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U.S. takes Anbar model to Iraqi Shiites

A variation on a successful effort appears to be curbing attacks south of Baghdad.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 2, 2007

Forward Operating Base Iskan, Iraq

The violence has dropped dramatically, say US commanders, in the towns surrounding this base in northern Babil Province, south of Baghdad.

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In May, four improvised explosive device (IED) attacks targeted the battalion; none in August, says Maj. Craig Whiteside, executive officer of the 1st Battalion of the 501st Infantry Regiment. Fewer undetonated IEDs have been found – five in May and two in August. Indirect fire and small-arms violence have also dropped from about a dozen incidents in May to less than three in August.

The reason, they say, is that the same approach that won success in Anbar Province, where the Marines gained support of Sunni tribesmen against Al Qaeda, is taking hold in mixed-sectarian areas. But here, Americans have enlisted Shiites frustrated with extremists from such groups as the Mahdi Army, run by Moqtada al-Sadr.

Across the Euphrates River Valley, known to the military as the southern belts of Baghdad, about 14,000 Shiite and Sunni "concerned citizens" are being paid to man checkpoints and patrol roads in an effort to prevent attacks from violent extremism of either sect.

Largely untrained and armed with weapons they already own, the citizens wear armbands and monitor traffic along the roads, keeping watch to ensure no outsiders or other extremist elements come through to bury roadside bombs. If they fail to keep violence out, they could lose their monthly paycheck. Ultimately, the idea is that they will become members of the Iraq security forces.

"They are making their community safe," says Army Capt. Charles Levine, one of the company commanders here. His battalion has recruited more than 1,300 participants since mid-September. A little less than half of them are Shiite.

The program offers Iraqis 90-day contracts. If it continues to be successful, it could counter false perceptions that the US is arming Sunnis against the Shiite government, as it attempts to install security among all tribes, not just those in Sunni areas.

There is a cautionary element to the effort: It is still unclear what exactly motivates the individuals, beyond the money they receive. But regardless, the American military credits the program for a dramatic drop in violence against US forces and a decrease in other violence, says Major Whiteside.

The drop here follows a decline in violence throughout Iraq, which the US military says is a sign the troop surge is having an impact. Deaths of both US troops and Iraqi civilians in September fell to their lowest levels in more than a year. The Pentagon says 58 US forces died last month, 33 from hostile fire. That was the lowest number since July 2006. Iraqi civilian deaths fell to 922 in September, from 1,975 in August, according to the Associated Press.

In these towns south of Baghdad, however, it's not clear how much the civilian programs have contributed to a lowering of the sectarian violence that is not targeting US forces.

Unlike in Baghdad, the sectarian violence here is "very local," and it can be difficult to attribute any one incident to tribal, sectarian, or criminal acts.

"It's pretty small scale and it's less than it used to be because [Al Qaeda in Iraq] is almost out of the picture and [the Mahdi Army] is still at it and keeps killing Sunnis here and there," says Whiteside.

For now, American troops marvel at the turnaround here, once one of the most dangerous areas in which more than 20 Americans were killed in this battalion.