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Iraq's army seeks a few good Sunnis

Poor turnout at a Sunni neighborhood recruiting drive underscores the challenges facing US military trainers seeking to build a balanced Iraqi force.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent / April 4, 2007


Hundreds of young Iraqi men stood on the street in their underwear outside a Baghdad army base.

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The recruiting drive, overseen by the US military, was held for the first time in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah. The idea: balance the mostly Shiite makeup of the Iraqi Army, particularly in this area. It was also seen as a way to address the charges that Sunnis are being mistreated by Iraqi security forces.

But only 20 Adhamiyah Sunni natives showed up, of whom only 10 were accepted. The remainder of the 156 who enlisted were mostly Shiites from the impoverished districts of Sadr City and Shaab. They had been tipped off about the recruiting drive by relatives and friends in the Iraqi Army's 1st Battalion of the 6th Brigade, which is based in Adhamiyah but is about 80 percent Shiite.

Sunday's event underscores the challenges faced by US military trainers in attracting Sunnis to the security forces and keeping sectarianism out of one of the country's most critical institutions.

The effort to recruit Sunnis started at the crack of dawn with prospective soldiers made to line up in the base's outer perimeter and told to strip down to their underwear – a security measure. Suicide bombers have struck before in the midst of police and Army recruiting drives.Karlo, a US Army German shepherd dog, is on hand to sniff out any potential trouble.

The young men carrying their clothes in bundles are let into the base in groups of five.

First in line are the Marsumi cousins. The two former policemen were chased out of their village of Hibhib in Diyala Province north of Baghdad last year by Sunni extremists, they say, because they were Shiites. Five of their comrades were slain, a bomb was placed at their front door, and they lost four family members. They now live with relatives in a Shiite enclave in Baghdad.

They say that they were told by their contacts at the Adhamiyah base to be discreet about their sectarian affiliations, otherwise they'd be turned away by the Americans, who wanted mainly Sunnis from Adhamiyah.

Col. Carl Johnson and two other US military officers from the team that is training and equipping Iraq's armed forces are on hand to observe. Their Iraqi counterpart, Brig. Gen. Raad Kadhem, is also present.

The Adhamiyah municipal council had promised 1,400 eager recruits. US and Iraqi officials say they are ready to sign up 200 recruits on the spot, the only requirements being that they be between the ages of 18 and 29, weigh less than 330 pounds, be literate, have 22 teeth, and not have any vision or hearing impairments.

The local council members had complained to Colonel Johnson that it was too dangerous for them as Sunnis to venture out to the main recruiting center at the Al-Muthana airport. So he decided to come to them.

"The intent is to show them that they will be treated fairly," Johnson says.

Adhamiyah is a traditional stronghold for Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party. Soldiers from the US Army's 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, who were sent in August to pacify the area, continue to face fierce resistance and hostility. The unit has already lost 17 soldiers.

The center of Adhamiyah resembles a battleground with "Long live the martyr Saddam" graffiti everywhere.