Saturday, June 9, 2007

This late in the fourth quarter, the Hail-Mary is all that's left

When you enter a pact with the devil, the smell of the sulfur hangs heavy in the air to serve as a warning. One who forges on in spite of that has no one to blame save himself when that deal goes south.

I fervently hope that the American forces are keeping that timeless truism in mind as they enter into what can only be characterized as an alliance of last resort. American forces are now forming alliances with Sunni tribal leaders who are fighting back against the jihadist fighters who have taken up arms against pretty much everyone in the festering pot-boiler of Iraq.

…American soldiers in Amiriyah have allied themselves with dozens of Sunni militiamen who call themselves the Baghdad Patriots -- a group that American soldiers believe includes insurgents who have attacked them in the past -- in an attempt to drive out al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Americans have granted these gunmen the power of arrest, allowed the Iraqi army to supply them with ammunition, and fought alongside them in chaotic street battles. (emphasis mine)

…They liken the fighters to the minutemen of the American Revolution, painting them as neighbors taking the initiative to protect their families in the vacuum left by a failing Iraqi security force.

(Interesting aside: When Cindy Sheehan made a similar comparison, she was pilloried for it.)

There is a lot of potential for this to go bad. First of all, a lot of these fighters that the Americans are now allying themselves with were professional soldiers in Saddam’s army.

The militiamen, who call themselves freedom fighters, are led by a 35-year-old former Iraqi army captain and used-car salesman who goes by Saif or Abu Abed. In an interview, he said he had devoted the past five months to collecting intelligence on [foreign jihadists] fighters in Amiriyah, whose ranks have grown as they have fled to Baghdad and away from the new tribal policemen in Anbar province. He has said his own group numbers over 100 people, but American soldiers estimate it has closer to 40. At least six were killed and more than 10 wounded in the first week of collaboration with Americans.

"These guys looked like a military unit, the way they moved," [Capt.] Wilbraham said. "Hand and arm signals. Stop. Take a knee. Weapons up."

Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, a leader of the Sunni Dulaimi tribe who works in Anbar and Baghdad, said many of the fighters in Amiriyah belong to the Islamic Army, which includes former officers from Saddam Hussein's military and is more secular than other insurgent groups. The fighters have been organized and encouraged by local imams.

"Let's be honest, the enemy now is not the Americans, for the time being," Suleiman said. "It's [foreign born jihadis] and the [Shiite] militias. Those are our enemies."

Saddam’s army was ruthlessly effective at minority rule, and the 80% of the country that was ground under their heel for so long is not likely to abide their strengthened status.

But aligning Americans with fighters whose long-term agenda remains unclear -- with regard to either Americans or the Shiite-led government -- is also a strategy born of desperation. It contradicts repeated declarations by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that no groups besides the Iraqi and American security forces are allowed to bear arms. And some American soldiers worry that standing up a Sunni militia could have dire consequences if the group turns on its U.S. partners.

"We have made a deal with the devil," said an intelligence officer in the battalion.

The U.S. effort to recruit indigenous forces to defend local communities has been taken furthest in Anbar province, where tribal leaders have encouraged thousands of their kinsmen to join the police. In the Abu Ghraib area, west of Baghdad, about 2,000 people unaffiliated with security forces are now working with Americans at village checkpoints and gun positions

The American forces have already been given a taste of the duplicitous and self serving nature of their new "allies."

On June 1, a Friday, the fighters directed the soldiers to a large weapons cache. Sniper rifles, Russian machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and thousands of rounds of ammunition were stashed in a secret room, accessible only by removing a circuit-breaker box and crawling through a hole. While the Americans were tallying the haul, an explosive detonated outside, wounding several soldiers, including one whose feet were blown off.

In return for their services, the militiamen had one request: Give us the weapons in the cache.

"Who are these guys really?" Salge remembered worrying. He told them to talk to the battalion commander.

Kuehl said later that he would probably supply weapons to the militiamen, but in limited amounts. The fighters have given the Americans identification, including fingerprints, addresses and retinal scans, so the soldiers believe they could track down anyone who betrayed them. "What I don't want them to do is wither on the vine," Kuehl said.

On Wednesday, a week after the fighting broke out, the Islamic Army issued a statement declaring a cease-fire with al-Qaeda in Iraq because the groups did not want to spill more Muslim blood or impede "the project of jihad." American soldiers played down the statement and suggested it did not reflect the sentiments of the men they are working with in Amiriyah.

Later that night, Wilbraham led his tank unit on an overnight mission to allow the militiamen to arrest seven al-Qaeda in Iraq members. The raids were to begin at 1 a.m., but two hours later the tanks were waiting on deserted streets, with no sign of the group. Then Wilbraham was told the militiamen had called off the raids.

The tank driver, Spec. Estevan Altamirano, 25, expressed skepticism about his new partners.

"Pretty soon they run out of al-Qaeda, and then they're going to turn on us," he said. "I don't want to get used to them and then I have an AK behind my back. I'm not going to trust them at all."

Call me a Nervous Nellie – but I see a hell of a lot of opportunities for this to get out of control, and the results to be really, really bad. And I see very little chance of this long shot gamble paying off and resulting in a positive outcome.

One thing I know for damned sure…Crossing your fingers and hoping for a miracle does not constitute a strategy.

[Cross-posted from WTWC]

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