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Iraq Report: November 2, 2007

Al-Anbar Initiative Makes Progress, But Baghdad Remains Wary

By Sumedha Senanayake

U.S. commander General David Petraeus (left) with Sheikh Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah, who was killed by Al-Qaeda in September

November 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A high-level delegation of leaders from Iraq's Sunni-dominated Al-Anbar Governorate recently arrived in Washington for two weeks of meetings with high-ranking officials. The visit underscores the apparent success of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council -- a coalition of tribes that aims to rid the governorate of groups linked with Al-Qaeda in Iraq -- in reducing violence in the region.

But while U.S. officials credit the council with bringing about a remarkable turnaround in an area once thought to have been lost to Al-Qaeda, many in the Shi'ite-led Baghdad government see the U.S.-backed initiative as essentially arming Sunni militias that may at some point pose a threat to the Iraqi government.

U.S. President George W. Bush touted the council's successes when he met with its former leader, Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah, during the president's last visit to Iraq on September 3. Abu Rishah was assassinated soon after, on September 13, by Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Following the so-called "Al-Anbar model," the U.S. military has promoted the principal in several other governorates and neighborhoods of Baghdad, with similar "salvation councils" in the Diyala, Babil, and Salah Al-Din governorates.

The delegation in Washington, led by Sheikh Ahmad Abu Rishah, leader of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, also includes Al-Anbar Governor Samir Ma'mun, Al-Ramadi Mayor Latif Ubayid, Al-Anbar Governorate Council Chairman Abd al-Salam Abdallah, and Iraqi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Rafah al-Issawi.

Citizen Security

At an October 28 press briefing, U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith indicated that the number of attacks in Iraq in recent months has been at its lowest since February 2006, when the bombing of the Al-Askari shrine unleashed a wave of sectarian violence. Attacks involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have dropped by 60 percent in a four-month period. In September 2007, less than a third as many civilians died from enemy-initiated attacks compared to December 2006. Smith stressed that what the military calls "concerned local citizens" (CLCs) were mainly responsible for the sharp drop in violence.

Using the Al-Anbar Salvation Council as a model, CLCs are armed and trained by the U.S. military to patrol their communities and act as neighborhood watch groups. Members are vetted, issued an insignia to designate them as allies, and given a salary of approximately $300 a month. The groups man checkpoints, conduct patrols, and gather intelligence on terrorist activities. Their local knowledge and contacts are thought to give them an advantage in gathering intelligence, which they then report to coalition and Iraqi forces.

"Much of the progress being made can also be attributed to the Iraqi citizens actively participating in and taking responsibility for their own security," Smith said. "What began as the Al-Anbar Awakening [Salvation Council] has now evolved into the formation of concerned local citizens' groups present in almost every major neighborhood in Baghdad and throughout the provinces," he added.

Smith noted that there has been an unprecedented demand from Iraqis to participate in the program, with approximately 67,000 people signing up to join CLC groups. He stressed that the program is only temporary, with the long-term goal of absorbing some of the volunteers into the Iraqi police force.

Doubts In Baghdad

While it seems that the Al-Anbar Salvation Council and the formation of CLCs have helped cut the incidence of violence, the Iraqi government has been reluctant to embrace the idea fully.

On October 4, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'a-led government blasted the U.S. initiative. Al-Maliki's media adviser, Yasin Majid, told AFP that the Baghdad government is not opposed to the groups' mission, but stressed that any armed Iraqi group should be under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi government, not the U.S. military. "There are groups that have set up checkpoints without coordinating with the government. Apparently they coordinated with the [U.S. military]. They should be placed under [Iraqi] army control," Majid said.

Indeed, the formation of CLCs, which have so far functioned directly with the U.S. military and outside of the Iraqi government's sphere of control, represents the decentralization of power and a loss of authority for Baghdad. Moreover, the creation of a separate, predominantly Sunni force -- even one charged with combating the common enemy of Al-Qaeda in Iraq -- further underscores the sectarianism at the crux of many of Iraq's political problems.

Many in the Shi'ite-led Baghdad government see the program as essentially arming Sunni militias that may at some point pose a threat to the Iraqi government. Even if the threat of Al-Qaeda in Iraq is eliminated, these Sunni groups may not surrender their weapons readily.

In fact, some of the "concerned citizens" involved in CLCs are former members of Sunni insurgent groups, such as the 1920 Revolution Brigades, that oppose the U.S.-led occupation as well as the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad. The possibility remains that some of those Sunni militiamen, armed by U.S. troops, may eventually turn their weapons on the foreign forces or the Iraqi government.

Attacked from Both Sides

The leadership and members of the CLCs and other "salvation councils" working alongside U.S. forces have also become targets of an assassination campaign, with dozens of tribal leaders and others targeted in attacks in the past two months. On October 28, 11 tribal sheikhs affiliated with the Diyala Awakening Council were abducted in the Al-Sha'b district of northeast Baghdad.

Iraqi forces eventually rescued eight of the abducted tribal leaders, while the body of one was later discovered. The U.S. military suspected an Iranian-backed rogue leader of Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army of planning the kidnapping, but in other incidents, the U.S. leadership has placed the blame on groups linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. One U.S. commander, Major General Mark Hertling, told AP on October 29 that Al-Qaeda is "targeting the concerned local citizens, the police stations, and some of the gathering places of sheikhs...specifically to try and deter the Iraqi people from moving forward."

In the long term, economics may play a significant role in what happens to the members of CLC programs and tribal councils. Although the U.S. military has expressed hopes of eventually incorporating many of these people into the Iraqi police force, it has met with stern opposition from the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi Interior Ministry, which controls the police.

On October 26, U.S. Major General Benjamin Mixon accused the ministry of having a sectarian agenda by not hiring a "balanced enough" police force for the mixed governorate of Diyala, implying that the ministry has been reluctant to hire Sunnis. If Sunnis find themselves blocked from government jobs in some governorates, this is only likely to worsen their economic plight and leave an even more marginalized population with a greater incentive to return to the insurgency.