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.
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.
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.
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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