In two weeks, coalition authorities and senior Iraqi party leaders will begin recruiting Iraqi militiamen to create a new counterinsurgency battalion. The fighters' purpose will be to tackle a wave of Sunni-driven violence that American officials predict will increase as the country moves toward autonomy.
The new force is intended to add muscle to the poorly equipped and ill-trained Iraqi police and Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, which increasingly have been shouldering the burden of maintaining security.
But Sunni Muslims warn that the new militia force - consisting mainly of battle-hardened Shiite and Kurdish fighters - will aggravate Iraq's strained sectarian and ethnic relationships. "This ... is a bomb that could explode at any time," says Sheikh Abdel-Karim Qubaysy, a prominent Sunni in Baghdad. Other Sunni clerics are warning that this could lead to Lebanon-like civil war.
The leaders of five Iraqi parties have pressed the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to adopt a plan to build a special force of about 800 fighters drawn from the military wings of their own organizations (see sidebar).
Volunteers for the new battalion will be recruited in two weeks and assembled into subunits to gather intelligence on militants and carry out military operations, according to an official of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
"It shows that the Americans are growing confident in the ability of the Iraqis to handle their own security," says Sheikh Humum Hammoudi, a senior member of SCIRI, a Shiite party. "We used to have a big role in confronting Saddam Hussein. Now we will complete that role by building a secure Iraq."
For months, the CPA has voiced its opposition to armed militias in Iraq, considering them a potentially destabilizing presence that would undermine the revamped Iraqi security forces. In particular, the coalition authorities have viewed with distrust the Badr Brigades, the Iran-trained military wing of SCIRI which fields some 10,000 fighters. On the other hand, the peshmerga ("those who face death") a 35,000-strong militia composed of fighters from the two main Kurdish parties, has been tolerated because of its close alliance with the US.
"The national organizations we have promised to construct are the new Iraqi Army and the new Iraqi police force and the civil defense force," said Paul Bremer, the top US administrator in Iraq, this weekend. "These are national organizations.... We have welcomed the militias' cooperation with the national authorities, but they cannot continue as militias."
Still, with attacks by militants growing ever deadlier, the CPA appears to believe that the well-trained, combat-proven militiamen could be a useful addition to the counterinsurgency campaign. Furthermore, there are concerns that the Iraqi police are susceptible to infiltration by Hussein loyalists. That's not a risk with the Shiite and Kurdish guerrillas who remain hostile to the former regime.
"What the country needs is more Iraqis in the security forces," a CPA official says, "and what we have are people who are not contributing to security but could be."
The urgency in building a homegrown security apparatus is underlined by predictions that the militants will step up their attacks during the run-up to the transfer of authority from the CPA to a provisional Iraqi assembly.
"We expect to see an increase in violence as we move forward toward sovereignty at the end of June," Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the US military commander in Iraq, said on Sunday.
The leaders of all five parties involved in the planned militia battalion are among the 24 members of Iraq's interim Governing Council. The CPA stresses that all militiamen volunteering for the counter- insurgency battalion must put aside their allegiances to their political leaders and join as individual citizens.
A group of Shiite Iraqi National Congress fighters standing guard outside the Baghdad home of Ahmed Chalabi, the party's leader, say they have all volunteered to join the new force.
As members of the new battalion, would they arrest Mr. Chalabi if ordered to by the Iraqi government?
"No problem," says one cheerfully. "We would arrest him if he made a mistake. We have to turn a new page and support the Iraqi nation."
But in a country riven by gaping sectarian and ethnic divisions - often stoked deliberately during Hussein's rule - the creation of an elite security force composed largely of Shiite and Kurdish fighters could reinforce the concerns of a nervous Sunni community that they will be discriminated against by the post-Hussein administration. "It's possible," concedes Abdel Kadhim Kudhayer, a SCIRI representative. "But just because we are more powerful, it doesn't mean that we will harm other sects. All we want to do is stop the operations which harm the security of the country."
Many Sunnis remain unconvinced. The Islamic Clerics Committee, a gathering of Sunni religious leaders, have denounced the new battalion, describing it as a step toward the "Lebanonization" of Iraq. Lebanese Christian and Muslim militias fought a brutal civil war from 1975 to 1990. "This militia-style force reminds us of Lebanon and what happened to that country," says a committee statement. "This attempt to transfer Lebanon to Iraq is a desperate and losing bet."
On the streets of Fallujah, a flash point Sunni town 30 miles west of Baghdad, similar sentiments can be found.
"It will definitely raise sectarian tensions and we don't need that," says Sheikh Zeidan Khalaf al-Nasseri, the imam of As Sahabat Mosque in Fallujah. "The new force won't change anything except to make the situation worse. The resistance won't surrender and the attacks will probably increase."
Residents here say they will treat the new security force the same way as they treat American soldiers. "We will kill them like we kill the Americans," says Abu Yuqdan, declining to give his full name. "The Americans want to create a civil war. They will send the Shiites and the Kurds against us, then stand aside and watch."
Trained and funded by Iran, the Badr Brigades are the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI was formed in 1982 and led by Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim until his death in a car-bomb explosion in Najaf in August. His brother, Abdul Aziz Hakim, replaced him as leader of SCIRI and sits on the interim Governing Council.
The 10,000-strong Badr Brigades were based in Iran during Saddam Hussein's rule but conducted cross-border attacks against Baathist targets. They also maintained a network of agents in Baghdad and southern Iraq, SCIRI's main area of support.
The Iraqi National Congress (INC) has been funded by the United States since its inception in 1992. It is headed by Iraqi businessman Ahmed Chalabi, who remains close to the Pentagon and was its choice as Iraq's leader after Hussein's downfall.
The US military recruited and trained 1,000 INC fighters in the buildup to the Iraq war. Only 100 fighters were selected to accompany US forces in Iraq during the conflict.
Created in 1990, the Iraqi National Accord (INA) is largely made up of former Baathists and Iraqi army officers opposed to Hussein. The INA was the choice of the CIA and British intelligence agencies during the 1990s. It carried out a number of bombings in Baghdad in the mid-1990s, but its influence waned considerably after Hussein's regime uncovered a coup plot in 1996 and arrested 120 dissidents, executing some of them.
The INA is headed by Ayad Allawi, a successful Iraqi businessman who is a member of the Governing Council and chairs the committee on Internal Security.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has remained a dominant force in Iraqi Kurdish politics since its creation over half a century ago. It has been led by Massoud Barzani since 1979. It fought a civil war with its chief rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, in the mid-1990s and had close ties with neighboring Iran. It has about 25,000 relatively well-trained fighters.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan split from the KDP in 1975 and claims to be a modern social democratic party with a membership of around 15,000. It has a militia force of roughly equal strength to the KDP and fought the Al Qaeda-backed Ansar al-Islam group in the mountainous area along the Iranian border.