KUT, Iraq - American commanders in southern Iraq say Shiite sheiks are showing interest in joining forces with the US military against extremists, in much the same way that Sunni clansmen in the western part of the country have worked with American forces against al-Qaida.
Mahdi Army Militia men gesture in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraq, in this Friday, May 28, 2004 file photo. Shiite sheiks are showing interest in joining forces with government-backed forces against extremists from their own sect in a first sign that an experiment that began among Sunnis spreading to Shiite-dominated areas, USofficials say. [AP Photo]
Sheik Majid Tahir al-Magsousi, the leader of the Migasees tribe here in Wasit province, acknowledged tribal leaders have discussed creating a brigade of young men trained by the Americans to bolster local security as well as help patrol the border with Iran.
He also said last week's assassination of Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, who spearheaded the Sunni uprising against al-Qaida in Anbar province, only made the Shiite tribal leaders more resolute.
"The death of Sheik Abu Risha will not thwart us," he said. "What matters to us is Iraq and its safety."
The movement by Shiite clan leaders offers the potential to give US and Iraqi forces another tactical advantage in curbing lawlessness in Shiite areas. It also would give the Americans another resource as they beef up their presence on the border with Iran, which the military accuses of arming and training Shiite extremists.
Similar alliances with Sunni tribes in the western Anbar province helped break the grip of groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq and were widely cited in the Washington hearings as a major military success this year.
Such pacts to fill the vacuum left by Iraqi police and soldiers unable or unwilling to act against Shiite militias carry even greater potential spinoffs for Iraq's US-backed leadership — but also higher risks.
Shiites represent about 60 percent of Iraq's population and the bulk of the security forces and parliament. Worsening the current Shiite-on-Shiite battles could ripple to the highest levels.
But US officials at the heart of the effort hope to tap a wellspring of public frustration with militias and criminal gangs to recruit the tribal volunteers, although they stress it is still in the early stages.
"It's an anti-militia movement ... Shiite extremists of all stripes," said Wade Weems, head of a Provincial Reconstruction Team leading the dialogue in the Wasit province southeast of Baghdad.
"We see consistently expressed deep frustration or anger with the activities of militia that appear to be untethered to any sort of guiding authority, appear to be really criminal in nature," he added.
But while the military has made inroads with Sunni leaders in some Baghdad neighborhoods and areas surrounding the capital, including Diyala province, officials stressed it's too early to know if efforts to extend the strategy to Shiite leaders will take root.