Tarmiyah’s Sons of Iraq: security for the short term

Click image to view. Through his platoon’s interpreter, Sergeant First Class Afa Taupo (far left) of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, talks to the Sons of Iraq member in charge of this checkpoint during a nightly patrol recon around Tarmiyah. Many of the more senior Sons of Iraq members have some prior military service. Photo by Nathan Webster.

Abu Abad, not his real name, said he was one of the first members to sign up with Sheikh Imad’s Sons of Iraq group when it was set up last October to help protect the streets of Tarmiyah, a mostly Sunni city about 25 miles north of Baghdad.

Now a captain in the 500-strong local Sons of Iraq membership, Abad is responsible for about 25 Iraqi men who occupy checkpoints near the Joint Security Station operated by the US Army’s Alpha Company, 1st/14th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division.

Neither army nor police, the Sons of Iraq are made up local citizens, paid about $300 a month by the US, though not armed by the US. The money comes in the form of brand-new $100 bills, listed and accounted for by specific serial numbers.

The Sons of Iraq are not a long-term solution, US officers acknowledge. At some point, they will have to come under the control of the central government, maybe as soldiers or Iraqi policemen. Many members are former insurgents or Iraqi soldiers who have come to the US side simply because the US is issuing a paycheck.

Speaking through “Arthur,” an Alpha Company translator, Abad said he served during the 2003 invasion as a lieutenant in the Republican Guard. He said he saw action in southern Baghdad, fighting against invading US forces.

He had chosen a career as a military officer and found himself out of work when the Iraqi military was disbanded following its defeat. Years later now, the Sons of Iraq has offered him both a job and a familiar role as a military-style officer, he said.

Abad knows some English, though quite a few steps below conversational. It’s vastly better than most of his men. He understands it better than he can speak it.

He said he knows his men are effective because he serves with them at the checkpoint on a regular rotation. On one day, he stays at the Joint Command Center, (JCC) located at the Iraqi police station next to the Joint Security Station, waiting for information and serving as a liaison for his organization. The next day, he stays at the checkpoint with his men, monitoring vehicle traffic in the city and searching suspicious vehicles.

Tips come into the JCC about possible terrorist plots, and the information is passed out to the Sons of Iraq, as well as the police. On other occasions, the tips come from the Sons of Iraq themselves. The members are local citizens, with their own sources.

Abad said the 25th Infantry Division soldiers, and US troops from other units that he serves alongside have a good reputation, and he is glad to be working with them.

He did complain about a US mortar salvo from Camp Taji that accidentally hit high-tension power lines, knocking out power for a day or two, he said. It is very difficult, he said, for children and old people to deal with the heat. However, vast swaths of the city are often without power for many unrelated reasons. The US mortars were a counterfire mission following an insurgent mortar fired at Camp Taji.

As for the US presence, Abad said when the security situation becomes stable enough, the Americans can leave, if not the country, then at least the smaller outposts like Tarmiyah. He didn’t seem to mind the idea of a long-term US presence at the larger bases like Camp Taji. But, he said, when security is improved, there will be no need for US soldiers in the city itself.

While the mostly Sunni Sons of Iraq and largely Shiite Iraqi Army have difficult relations, Abad said he has a “normal relationship, with no problems.” He was sitting next to an Iraqi police officer at the time.

Joining the police or Army was impossible, he said, when al Qaeda terrorists effectively controlled the area in 2007. Kidnappings and beheadings of moderate Iraqis, especially those seen as willing to work with the US, were not uncommon.

I deliberately did not ask him what he did during the 2004-2007 Sunni insurgency, and he did not offer. There is a distinction among Iraqi citizens between al Qaeda terrorists, who targeted Iraqis, and those Sunni nationalists who fought against the US in what they call the “good fight” of the post-invasion insurgency.

There is no question many of the Son of Iraq members now accepting US money were among the insurgents who simply avoided being captured or killed. Those insurgents caught “with blood on their hands” remain in detention, and while Iraqis will certainly forgive someone who killed Americans only, that’s something the US military will not openly do.

Many of the Iraqis dismiss talk of grudges for the 2003 invasion. “What happened, happened,” they say, with a wave of a hand. Abad was the same. “It’s the past,” he said.

So no matter his past history or experience, when Sheikh Imad started the Sons of Iraq, Abad said, he saw a chance to resume some version of his old life, in a version of the military protecting his hometown. He is married with a son, and might be in his early 30s, wearing slacks and a tan button-down shirt. His crisp appearance makes it easy to forget that in 2003 he and many other Iraqi men were young soldiers, like the Americans they now work with, preparing to fight a war they had to know they wouldn’t win.

He said he hopes to become a full-time policeman in the new Iraq.

Nathan Webster was embedded with US forces in Tarmiyah during the month of June.

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