Baghdad: With the four-month-old increase in American troops showing only modest success in curbing insurgent attacks, American commanders are turning to another strategy that they acknowledge is fraught with risk: arming Sunni Arab groups that have promised to fight militants linked with Al Qaeda who have been their allies in the past.
American commanders say they have successfully tested the strategy in Anbar Province west of Baghdad and have held talks with Sunni groups in at least four areas of central and north-central Iraq where the insurgency has been strong. In some cases, the American commanders say, the Sunni groups are suspected of involvement in past attacks on American troops or of having links to such groups. Some of these groups, they say, have been provided, usually through Iraqi military units allied with the Americans, with arms, ammunition, cash, fuel and supplies.
American officers who have engaged in what they call outreach to the Sunni groups say many of them have had past links to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia but grew disillusioned with the Islamic militants’ extremist tactics, particularly suicide bombings that have killed thousands of Iraqi civilians. In exchange for American backing, these officials say, the Sunni groups have agreed to fight Al Qaeda and halt attacks on American units. Commanders who have undertaken these negotiations say that in some cases, Sunni groups have agreed to alert American troops to the location of roadside bombs and other lethal booby traps.
But critics of the strategy, including some American officers, say it could amount to the Americans’ arming both sides in a future civil war. The US has spent more than $15 billion in building up Iraq’s army and police force, whose manpower of 350,000 is heavily Shiite. With an American troop drawdown increasingly likely in the next year, and little sign of a political accommodation between Shiite and Sunni politicians in Baghdad, the critics say, there is a risk that any weapons given to Sunni groups will eventually be used against Shiites. There is also the possibility the weapons could be used against the Americans themselves.
One commander who attended the meeting said that despite the risks in arming groups that have until now fought against the Americans, the potential gains against Al Qaeda were too great to be missed. He said the strategy held out the prospect of finally driving a wedge between two wings of the Sunni insurgency that had previously worked in a devastating alliance — die-hard loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s formerly dominant Baath Party, and Islamic militants belonging to a constellation of groups linked to Al Qaeda.
Even if only partly successful, the officer said, the strategy could do as much or more to stabilize Iraq, and to speed American troops on their way home, as the increase in troops ordered by President Bush late last year, which has thrown nearly 30,000 additional American troops into the war but failed so far to fulfill the aim of bringing enhanced stability to Baghdad. An initial decline in sectarian killings in Baghdad in the first two months of the troop buildup has reversed, with growing numbers of bodies showing up each day in the capital. Suicide bombings have dipped in Baghdad but increased elsewhere, as Qaeda groups, confronted with great American troop numbers, have shifted their operations elsewhere.
The strategy of arming Sunni groups was first tested earlier this year in Anbar Province, the desert hinterland west of Baghdad, and attacks on American troops plunged after tribal sheiks, angered by Qaeda strikes that killed large numbers of Sunni civilians, recruited thousands of men to join government security forces and the tribal police. With Qaeda groups quitting the province for Sunni havens elsewhere, Anbar has lost its long-held reputation as the most dangerous place in Iraq for American troops.
Now, the Americans are testing the “Anbar model” across wide areas of Sunni-dominated Iraq. The areas include parts of Baghdad, notably the Sunni stronghold of Amiriya, a district that flanks the highway leading to Baghdad’s international airport; the area south of the capital in Babil province known as the Triangle of Death, site of an ambush in which four American soldiers were killed last month and three others abducted, one of whose bodies was found in the Euphrates; Diyala Province north and east of Baghdad, an area of lush palm groves and orchards which has replaced Anbar as Al Qaeda’s main sanctuary in Iraq; and Salahuddin Province, also north of Baghdad, the home area of Saddam Hussein.
Although the American engagement with the Sunni groups has brought some early successes against Al Qaeda, particularly in Anbar, many of the problems that hampered earlier American efforts to reach out to insurgents remain unchanged. American commanders say the Sunni groups they are negotiating with show few signs of wanting to work with the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. For their part, Shiite leaders are deeply suspicious of any American move to co-opt Sunni groups that are wedded to a return to Sunni political dominance.
With the agreement to arm some Sunni groups, the Americans also appear to have made a tacit recognition that earlier demands for the disarming of Shiite militia groups are politically unachievable for now given the refusal of powerful Shiite political parties to shed their armed wings. In effect, the Americans seem to have concluded that as long as the Shiites maintain their militias, Shiite leaders are in a poor position to protest the arming of Sunni groups whose activities will be under close American scrutiny.
One of the conditions set by the American commanders who met in Baghdad was that any group receiving weapons must submit its fighters for biometric tests that would include taking fingerprints and retinal scans. The American conditions, senior officers said, also include registering the serial numbers of all weapons, steps the Americans believe will help in tracing fighters who use the weapons in attacks against American or Iraqi troops. The fighters who have received American backing in the Amiriya district of Baghdad were required to undergo the tests, the officers said.
General Lynch said American commanders would face hard decisions in choosing which groups to support. “This isn’t a black and white place,” he said. “There are good guys and bad guys and there are groups in between,” and separating them was a major challenge. He said some groups that had approached the Americans had made no secret of their enmity.
“They say, ‘We hate you because you are occupiers’ ” he said, “ ‘but we hate Al Qaeda worse, and we hate the Persians even more.’ ” Sunni militants refer to Iraq’s Shiites as Persians, a reference to the strong links between Iraqi Shiites and the Shiites who predominate in Iran.
An Iraqi government official said the government was uncomfortable with the American negotiations with the Sunni groups because they offered no guarantee that the militias would be loyal to anyone other than the American commander in their immediate area. “The government’s aim is to disarm and demobilize the militias in Iraq,” said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Mr. Maliki. “And we have enough militias in Iraq that we are struggling now to solve the problem. Why are we creating new ones?”
Despite such views, General Lynch said, the Americans believed that Sunni groups offering to fight Al Qaeda and halt attacks on American and Iraqi forces met a basic condition for re-establishing stability in insurgent-hit areas: they had roots in the areas where they operated, and thus held out the prospect of building security from the ground up. He cited areas in Babil Province where there were “no security forces, zero, zilch,” and added: “When you’ve got people who say, ‘I want to protect my neighbours,’ we ought to jump like a duck on a june bug.”