Standing up the Concerned Citizens in southern Baghdad


A recruiting drive for Concerned Citizens at the home of a local sheikh. Photo by Bill Roggio. Click to view.

Camp Victory, Baghdad Province: With the surge in full swing in southern Baghdad province, the increase in US forces has been matched with an unexpected surge in Iraqi forces - local Iraqi residents who have organized to defend their communities from al Qaeda in Iraq and Shia extremist groups such as the Mahdi Army and the Special Groups.

In southern Baghdad province, the establishment of the Concerned Citizens, also referred to as Iraqi Police Volunteers, began to take hold in late spring. Initiated by tribal connections from Anbar province, the movement mimicked the rise of the Anbar Salvation Council in some respects, but differed in many ways. This bottom up process of local reconciliation consists of both Sunni and Shia tribes wishing to restore a measure of peace to the war torn regions south of Baghdad.

The cell

To adjust to the growing, grass roots movement spurred by the Anbar Awakening, Multinational Division Central, under the command of Major General Rick Lynch, established a Reconciliation and Engagement Cell in early May. The cell is tasked with devising strategies to get the local communities to provide for their security and become part of the reconciliation process, then to see these strategies through at the tactical level.

The cell, which is comprised of three officers, Lieutenant Colonel Gloria Rincon, Major David Waldron, and Major Scott Matey, work long hours putting together the pieces of a complex puzzle, which includes learning the tribal relationships and influential sheikhs, demarking the geographic and sectarian boundaries. The Multinational Division Central area of operations is crisscrossed with "sectarian fault lines," where often a road or canal literally divides communities. To do its job, the reconciliation cell works closely with the intelligence, plans, operations, and economic development sections of Multinational Forces Central, as well as the line companies in the field.

The reconciliation cell received advice from the Marines in Multinational Forces West and from Lt. Col. Kurt Pinkerton, whose 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment. Lt. Col. Pinkerton was working through the same issues with the residents in Abu Ghraib in western Baghdad in the late spring. The Marines, who had extensive experience with the Anbar Awakening, warned the movement would be moving towards the MND-C's area of operations southwest of Baghdad. "Multinational Forces West said this was a possibility in last spring," said Major Waldron. "The movement spread in an arc from Anbar province into western Baghdad [Abu Ghraib] and then to southern Baghdad province."

The reconciliation cell also learned its craft on the job. "We learned what the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain was doing [in the Yusufiyah region] on the fly," said Waldron. This was required, as while similarities existed between the movement in Anbar and the uprising against al Qaeda in southern Baghdad and northern Babil provinces, the unique nature of the region southwest of Baghdad had its own solutions.

The mix of Sunni and Shia enclaves and the interrelations between the tribes and sects created a complex problem set than the homogenous Sunni Anbar province. The Concerned Citizens groups were not centrally formed, as the Anbar Salvation Council was. The groups in southern Baghdad and northern Babil provinces popped up in local communities, and while tribal leaders reached out to their neighbors, there is no governing council to provide central direction. The reconciliation cell is also tasked with building these relationships.

As the process of establishing the Concerned Citizens groups unfolded, there was resistance among the military officers. Many were skeptical about the effectiveness of these groups, their ability to provide security, and the inherent dangers in establishing armed groups outside the purview of the Iraqi Security Forces. "Now 99.9 percent of the officers are on board," Waldron said.

Military leaders were looking for guidance on "establishing left and right boundaries" on dealing with the Concerned Citizens. Those with "blood on their hands" must be arrested and prosecuted. A screening process was put in place and biometric data was gathered. This gave the military to identify past insurgents, as well as the added benefit of gathering date for any potential future attackers.

The red lines are clear. The military can not provide weapons or ammunition to the local groups. Rewards are issued for "non-lethal assistance," which includes identifying the location of IEDs and weapons caches, Waldron said. Weapons buyback programs are strictly prohibited. The Concerned Citizens could not be used as paid vigilante groups. "We do not unleash them to target insurgents," Waldron said. "We vet the intelligence they bring to us with our own intelligence, then either act or pass."

