Oct 4th 2007 | MOSUL AND QAEM
From The Economist print edition
Will American co-operation with former insurgents last?
"QAEM has no room for terrorists," read the billboards on the desert road to this remote town in Iraq's far north-west, near the Syrian border. In a dusty grid of houses beside a strip of farmland along the Euphrates valley, parents escort their children to school and people go shopping under the watchful eyes of American troops and Iraqi police. Peace, for the moment, prevails. It was very different two years ago. The Americans hail it as a fine example of progress at last.
Qaem was one of the first areas in Iraq to be overrun by a network proclaiming an allegiance to al-Qaeda—and one of the first to throw it out. Starting in 2005, militias run by the powerful Albu Mahal tribe teamed up with the Americans in a series of offensives that has turned a former al-Qaeda stronghold into one of the safer Sunni Arab areas in Iraq. Such "tribal awakenings" are now at the heart of American strategy. The idea is to isolate al-Qaeda and similar groups by building local alliances from the bottom up, rather than wait for the politicians in Baghdad to work out a national reconciliation plan.
But the Shia rulers in Baghdad feel threatened. As the model spreads across Iraq, they fear that creating new militias in a country already swamped with them is a recipe for civil war. This week they denounced the policy for "authorising groups to conduct security outside the government's knowledge and jurisdiction" and for "embracing terrorist elements".
In the past few months, the movement has spread from its cradle in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, to other Sunni parts of the country. In the farm belt south of Baghdad, the Americans have enlisted 14,000 "concerned citizens" into "neighbourhood watch" programmes to spot infiltration by extremists. In Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad, some members of one of the biggest Sunni insurgent groups, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, now accompany the Americans as guides on patrols and point out al-Qaeda safe houses.
In some cases the Americans have sponsored alliances against al-Qaeda, providing ammunition and security co-ordination, and arranging contracts for tribal leaders to put their men on the payroll. Al-Qaeda has fought back, notably by assassinating a leading Sunni sheikh, Abd al-Sattar Abu Risha, who led the movement from Anbar's capital, Ramadi. But that has not badly disrupted the process.
The "awakenings" probably account for the sharp drop in violence in Anbar, where nine Americans died last month, against 26 in September last year. They may also have reduced violence nationwide, measured by American and independent monitors. The civilian death toll last month was half what it was in August.
Most Iraqi Sunni Arabs still hate the foreign occupier but many seem to have decided that al-Qaeda is a greater evil. They particularly dislike al-Qaeda's penchant for setting off huge car-bombs in populated areas; the assassinations of Iraqis who join the police or rival insurgent groups; and the imposition of a puritan version of Muslim law that sometimes, according to some reports, involves chopping off the two fingers with which smokers held their cigarettes. Some also criticise al-Qaeda attacks on Shia civilian targets, especially because they have provoked deadly reprisals by Shia militias.
But tribal leaders' motives have also been questioned. In Qaem, some claim the Albu Mahal turned against al-Qaeda partly because it had helped a weaker tribe tip the balance of power in the area. Others say that Abu Risha was a devious former highway robber who simply found a new source of income by teaming up with the Americans. In many areas where a tribal awakening is proclaimed, rows have erupted over who is a clan's true representative and who a "fake sheikh".
More ominously, the Americans are accused of organising forces which may later turn their guns against the Iraqi government. Several Shia leaders worry that the Americans are too naive to distinguish between sincere foes of al-Qaeda and others who have co-operated with it in the past and may do so again. And al-Qaeda may have infiltrated some of the new outfits. It is rumoured, for instance, that Abu Risha was betrayed by one of his bodyguards.
In northern Iraq's Nineveh province around Mosul, Kurdish leaders are particularly worried by reports that the Americans may arm the Shammar, a Sunni tribe that controls a remote stretch of the border with Syria. Some American troops have misgivings, too, about arming people who may have killed their comrades. An American soldier's blog records a telling conversation with a 1920 Revolution fighter. "Do you want to kill me?" asked the soldier. "Yes," replied the former insurgent, without emotion. "But not today."
Jeffrey asked me to imagine the 1920 Revolution fighter wearing a sombrero, and I was bored and curious what that would look like: