Saturday, June 9, 2007

Iraq - Target Practice on Iran's Proxy Rocket Teams, Strange Allies, & Briefing on Iraq

To start with, the Iranians are training and supplying Mahdi Army elements with rockets . . . and providing our Apache crews with target practice.

In the Amiriyah neighborhood of Baghdad, there is ongoing "red on red" fighting - Sunni insurgents fighting al Qaeda - that Iraq the Model discussed several days ago. Today, the Washington Post gives us a clearer picture of the fighting, including a Sunni insurgent's call for U.S. logistical help fighting al Qaeda:

The worst month of Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl's deployment in western Baghdad was finally drawing to a close. The insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq had unleashed bombings that killed 14 of his soldiers in May, a shocking escalation of violence for a battalion that had lost three soldiers in the previous six months while patrolling the Sunni enclave of Amiriyah. On top of that, the 41-year-old battalion commander was doubled up with a stomach flu when, late on May 29, he received a cellphone call that would change everything.

"We're going after al-Qaeda," a leading local imam said, Kuehl recalled. "What we want you to do is stay out of the way."

"Sheik, I can't do that. I can't just leave Amiriyah and let you go at it."

"Well, we're going to go."

The week that followed revolutionized Kuehl's approach to fighting the insurgency and serves as a vivid example of a risky, and expanding, new American strategy of looking beyond the Iraqi police and army for help in controlling violent neighborhoods. The American soldiers in Amiriyah have allied themselves with dozens of Sunni militiamen who call themselves the Baghdad Patriots -- a group that American soldiers believe includes insurgents who have attacked them in the past -- in an attempt to drive out al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Americans have granted these gunmen the power of arrest, allowed the Iraqi army to supply them with ammunition, and fought alongside them in chaotic street battles.

To many American soldiers in Amiriyah, this nascent allegiance stands out as an encouraging development after months of grinding struggle. They liken the fighters to the minutemen of the American Revolution, painting them as neighbors taking the initiative to protect their families in the vacuum left by a failing Iraqi security force. In their first week of collaboration, the Baghdad Patriots and the Americans killed roughly 10 suspected al-Qaeda in Iraq members and captured 15, according to Kuehl, who said those numbers rivaled totals for the previous six months combined. He is now working to fashion the group into the beginnings of an Amiriyah police force, since the mainly Shiite police force refuses to work in the area.

"This is a defining moment for us," said Kuehl, who commands the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, attached to the 1st Infantry Division.

But aligning Americans with fighters whose long-term agenda remains unclear -- with regard to either Americans or the Shiite-led government -- is also a strategy born of desperation. It contradicts repeated declarations by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that no groups besides the Iraqi and American security forces are allowed to bear arms. And some American soldiers worry that standing up a Sunni militia could have dire consequences if the group turns on its U.S. partners.

"We have made a deal with the devil," said an intelligence officer in the battalion.

The U.S. effort to recruit indigenous forces to defend local communities has been taken furthest in Anbar province, where tribal leaders have encouraged thousands of their kinsmen to join the police. In the Abu Ghraib area, west of Baghdad, about 2,000 people unaffiliated with security forces are now working with Americans at village checkpoints and gun positions.

Kuehl said he recognizes the risks in dealing with an unofficial force but decided the intelligence that the gunmen provided on al-Qaeda in Iraq was too valuable to pass up.

"Hell, nothing else has worked in Amiriyah," he said.

It was about 2 a.m. on May 30 when Capt. Andy Wilbraham, a 33-year-old company commander, first heard military chatter on his tank radio about rumors that local gunmen would take on al-Qaeda. Later that morning, a noncommissioned officer turned to him with the news: "They're uprising."

"It was just a shock it happened so fast," Wilbraham said.

By noon, loudspeakers in mosques throughout Amiriyah were broadcasting a call to war: "It is time to stand up and fight" al-Qaeda. Groups of men, some in black ski masks carrying AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, descended on the area around the Maluki mosque, a suspected al-Qaeda in Iraq base of operations, and launched an attack. For the most part, Kuehl's soldiers stood back, trying to contain the violence and secure other mosques, and let the gunmen do their work. . .

"We need them and they need us," Kuehl said. "Al-Qaeda's stronger than them. We provide capabilities that they don't have. And the locals know who belongs and who doesn't. It doesn't matter how long we're here, I'll never know. And we'll never fit in."

The militiamen, who call themselves freedom fighters, are led by a 35-year-old former Iraqi army captain and used-car salesman who goes by Saif or Abu Abed. In an interview, he said he had devoted the past five months to collecting intelligence on al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters in Amiriyah, whose ranks have grown as they have fled to Baghdad and away from the new tribal policemen in Anbar province. He has said his own group numbers over 100 people, but American soldiers estimate it has closer to 40. At least six were killed and more than 10 wounded in the first week of collaboration with Americans.

. . . Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, a leader of the Sunni Dulaimi tribe who works in Anbar and Baghdad, said many of the fighters in Amiriyah belong to the Islamic Army, which includes former officers from Saddam Hussein's military and is more secular than other insurgent groups. The fighters have been organized and encouraged by local imams.

"Let's be honest, the enemy now is not the Americans, for the time being," Suleiman said. "It's al-Qaeda and the [Shiite] militias. Those are our enemies." . . .

"Who are these guys really?" Salge remembered worrying. He told them to talk to the battalion commander.

Kuehl said later that he would probably supply weapons to the militiamen, but in limited amounts. The fighters have given the Americans identification, including fingerprints, addresses and retinal scans, so the soldiers believe they could track down anyone who betrayed them. "What I don't want them to do is wither on the vine," Kuehl said.

On Wednesday, a week after the fighting broke out, the Islamic Army issued a statement declaring a cease-fire with al-Qaeda in Iraq because the groups did not want to spill more Muslim blood or impede "the project of jihad." American soldiers played down the statement and suggested it did not reflect the sentiments of the men they are working with in Amiriyah. . .
Read the entire story here. A strange alliance indeed - but a very hopeful sign. Still, even if only temporary, it is al Qaeda that is by far the major problem, doing their best to ignite civil war. Stop al Qaeda and you are very far along to stabilizing Iraq. While I would never turn my back on these guys, I would also, at this point, give them all the logistical support they need to fight al Qaeda and to protect their neighborhoods from rouge Shia militia cells.

Sec. of Defense Gates announces the nomination for Admiral Mullins to Chairman of the Joint Chief Of Staff.

3d Bdr, 25th Inf Div. are in the Kirkuk area of the Iraq. This is a briefing on the situation in their area by the Cdr, Col Patrick Stackpole.

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