Benzworld forum members,
I read this article "Mistrust as Iraqi Troops Encounter New U.S. Allies" by Benjamin Lowy of The New York Times.
I have provided the article and also the news link below:
1. Mistrust as Iraqi Troops Encounter New U.S. Allies
James Van Thach
Mistrust as Iraqi Troops Encounter New U.S. Allies
NASR WA SALAM, Iraq, July 10 — Abu Azzam says the 2,300 men in his movement include members of fierce Sunni groups like the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade and the Mujahedeen Army that have fought the American occupation. Now his men patrol alongside the Americans, who want to turn them into a security force that can bring peace to this stretch between Baghdad and Falluja.
A few miles away, in the town of Abu Ghraib, Brig. Gen. Nassir al-Hiti and his brigade of Iraqi Army soldiers also have the support of the American military. But they have a different ambition, some American commanders here say: doing everything they can to undermine Abu Azzam’s men, even using a stolen membership list to single them out for wrongful detention.
General Nassir, a 37-year-old former special forces officer, denies that, but says he has strict orders not to support “unofficial” groups and to arrest armed men, no matter who they are. He says he supports those who join the security forces but objects to “those who have Iraqi blood on their hands and who kill our soldiers.”
The gulf between Abu Azzam’s men and the Iraqi soldiers remains vast, with American troops sometimes having to physically intercede. And it is an unmistakable caution that the full depths of the problems facing Iraq cannot be measured in the statistics about insurgent attacks and sectarian killings that carry so much weight in Washington.
The United States has placed great hope in its deepening ties with Sunni leaders like Abu Azzam who have vowed to fight Islamist militants. But his mostly Sunni group, the Volunteers, is different from the American-allied tribes in the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province, in part because it patrols only 40 minutes from central Baghdad and close to large Shiite districts. So American commanders view this as a crucial test case for whether Shiite leaders will tolerate new alliances with Sunni groups.
If General Nassir’s unit, the Muthanna Brigade, is any indication, the outlook is not promising, said Lt. Col. Kurt Pinkerton, a 41-year-old California native who has spent the past months cultivating his relationship with Abu Azzam.
About a month ago, the Iraqi brigade, which is predominantly Shiite, was assigned a new area and instructed to stay away from Nasr Wa Salam, Colonel Pinkerton said. But he said he believed that the Iraqi soldiers remain intent on preventing Sunni Arabs, a majority here, from controlling the area. He cites a pattern of aggression by Iraqi troops toward Abu Azzam’s men and other Sunnis, who he believes are often detained for no reason.
Recently, and without warning, Colonel Pinkerton said, 80 Iraqi soldiers in armored vehicles charged out of their sector toward Nasr Wa Salam but were blocked by an American platoon. The Iraqis refused to say where they were going and threatened to drive right through the American soldiers, whom they greatly outnumbered.
Eventually, with Apache helicopter gunships circling overhead and American gunners aiming their weapons at them, the Iraqi soldiers retreated. “It hasn’t come to firing bullets yet,” Colonel Pinkerton said.
A few weeks ago, he said, a Sunni detainee was beaten to death while in custody of the Muthanna Brigade. And in the past year, he said, Muthanna soldiers detained two of Abu Azzam’s brothers, both of whom said they were abused, and raided Abu Azzam’s house.
Colonel Pinkerton’s experiences here, he said, have inverted the usual American instincts born of years of hard fighting against Sunni insurgents.
“I could stand among 1,800 Sunnis in Abu Ghraib,” he said, “and feel more comfortable than standing in a formation of Iraqi soldiers.”
He credits the Volunteers for taking on Sunni extremists, including Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown group that claims loyalty to Osama bin Laden’s principles. Abu Azzam’s men, including some local Shiites, have been lining up by the hundreds to submit to retina scans and fingerprinting so they can apply to join the Iraqi police. Some already stand guard, with loaded Kalashnikov rifles, alongside American troops.
Working with the Americans, Abu Azzam’s men have helped drive Islamist militants out of his group’s sector, he says, except for a hard-to-reach area north of Nasr Wa Salam. They have led American troops to weapons stockpiles, he says, and prevented car bombings.
Markets and neighborhoods here, ghostly just a few months ago, now teem with people. A one-story hospital was just rebuilt with American money, and two new generators sit outside. Not long ago the violence would have made such a project impossible, Colonel Pinkerton said.
Residents here now “have more faith and belief in us than in the Iraqi Army,” he said. “But they don’t trust us. And they don’t feel comfortable with us.”
A watershed of sorts came in late April. After a Muthanna Brigade checkpoint was attacked by gunmen, 50 Iraqi soldiers stormed a schoolhouse then serving as Abu Azzam’s makeshift headquarters, arresting dozens of men and shoving some into the trunks of Humvees. Enraged Sunnis who live nearby charged to the scene.
An American officer, Capt. Larry Obst, arrived with 10 soldiers just as a riot threatened to break out, with more than 500 people bearing down on the Iraqi soldiers, who were “getting ready to shoot into the crowd,” he said. After hours of frantic American intervention, the Iraqi soldiers left without the detainees.
The episode hardened the mistrust between the American and Iraqi units, he said, “but it built credibility with the people.”
Yet the men in Colonel Pinkerton’s unit, the Second Battalion of the Fifth Cavalry Regiment, remain conflicted about the risks of joining forces with men who may have attacked them before. Master Sgt. Carlos Figueroa says some Volunteers remind him of drug dealers who try to go straight but always hedge their bets. “These guys are never going to completely give up these ties,” he said.
The Americans say they are not arming Abu Azzam’s men, who already have plenty of weapons. But they are set to begin training them, and hope to start paying about 500 of them $300 a month for guarding checkpoints and buildings, whether or not they are accepted into the Iraqi police.
During an awards ceremony recently, Colonel Pinkerton asked the 40 soldiers before him how many trusted the Volunteers. None raised a hand. That is the correct way to think, he told his men, urging them to “stay focused.”
Afterward, First Lt. Tom Cherepko said: “We fully understand that maybe a few months ago they were attacking us. We don’t trust them, but we’ll work with them. That’s my way of not having to come back for a third rotation, getting them to stand up for themselves.”
On a recent morning in Nasr Wa Salam, Abu Azzam was holding court in his office. He sat cross-legged on an upholstered chair in front of a rickety window-mounted air-conditioner, fingering light-blue prayer beads. A procession of sheiks filed through for private talks.
Afterward, he said his men joined forces with the Americans because the extremist groups were killing so many fellow Sunni Arabs. But he allowed that the new alliance was complicated.
The Americans will someday leave, he said, and the far bigger threat is a permanent Iranian occupation. He fears the Muthanna Brigade is a harbinger of that, because he says it is infiltrated by Iranian-sympathizing militiamen who abuse Sunnis.
He became cagey when questions turned to his activities after the American invasion in 2003. “I was among the people who refused the occupation,” he said. But he insisted that that he never attacked Americans.
He listed the insurgent groups he knows, including the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade, the Islamic Army and Ansar al-Sunna, a faction known for gruesome beheadings.
“All of them I am in touch with,” he said. “They are waiting to see if my experience will succeed. If it succeeds, they will adopt it. But if it doesn’t, it will cause confrontation.”