Arming the militia?

Military officers are emphatic that the US was not complicit in providing weapons to the Concerned Citizens. Arming these groups is a "red line," Waldron stated. "People think we are arming Sunnis; that is not true."

This sentiment was echoed by Captain Christian Cosner, the commander of Bravo Troop, 1st Battalion, 89th Regiment of the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division operating in Al Haswa. "We are not arming the Iraqi Provincial Volunteers," said Cosner at Combat Outpost Corregidor. "These guys have all the weapons they need, we're just having them point them in the right direction," against al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army. "They are armed to the teeth," said Lieutenant Kevin Grilo, Bravo Troops' Second Platoon leader, as we sat at a recruiting event in the home of a prominent Shia sheikh in the Al Haswa region during a recruitment drive.

Lieutenant Colonel Avanulus Smiley, the battalion commander of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry regiment, which has seen action in Baqubah during Arrowhead Ripper and throughout Baghdad province, also denied the US is arming the Concerned Citizens. "We're not arming them," Smiley said in an interview at Camp Victory. "They're sufficiently armed."

The rumors of the US military arming the Concerned Citizens arose in the Multinational Division Central area of operations after the Shia community became concerned the US was legitimizing the Sunni insurgency. These concerns have largely dried up as the Shia began to embrace the process and for their own groups. "The Shia are just as fed up with Shia extremists groups," Lieutenant Colonel Rincon said.

Integration

The rise of the Concerned Citizens groups has given the Iraqi government pause. While the Anbar Awakening was eventually approved by the government, Anbar is largely removed from central Iraq. The Concerned Citizens in western and southern Baghdad are far closer to the seat of power, and there has been resistance in supporting these groups.

Iraqi National Police and Army units operating south of Baghdad are also skeptical, and would like the volunteers to join their ranks. There are over 15,000 Concerned Citizens in the Multinational Division Baghdad area of operations, Waldron said. These numbers grow daily: I witnesses almost 300 Sunni and Shia in the Haswa region volunteer in two days. Over 7,000 of the existing Concerned Citizens wish to join the National Police or Army. Others wish to remain in their communities and are concerned that joining the Iraqi Security Forces will force them to deploy away from their homes.

The Integrating this force of volunteers into the Iraqi Security Forces remains an unresolved issue. In Anbar, the local tribal fighters were given training and established as Provincial Security Forces. But in southern Baghdad, this solution has not yet taken hold due to concerns of the Iraqi government.

But the government is interested in the development of the Concerned Citizens, and has begun to inquire on the cost of funding the Concerned Citizens. The US military is attempting to get Prime Minister Maliki to sign order to allow the volunteers to work locally and prevent them from being deployed throughout Iraq. In Mahmudiyah, the mayor, a Shia, has accepted the Concerned Citizens and is working on land grants to establish local police stations. In Madain, members of the Concerned Citizens have joined the 1st Iraqi National Police Brigade.

Paying the Concerned Citizens

The impact of the Concerned Citizens on security in regions where these units have been established is unmistakable. In Haswa, IED attacks have dropped by 80 percent. Casualty causing IED attacks have dropped by 60 percent throughout Multinational Division Central's battlespace. Markets are beginning to reopen and reconstruction projects are moving forward.

The establishment of the Concerned Citizens comes at a cost to the US taxpayer. With over 15,000 volunteers and growing being paid an average of 10 dollars a day - less than is being paid an Iraqi soldier or policeman - the US is paying over 150,000 dollars a day for the local security forces.

While officers and enlisted alike grumble at the likelihood they are paying former insurgents, they agree the price is worth it. "The cost in civilian, Iraqi Security Forces and US soldiers lives, plus the ability to keep the roads clear and the markets open is nothing in the cost of this war," said Waldron. Several soldiers admitted that we are "paying terrorists," but remarked that it was hard to argue against the results.

