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Risky US alliances in Iraq

Frustrated with the Iraqi Army, US forces cultivate ties to ex-insurgents.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 17, 2007

Dalli Abbas, Iraq

In the pursuit of an elusive enemy the US loosely labels AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq), US Green Berets and soldiers in this remote corner of Iraq have enlisted the help of a new ally that they have christened LRF, the "Legitimate Resistance Force."

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It includes ex-insurgents, police dropouts with checkered backgrounds, and former Al Qaeda-linked fighters – all united by a desire to rid Diyala Province of the network's influence, say US officers.

"A lot of them are former Al Qaeda operatives ... but when they saw the stealing, murder, and terrorism, they realized it was not the way forward for Iraq," says Maj. John Woodward of San Antonio.

But the risks of such a temporary solution are high, say critics, and the plan could foster new, powerful militias outside the control of the Iraqi Army. It's a strategy that also threatens to further fuel sectarian battles as LRFs are largely Sunni, posing a major threat to Shiite militias.

So far, however, it is too early to judge the effectiveness of this new group, but its creation clearly demonstrates a desire by the US to look for grass-roots solutions amid increasing frustration with the combat readiness – and even loyalty – of Iraqi forces.

It also seems to indicate that the Americans are willing to take a short-term gamble on the LRFs in order to show some successes in the fight against AQI before September, when a highly anticipated progress report on Iraq is due to Congress.

The idea for LRFs was born out of the links US troops have sought to foster with Iraqi tribal leaders in Diyala Province as part of the US-led offensive "Arrowhead Ripper," which has been under way here for about a month.

But the LRF initiative has little in common with the high-profile tribal Anbar Salvation Council, which was formally endorsed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and helped reduce violence there. Mr. Maliki has backed a Diyala version of that group called the Isnad (support) Council, but it has had much less impact due to the more fragmented nature of Diyala's tribal, ethnic, and sectarian makeup.

Maliki warned US forces last month against creating new militias in their fight against Al Qaeda-linked operatives. He insisted that all collaboration with local groups must be done through his government.

"What the Americans are doing is very risky and unwise. They are planting the seeds for future wars," warned Sami al-Askari, a parliamentarian close to Maliki, commenting on groups like the LRF.

After a raid, holding the ground

Early last week, the US bombed suspected AQI hideouts and several bridges over the Diyala River that were said to be used by the militants in the farmlands of Sherween, about 35 miles northeast of Baquba. On the ground, about 200 Iraqi and US soldiers along with members of the LRF clashed with militants in Rabie Najem, a Sherween-area village.

The US military said it killed 20 "Al Qaeda terrorists" and detained 20 in the operation, which it qualified as a success.

"It's very important that we go back and take control of our area. After [the US military] helped us, we need to hold the terrain. I have 40 of my guys waiting for me," says Najem Abdullah, one of the LRF members, in an interview at the US base Normandy the day after the bombing raid.

Mr. Abdullah and three of his comrades, all Sunnis from the Jubour tribe, were brought back to the base after the operation to talk to a US special forces team, which is charged with vetting them and supplying them with ammunition, according to officers in the 6th Squadron of the US Army's 9th Cavalry Regiment stationed at Normandy.

Mr. Abdullah is a former policeman and said he once collaborated with insurgent groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigades, one of the earliest Sunni Arab insurgent groups that fought US presence after the invasion. His friend Mazen Hamid is also a former Iraqi police officer and said that several of his relatives have joined the ranks of the Al Qaeda-linked militants and that they were being paid about $300 per operation.