America's New Shi'a Allies

  • Share
  • Read Later
David Furst / AFP / Getty

U.S. Troops on patrol south of Baghdad.

The vaunted U.S. strategy in Anbar province that has put a dent in al-Qaeda in Iraq involved establishing ties with Sunni tribes. But there has always been skepticism about whether the same strategy would work in Shi'ite areas of the country. However, that may be changing. In Musayyib, 40 miles south of Baghdad and not far from the holy city of Karbala, American officers are taking advantage of a network of "concerned citizens" in this predominantly Shi'ite area to help quell violence stemming from both Sunni insurgents and erratic elements of powerful Shi'a militias. Just as in Anbar, it was the tribes that asked the Americans for help.

Over the past two months these "concerned citizens" groups have manned checkpoints and established a network of informants that have helped keep out Sunni extremists and finger Shi'ite militants who assassinate rivals and set bombs on roadways to kill American soldiers. While leaders concede that operations in surrounding areas and a growing public antipathy toward the radicals have contributed to diminishing violence, they point to the numbers and say the civilian patrols are having an effect. Soldiers say 57 improvised explosive devises, or IEDs, exploded or were discovered in May. In August, however, only six went off or were found. "It's pretty much shut 'em down," says Maj. Craig Whiteside, the executive officer for the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Batallion.

Seeing a window of opportunity in their own sector, officers quickly mobilized, taking cues from the Anbar program and redesigning it to fit local conditions, enlisting volunteers from the town of Musayyib and surrounding villages to be part of ad hoc militias supported and paid by the U.S. military. It's still a work in progress and sometimes dangerously clumsy. Members of the American battalion here recently shot and killed three of the new local volunteers at a checkpoint just north of town, saying they mistook them for insurgents planting roadside bombs.

The volunteer militias sprang up here in Babil province over the last two months under local leadership after the tribes saw successes scored by Sunni tribesmen in adjacent Anbar Province. Those homegrown groups in Anbar turned on al-Qaeda and teamed up with American forces to clear their regions of extremists, or at least put them on the run, reaping a windfall of American aid money in the process. What has surprised military officials about the groups around Musayyib, though, is that they are Shi'ite or of mixed sect, containing both Sunnis and Shi'ite residents who rejected the excesses of the Jaish al Mahdi, the Shi'ite militia nominally loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al Sadr. Almost 500 Shi'ites and at least as many Sunnis have already signed on. Shi'ite communities in the capital of Baghdad are also reportedly growing unhappy with al-Sadr's militia.

The newly armed and deputized groups have contributed to the biggest dip in violence and the lowest casualty rates since the battalion arrived a year ago. "Fewer of my guys have been killed than at any time before," Lt. Col. Robert Balcavage told TIME. Balcavage, commander of the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 25th Division, said the locally organized Sunni groups have already driven al-Qaeda out of the urban areas and into a rough no-man's land to the north, sandwiching them precariously between his paratroopers and elements of the 10th Mountain Division. In and around Musayyib to the south, the Shi'ite groups have manned checkpoints along roadways that once hid bombs. Since late July, roughly about the time the militias started working, no one has attacked the paratroopers there.

While the real key to stability in the region is training and fielding Iraqi police and army forces loyal to the central government instead of their particular tribe or sect, officers say the concerned citizen militias create a surge effect, picking up some of the slack and creating a pipeline for new and better qualified recruits.

A measure of skepticism is built into the program. Sunni and Shi'ite insurgents who once fought or still fight the Americans are surely among the new militias — as they are in the police and army. But deputizing them allows the Americans to gather personal information, take fingerprints and track their whereabouts for a least part of the time. The volunteers sign three-month contracts, wear only special armbands instead of uniforms and use their own weapons, but they get paid three-quarters of what Iraqi police recruits receive and are given preference for joining the police and army. "It gives them a stake in the system. It's really the first step to becoming IP [Iraqi Police] or IA [Iraqi Army]," Balcavage said. In the absence of good alternatives, he said he was willing to give it a chance. "I guess it's making the best of a bad situation," he said.