US expands Anbar model to Iraq Shiites

Updated: 2007-09-16 10:17

"This is a very different province and a very different dynamic and we're not going to just adopt lock, stock and barrel another province's model and impose it here," Weems said. "This will take some time for us to understand exactly what it is these tribes want to do."

In Anbar, the goal of the Sunnis was to drive al-Qaida in Iraq away from towns and villages.

In Wasit, which borders Iran, the goal is to rein in armed Shiite groups, some of them probably armed by Iran, which are locked in a power struggle that is making life intolerable for ordinary people.

US officers believe last month's fighting among rival Shiite militias during a religious festival in Karbala may have been the last straw. Up to 52 people died in the clashes, which marred what was supposed to be a joyous celebration.

Anger also rose after the assassinations of two southern provincial governors that were seen as part of a brutal contest among rival Shiite militias to control parts of Iraq's main oil regions.

Fearing a backlash, Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of Iraq's biggest militia, ordered a six-month freeze on his Mahdi Army's activities and began reorganizing the force to purge unruly elements.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the militias appeared to be alienating the Shiite community with internal violence in the same way al-Qaida in Iraq caused Sunni leaders to turn against it.

"There are some signs that the Shia are perhaps beginning to have the same — get the same kind of wake-up call with respect to their extremists that the Sunnis in Anbar did," he said.

Since Karbala, Weems said he has attended a "flurry of meetings" with sheiks interested in ways they can use their formidable influence to help restore order.

"They are well aware of what's happened in Anbar province, the role that the tribes played in securing some of the less secure areas in that province," he said. "There has been a good deal of success with those, not just in Anbar but in other areas."

Army Capt. Majid al-Imara, who said he has been charged with establishing the new force, said each battalion will be made up of 350 men chosen by tribal leaders, and they will be armed and equipped by the Iraqi government and paid $300 monthly, he said.

Col. Peter Baker, the commander of the 214th Fires Brigade that took over Forward Operating Base Delta near Kut in June, also said the idea was for the tribal volunteers to act as an "auxiliary police force" that could provide security in an organized fashion but let the sheiks maintain control of tribal members.

One of the obstacles is the lack of a single enemy, such as al-Qaida in Iraq, which alienated Sunni tribal leaders and even other insurgents by killing sheiks and trying to impose a strict interpretation of Islam.

Shiites are getting increasingly fed up, however, with the fighting among rival militia groups, as well as the criminal nature of gangs engaging in extortion and setting up illegal checkpoints.

Weems acknowledged fears that the tribal leaders could abuse their authority and said he expected the movement to start with small groups that would receive mandatory training in when and how to use force, with careful monitoring.

"As with any group that is taking on a security function where the police seem to be failing, there are concerns," he said. "We'll probably adopt a model of growing these from smaller groups and measuring their success before we broaden it."

But, he said, the ultimate goal was to quickly "integrate those tribal volunteers into one branch of the Iraqi security forces, be it the army, the police or — here in Wasit — the border patrol."

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