U.S. military enlists Sunni sheiks to tame tough spots

Published August 5, 2007

FORWARD OPERATING BASE ISKAN, Iraq - Inside a brightly lit room, the walls adorned with memorials to 23 dead American soldiers, Lt. Col. Robert Balcavage stared at the three Sunni tribal leaders he wanted to recruit.

Their fighters had battled U.S. troops. Balcavage suspected that they had attacked some of his own men.

The trio, for their part, accused another sheik of having links to the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq. That sheik, four days earlier, had promised the U.S. military to fight al-Qaida in Iraq and protect a strategic road.

"Who do you trust? Who do you not trust?" said Balcavage, commander of the 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. An hour later, he signed up some of America's newest allies.

U.S. commanders are offering large sums to enlist, at breakneck pace, their former enemies, handing them broad security powers in a risky effort to tame this fractious area south of Baghdad in Babil province and, literally, buy time for national reconciliation.

American generals insist that they are not creating militias. In contracts with the U.S. military, the sheiks are referred to as "security contractors." Each of their "guards" will receive 70 percent of an Iraqi policeman's salary. U.S. commanders call them "concerned citizens," evoking suburban neighborhood watch groups.

The two-week-old initiative, inspired by similar efforts under way in Baghdad, Anbar and Diyala provinces, has more than halved attacks here against American troops, from 19 a day to seven, U.S. commanders said.

But in a land of sectarian fault lines and shifting tribal loyalties, the strategy raises concerns about the long-term implications of empowering groups that steadfastly oppose the Shiite-led government.

Shiite leaders fear that the United States is financing highly trained and well-armed militias that could undermine the government after American troops withdraw. They worry that such groups could weaken central authority and challenge democratic institutions that many would like to see take root.

U.S. generals said they vet the backgrounds of every recruit, but ground commanders said that is all but an impossible task.

"Officially, we will not deal with those who have American blood on their hands," said Balcavage, 42. "But how do you know? You don't. There's a degree of risk involved. A lot of it is gut instinct. That's what I'm going on."

In this fertile region, divided by the Euphrates River and torn by violence, U.S. soldiers are overstretched and Iraqi troops are in short supply. Isolated Sunni tribal lands have provided extremists with havens that are off-limits to U.S. patrols and Iraq's mostly Shiite security forces.

The sheiks are promised reconstruction projects in their strongholds and jobs for their fighters in Iraq's security forces. In return, they pledge to patrol their lands, battle al-Qaida in Iraq and dismantle roadside bombs, the main killer of U.S. soldiers. They are provided with badges, yellow reflective belts and arrest powers.

"It's like rent-a-cop," said Maj. Rick Williams, a Tulsa native who is a liaison to tribal leaders in the region.

The goal is to mimic the successes unfolding in the Sunni heartland of Anbar, where U.S-backed sheiks have fought al-Qaida in Iraq for months. There, insurgent attacks have dropped significantly.

Speaking through an interpreter, Balcavage made his offer to the sheiks. Each of their men would receive about $350 a month. That pay would create an incentive to join the Iraqi police, whose salary is roughly $500, when it was possible, he said. The military would also pay the sheiks $100 for every bomb plucked off the roadside.

They would need to sign an interim contract, and if they properly secured the area they would be paid in 30 days, he said.

It was the sheiks' turn to speak.

Galib Youssef Fahad immediately accused Sheik Sabah, a fellow Jenabi tribe leader who he had heard was working with the Americans, of having links to al-Qaida in Iraq and of playing a role in driving him and other tribesmen off their lands.

"Sheik Sabah represents the leaders of al-Qaida who did the killing," Fahad said. "They slaughtered 15 of our men, some our sons, uncles and brothers."

Sensing an opportunity, Fahad and his cousin, Ahmed Rasheed Khadr, now want to fight al-Qaida in Iraq. They want their lands back and money that will strengthen their control over their tribe.

"We have a lot of men. We want to fight and chase al-Qaida out of the area," Fahad said. "We are ready."

And what about Sabah? "I'm trusting my gut," Balcavage after the meeting. "I could be horribly wrong in this situation."