped forward in recent months claiming to be important leaders who fought Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and now deserve money, water plants, new schools and hundreds of jobs for their relatives.

Just to keep track, many American company commanders now travel with thick packets of pictures identifying what one marine described as Anbar’s competing teams: “fake sheiks, little sheiks and big sheiks.”

The Americans, having embraced tribalism to pacify the area, are now having to deal with its consequences. The tribes of Anbar are ancient and secular — many predate Islam — but old rivalries and suspicions have not been erased by steady salaries.

In Ramadi, the provincial capital, the American military set up the police stations to be run and staffed by members of the neighborhoods’ dominant tribe. Though unified against Islamic insurgents, two of the police stations were involved in a shootout with each other a few weeks ago. And loyalty to sheiks sometimes trumps loyalty to the law, allowing tribal leaders to commandeer members of the police or army to give them personal protection.

On one recent afternoon, Second Lt. Stephen Lind, a member of a Marine company patrolling south Ramadi, discovered a handful of armed Iraqi soldiers standing guard outside a sheik’s spacious home — defying a rule that bans the Iraqi Army from the city.

“What are you doing here?” Lieutenant Lind asked one of the men.

They had arrived a day after the sheik had an argument with the local police commander.

“The sheik told us to come,” the man said. As he spoke, a pickup truck filled with a half-dozen others drove out of the compound, and a glance inside showed several more, milling about, their red berets and weapons clearly visible.

Neither the Iraqis nor Lieutenant Lind expressed surprise. “He has a lot of power,” Lieutenant Lind said, walking back to a joint security station a few blocks away. “That’s how the city rolls right now.”

American commanders later sought to play down the significance of the sheik’s use of the army, noting that he was an assassination target, and that the troops stayed for only about 36 hours. Col. John Charlton, commander of the First Brigade Combat Team, Third Infantry Division, which oversees Ramadi and its surrounding area, also said there were plans to start moving policemen to new stations to dilute the tribal concentrations — a proposal that some local sheiks said they would be likely to resist.

The standoff, though, underscored the Awakening’s long-term challenge. The American military has empowered a group of unelected leaders and is now involved in the difficult task of integrating them into a democratic system new to them, to create bonds with a Shiite-led government they do not respect or acknowledge as legitimate.

The Marines have already begun to draw down troop numbers in the province. But with the clock ticking, it remains unclear what the Awakening will become and whether the tribes will stick together or segregate. Nor is it clear whether Iraq’s government will ever meet the tribes’ demands, which range from the simple (more electricity, water and jobs) to the extreme (a wildly disproportionate share of the seats in the Parliament).

In interviews with more than a dozen sheiks in the province, along with police officers, local leaders and imams, not one expressed any trust in the government of Prime Minister Maliki. “They are working only for the Shiites,” said Mahmoud Abed Shabeeb, who acknowledged that 130 members of his tribe were policemen, paid by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry in Baghdad. “Everyone knows that.”

Baghdad

Only a few months ago, the Sunni neighborhood of Fadhil was virtually a no man’s land, shelled relentlessly by Shiite militias, its walls gouged with shrapnel and its streets pooled with sewage because city workers were afraid to enter. Now the neighborhood seems to be waking after a long sleep. Several teahouses reopened in December after being shuttered for months, and old men sat outside on wooden boxes, apparently no longer afraid of neighborhood militants or attacks by outsiders.

The newfound confidence is attributable in large measure to the Fadhil Awakening Council, formed just four weeks ago. Wearing red-checked kaffiyehs and black leather jackets with guns jutting out underneath, the Awakening guards patrol the neighborhood with a casually menacing air.