TARMIYAH, IRAQ: Sons of Iraq groups in Tarmiyah are succeeding “because they’re starting to assert themselves,” according to US Army Capt. Christopher Loftis, commander of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division.
Loftis’ unit has manned a Joint Security Station here in Tarmiyah since December, and they’ve seen how its complicated politics works.
Now, because of tips from the Sons of Iraq members, many weapons caches have been discovered and reported throughout the region. In some cases Sons of Iraq members, many of whom are former insurgents, probably revealed their own caches to gain credibility or reward money, US soldiers say, but weapons off the market are a small victory all the same.
Many other caches, however, were long-term storage sites hidden by committed al Qaeda in Iraq members. Several searches in February and March revealed hundreds of pounds of homemade explosives, US-made weapons, and at one locations, chemicals to help kidnapping. One cache contained a Dishka anti-aircraft weapon.
Tips from local Iraqis, made to their locally-grown Sons of Iraq – “Sahwa” – groups, have led to many of the most impressive caches.
The Sons of Iraq members “know who the bad guys are,” Loftis said. “I would say most of them don’t like coalition forces, but they’ll work with us because it accomplishes their end goals.”
Some of the long-term success will be matching up what the coalition sees as the Iraqis to work with, and those whom the Iraqis can reconcile with themselves. One end of the spectrum is the “Hello, Mister” friendly Iraqi, Loftis said. The other end is the al Qaeda zealot or Sunni insurgent. Just because the Iraqis can look past a crime, doesn’t mean the US will. And sometimes vice versa. The US might release a detainee for lack of evidence of attacks against US forces, but the Iraqi police might be waiting with a warrant of their own.
“Somewhere in the middle is the reconciliation line,” Loftis said. “I think that’s where my men face the most challenges.”
About 500 Sons of Iraq members are paid about $300 a month and are contracted under Sheikh Imad, son of local tribal leader Sheikh Jassim. Both men are pragmatic enough to have a fairly good working relationship with the Americans, even despite Jassim’s detention by the Iraqis for his previous funding of local al Qaeda operations. In 2007, al Qaeda had the run of the Tarmiyah area, and two of Jassim’s sons were murdered.
The end goal is, of course, a complete handover of security responsibilities to Iraqi authorities, so US forces can finally leave. If leaders like Imad and Jassim can take the reins locally, then that will be a step closer to happening. But, even with the area’s al Qaeda forces on the run, nationalistic and ultra-anti-coalition groups, such as the Jaysh Al Rashadeen group, still operate in the area, threatening leaders just like Imad and Jassim.
“They are motivated to overthrow the [Iraqi government] government, which they view as complicit with Iran,” Loftis said. “There had been sort of a cease fire the past few months, but they’re back to planning attacks.”
Several IEDs have been found recently, targeting mostly Sons of Iraq members. A moped bomb killed two members in May and two more were killed while handling an IED in early June. These attacks led to many more false alarms, keeping the US soldiers constantly on the go, treating each report as an assumed true IED.
Still, the more credible the Sons of Iraq can become, the more comfortable the local populace will become with supporting them. It’s a choice each group of Iraqis, insurgent or otherwise, makes. Work within the system, with the Americans, even if they don’t like them, or continue to stage attacks and ultimately risk complete alienation from the local populace.
Loftis said even when al Qaeda was at its peak of power in the area last year, the locals never bought into its leadership, but the terrorist group happened to be more fearsome than the Americans at the time. Today, the Iraqi nationalistic insurgent groups might have a tighter hold on the citizens’ loyalties, because they share more of their true feelings. But, like the Americans or not, relations have improved over the last six months of Alpha’s deployment.
“I’ve invested my confidence in Sheikh Imad’s group,” Loftis said, “He’s very candid. When he feels he’s not being supported, he tells me.”
Sheikh Imad’s group of Sons of Iraq members, while useful allies, must be reined in now and then. Sons of Iraq forces are sometimes tipped off by informants, whom SoI then pays. That way, the informant isn’t technically working for the coalition, though that’s where the money comes from. Occasionally, they apprehend suspected insurgents, and turn them over to the police or US forces in much worse shape than when they were captured.
“That’s not OK. You can’t beat people up and hand them over to us,” Loftis said. “They think something is completely reasonable that we find completely unreasonable.”
During one June shift in Alpha Company’s tactical operations center, the US platoon overseeing Checkpoint 120 on the city’s western edge reported by radio that Iraqi soldiers were “in contact,” actively returning fire. What actually happened was that a man had threatened a Sons of Iraq checkpoint and run away. The Sons of Iraq response was to open fire to get him to stop. The US platoon leader on the scene called it an “inappropriate escalation of force.”
But Loftis said the Sons of Iraq feel justified in responding harshly to threats. “People were getting their heads cut off a year ago, so to them, beating someone up’s not so bad. We have to see things through an Iraqi lens,” then work with the locals to avoid excesses and abuses.
That is the heart of the reconciliation effort the US soldiers are in the middle of..
But, it’s not so easy. The long-term solution must be to bring the Sons of Iraq into the central government control, either as police or soldiers. That means Sunni areas like Tarmiyah must work with the Shiite government in Baghdad.
In the short term, that level of national reconciliation is “impossible,” said Sheikh Imad, through a translator. “I have tried to get my men hired as policemen. Since October (when the Sons of Iraq began here), not one man has been hired.”
He calls Loftis a “brother” and worries what will happen when Alpha Company is replaced early next year. He does not seem to regard the US-paid Sons of Iraq as a short-term transition, but as a long-term means to protect Sunni areas against Shiite persecution. He does not want the US presence or paychecks here to end anytime soon.
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