Keeping the Sunni-Shi'a Peace

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UPI / Landov

A U.S. soldier and a Sons of Iraq member provide security during a veterinary operation in Baghdad, Iraq on May 11, 2008. Sons of Iraq is a security force composed of groups of local residents that help maintain security in their own villages and neighborhoods.

Pleasantries have barely been exchanged — the tea hasn't even been served — before Haji Kaadam Jabbar Hamsa al-Qarghuli lets Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Rohling have it. "I am very angry," says the leader of one of the area's Qarghuli tribes to the commander of the U.S. Army unit in charge of the area surrounding the town of Yusufiyah, which is about 10 miles south of Baghdad. "We are trying to work together," he says, "but dignity comes first."

The colonel had known this was coming. He is here to soothe some tensions that have broken out between the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi Army and the local, Sunni-dominated Sons of Iraq armed security organizations that the U.S. Army also supports. While the area has enjoyed a striking decline in overall violence over the past year, Colonel Rohling now spends an increasing amount of time managing the complex and fragile relationships that have made this peace possible — and making sure this detente does not unravel every time a partisan crime is committed.

The most recent crime the colonel is dealing with was particularly provocative. On May 14, a woman passed several Sons of Iraq checkpoints as she made her way to the front gate of an Iraqi Army patrol base. She asked to see the company's commander, Captain Wassim Abdul Hadi Saaud al-Sertani. She was a suicide bomber and when the commander arrived, she detonated her explosive vest and killed him and herself.

The event set off waves of accusations and recriminations. Convinced that the Sons of Iraq were to blame for lax security, if not for active participation in the plot, Captain Sertani's men fanned out immediately after the blast, roughing up Sons of Iraq members and hauling several into hours of custody. This, Haji Kaadam insisted to the American colonel, was an affront. "If there is an IED or an armed attack, that is our responsibility," he says. "But a lone woman? That is out of our hands. Yet the Iraqi Army came down here and began hitting our people, blaming them." Without ruling out that some Sons of Iraq individuals may have been involved, Colonel Rohling's intelligence officers and the Iraqi Army continue to investigate the woman's identity and motivation. He has no proof yet, but Rohling suspects the attack was a personal vendetta against the captain because the woman targeted him so specifically. "She could have done so much more damage to the Iraqis, or the Americans, for that matter, if she had chosen to," he says.

Colonel Rohling has been circulating throughout the area ever since the bombing, talking to sheiks and Iraqi Army units, encouraging them not to let emotions escalate, making sure everyone is seeking answers, not vengeance. "This week has been about throwing a wet blanket on things, just trying to calm everyone down," says Major Bill Kuttler, the unit's operations officer. Today, Colonel Rohling has arrived with the wet blanket in full effect, telling Haji Kaadam that the soldiers reacted strongly because they loved their commander, but the Iraqi Army commander realizes "seeking justice does not involve trampling on the rights of the Qarghuli people."

At the Iraqi Army base where the captain was killed, Rohling drives this point home. "You need to strike a balance when you deal with the Qarghuli," he tells two junior Iraqi Army officers. "I understand that you can't demonstrate weakness, but you can't come on too strong, either. Today is the hottest day of the year so far, but I need cool heads, okay?" They nod in agreement.

Everyone the colonel speaks to on his rounds today, whether Qarghuli or Iraqi Army, affirms that life is better now than it was even a few months ago, and they pledge that peace will be maintained. But tensions, distrust and resentments roil beneath the surface, and they can erupt quickly and intensely. Haji Kaadam says Iraqi Army vehicles scream past his checkpoints at reckless speeds and says some Army officers have been demanding that the Sons of Iraq salute them. The Iraqi Army officers, meanwhile, sneer that the Sons of Iraq are either incapable of maintaining security or, worse, provide it selectively.

As the day's meetings conclude, Colonel Rohling says, "The important thing, in the aftermath of something like this, is that we don't move backwards. We can't move forward every day, but on the days we don't, I need to make sure everybody is just taking a pause and not gearing up for a giant leap backwards."