Beyond security

The establishment of the Concerned Citizens has opened the doors for reconstruction projects to begin in local communities. To capitalize on this, Multinational Division Central formed an Economic Stabilization Cell. The economic cell focuses on programs such as vocational training, microgrants, and the Commander's Emergency Response Program [CERP]. These programs allow the military and security progress to be immediately followed with economic support, and empowers the local sheikhs who are committing to the security process.

The vocational training program was described as a "work in progress" as the school is in need of repairs and tools for training. There are three schools in the region capable of enrolling over 1,000 students per class, but currently there are 158 enrolled. Microgrants are issued to small businesses and enables existing businessmen who may have had to flee the fighting reestablish their businesses. The economic cell reported a growth in small businesses such as internet cafes, garages, and tailor shops. The Commander's Emergency Response Program [CERP] has had great success in the region. The CERP program allows commanders to "use money as a weapon" by providing supplies and equipment for reconstruction where it is needed. CERP programs include building outposts for Concerned Citizens, dredging of canals and road repairs.

Security to politics

Just as the Anbar Salvation Council evolved into the political movement known as the Anbar Awakening, the security movement south of Baghdad is evolving as well. "Recently, the Awakening has really taken hold" in the Mahmudiyah and Iskandariyah regions, Waldron said. "The people are beginning to look for those who can provide security and services" instead of adhering to sectarian lines.

While sectarian tensions remain a serious problem in the region, there is evidence the rifts are not irreparable. In Sunni dominated Jurf As Sakr, a respected Shia tribal sheikh was elected mayor. One of the mayor's first moves was to fly to Jordan to ask Sunni tribal leaders who fled the violence over the past several years to return to rebuild their communities.

The battle is by no means ended south of Baghdad. Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army will not give up easily. Despite the success in Anbar, al Qaeda pulled off the assassination of Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the leader of the Anbar Awakening. A tribal leader near Yusufiyah was murdered in an al Qaeda suicide attack, and night letters have been distributed in the region. The decentralized nature of the movement in southern Baghdad and northern Babil will make the leadership far more difficult to target.


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READER COMMENTS: "Standing up the Concerned Citizens in southern Baghdad"

Posted by Evan at September 16, 2007 4:29 AM ET:

Bill,

This "empowerment" of local sheiks through economic development sounds suspiciously like bribery. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as long as some lasting good can come of it. However, what if the Iranians offered to "empower" these same sheiks through economic aid perhaps to "fill the power vacuum". Would they agree to that just as easily and overturn the security situation for their own benefit?

Posted by crazy at September 16, 2007 2:45 PM ET:

This is beginning to sound like "how the west was won" here in the US. Maybe we need to flood the zone with a big dose of our best western cowboy movies!

Posted by Evan at September 16, 2007 4:28 PM ET:

I'm just hoping that the gains will outlast our bribes and the sheiks will take initiative for more nationalistic reasons. That is necessary for this to work. I think it can if leaders than arise from these tribes participate positively in the national government and reconciliation process. I'm just wondering how susceptible these same tribes would be to Iranian offers. As for logistics, if the Iranians can smuggle huge amounts of EFPs, I'm sure they are able to do cash too.

Posted by Neo at September 16, 2007 6:12 PM ET:

"I'm just wondering how susceptible these same tribes would be to Iranian offers. As for logistics, if the Iranians can smuggle huge amounts of EFPs, I'm sure they are able to do cash too."

Iran has already been there and done that. It's already been fairly successful thus far for the Iranians. How do you think Sadr's organization got where it is now. That's already part of the landscape we operate in.

Posted by Evan at September 16, 2007 6:28 PM ET:

Neo, I know that. I'm wondering exactly what our cash will get us, is all. Or are they really fed up and are making a real alliance?

