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U.S.-aided militants widen reach

A Sunni group helping fight Al Qaeda in Iraq is getting more ambitious. Some don't trust it.

August 04, 2007|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The leader of the Revolutionaries of Amiriya sits in his headquarters in an abandoned high school here, explaining the militant group's latest mission: policing and rebuilding Sunni Muslim neighborhoods.

"We need to return the services to the neighborhoods. Al Qaeda destroyed streets, schools, electricity, even mobile phone towers," said the man known as Abu Abed, or Saif. "They made the people here desperate."

Since partnering with U.S. forces in May to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq in the walled, middle-class west Baghdad neighborhood of Amiriya, the Sunni militant group has broadened its reach to overseeing city services. And it is pushing ambitious plans to police a few other Sunni neighborhoods, against the wishes of the Iraqi army and government, some Sunni leaders and U.S. soldiers, who say the militants can't be trusted.

U.S. military leaders, who have used the same tactic in Al Anbar province, say their goal is to turn the fighters into Iraqi police in areas where the Shiite-dominated security forces aren't trusted, or can't go.

Military commanders acknowledge that there's a risk that the Sunni fighters they're attempting to co-opt could betray them or fuel the country's civil war by turning their arms on Shiite militias such as Al Mahdi army and Badr Organization. But U.S. strategists are betting that giving the Sunni Arab groups a stake in a stable Iraq, and paying them a monthly salary, will quell violence and help U.S. forces repel Al Qaeda in Iraq, one of several high-profile Sunni Arab groups in the insurgency against U.S. and Iraqi forces.

"You make them dependent on you for a paycheck, you take their biometrics; you've got their names, you know where they go for work every day because they work for you," a U.S. diplomat said of the experiment.

"You have got commanders over them. This is a much safer place to be than having these guys out in the wilderness fighting you."

Analysts say the experiment is risky at best.

"They may be infiltrated by the unturned insurgents like Al Qaeda in Iraq and use knowledge gained about American forces and positions to abet attacks on our troops," said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Most of all, their loyalty to the central government is questionable at best, so you are creating even more warlords and militias in an already confused and volatile situation."

Already, U.S. commanders have begun reining in their new allies.

"You can watch your own neighborhoods, but you can't watch somebody else's neighborhood," U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said he has told tribal leaders in the Taji area north of the capital, where Sunni militias have been enlisted in policing roles.

Saif, the Amiriya Revolutionaries commander, is becoming a power broker of sorts between U.S. forces and Sunni groups eager to assume the same roles in Khadra, Shurta overpass, Haifa Street and Bakriya, and in more mixed neighborhoods such as Adhamiya, Bab al Muadam and Fadil.

"All I need and ask of the U.S. is protection for me and my fighters," he said. "We still apply the law."

'Going undercover'

Last month, the militants, clad in T-shirts and tracksuits and openly toting AK-47 assault rifles, greeted U.S. soldiers visiting the group's headquarters in the former high school.

Saif, 35, looked more like a police detective than a militant, in pressed slacks and a button-down plaid shirt, a gold Iraq pin on his lapel and a black pistol strapped to his right thigh.

Capt. Dustin Mitchell, 30, who serves as a liaison with the group, said he was impressed by their ability to find weapons stockpiles, roadside bombs and Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders.

"It's like going undercover in the police, in civilian clothing. And that's kind of something we can't do as white boys in the U.S. Army," Mitchell said. "It's just a goldmine of information that you ain't going to find anywhere else."

Saif, a former member of Saddam Hussein's military, said many in his group had been members of the 1920 Revolution Brigade and Islamic Army, groups that have fought U.S. forces, Al Qaeda in Iraq and Shiite militias.

Asked whether his men had fought U.S. troops, Saif, with soldiers looking on, smiled.

"If the door gets broken down and my family is inside, I'm going to defend myself, I'm going to defend my family," he said. "Then I discover he's my friend, that he came from a faraway country to give me freedom."

Saif claims to have killed 22 Al Qaeda in Iraq operatives during two months of working with U.S. forces.

"We are the sons of this neighborhood, of the streets," Saif said. Residents trust them "because they know what kind of morals we have."

Reviews are mixed from U.S. soldiers who have worked with the Revolutionaries of Amiriya.

Sgt. Joe Frye, 31, of Panama City, Panama, has watched them search homes, nimbly traversing streets laced with roadside bombs with a speed and stealth that can't be matched by armored U.S. convoys.

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