Posted by Soldier's Dad at September 16, 2007 6:56 PM ET:

"As for logistics, if the Iranians can smuggle huge amounts of EFPs, I'm sure they are able to do cash too."

The Iranians aren't smuggling "Huge Amounts of EFP's", unforutunantely, the ones they are smuggling are deadly.

As far as Iran "incentivising" Iraqi's...to call an Iraqi a Persian is to insult them. Obviously, in a Civil war they Shiite will look to iran for help, and the Sunni will look to the Saudi's for help, but there isn't a lot of love between the Iraqi's and Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Posted by Neo at September 16, 2007 8:57 PM ET:

"Neo, I know that. I'm wondering exactly what our cash will get us, is all. Or are they really fed up and are making a real alliance?"

It's a valid question. There are plenty of indications that they are fed up. At the same time they didn't suddenly fall in love with us. I here the observation all the time that either Al Qaeda or Sadr allied themselves with criminals or the wrong elements of society and have created nothing but chaos. Of course much of the population was well aware this was happening from the beginning. What's the difference now. First MNF and IA forces are there. This is the first real attempt at actual security for many of these villages areas. The payments make enough money available to help sustain themselves. If factions move into the an area unchallenged many of these people would either switch sides or hide. Eventually, the Iraqis need to take over security and build local policing and government institutions. They will need plenty of help getting that off the ground too.
Given the area these people are in, they will likely become refugees or casualties of Sunni Shiite fighting should the government fail.

Posted by Neo at September 17, 2007 10:16 AM ET:

"Sorry for getting a bit jocular there, but I'm rather ticked at the pettiness of some of these objections."

Actually, I didn't take it as a question about a little cash. The larger question posed is were does this lead. Are these people going to become part of long term security arrangements or are they going to eventually get bored with the idea and become a liability. I think we are gradually getting an answer from Anbar where things are further along. Police units with more formal training get moved in alongside and form the rudiments of local security services. A little later after some measure of security, efforts are made to start the basics of local government and help restart the local economy.

Posted by TS Alfabet at September 17, 2007 11:54 AM ET:

"I'm just wondering how susceptible these same tribes would be to Iranian offers. As for logistics, if the Iranians can smuggle huge amounts of EFPs, I'm sure they are able to do cash too.'

'Iran has already been there and done that. It's already been fairly successful thus far for the Iranians. How do you think Sadr's organization got where it is now. That's already part of the landscape we operate in.' "

Let's not forget that the Iranians, like AQI, have *nothing* to offer Iraqis beyond protection against Sunni terror. So while the Iranians seem to have no lack of cash to spend in Iraq (thanks to congress' failure to allow any kind of drilling or exploration to bring down the price of oil), it would appear from Bill's post and others' comments that even the Shia know that the Iranians only bring death and violence. The Iranians' vision for a mullahcracy is not appealing to anyone.

The Iranians are, bottom line, opportunists. As long as the sectarian violence continues, they can posture as protectors of the Shia. Hence, the Iranians feed money and training to AQI to keep Iraq in sectarian chaos; it is a mutually beneficial exercise for Iran and AQI. AQI sees itself as entitled to the Sunni provinces while Iran gets the oil-rich South and eastern portions of Iraq. If, however, sectarian violence continues to fall, the Iranians' offers of money, weapons and training lose their appeal. Afterall, very few Iraqis of any stripe want the kind of society Iran is promoting and Iran does not have any other "product" to sell; it's extremist shiism or death. Iraqis will reject that as long as progress continues in reconciling the Sunni and Shiite communities.

And that's what makes these local efforts at citizen security and reconciliation so terrific. It establishes peace at the most basic level where the people can see it working. As long as it keeps working, there is little incentive for anyone to upset the cart with Iranian thuggery.

It will get ugly, though, as these local efforts run up against the Special Groups and rejectionist/criminal Mahdi militias. The U.S. forces had better be ready to support the locals in force when it happens.

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