(New York Times, July 15, 2007)
NASR WA SALAM, Iraq, July 10 — Abu Azzam says the 2,300 men in his movement include members of fierce Sunni groups like the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade and the Mujahedeen Army that have fought the American occupation. Now his men patrol alongside the Americans, who want to turn them into a security force that can bring peace to this stretch between Baghdad and Falluja.
Reach of War
General Nassir, a 37-year-old former special forces officer, denies that, but says he has strict orders not to support “unofficial” groups and to arrest armed men, no matter who they are. He says he supports those who join the security forces but objects to “those who have Iraqi blood on their hands and who kill our soldiers.”
The gulf between Abu Azzam’s men and the Iraqi soldiers remains vast, with American troops sometimes having to physically intercede. And it is an unmistakable caution that the full depths of the problems facing Iraq cannot be measured in the statistics about insurgent attacks and sectarian killings that carry so much weight in Washington.
The United States has placed great hope in its deepening ties with Sunni leaders like Abu Azzam who have vowed to fight Islamist militants. But his mostly Sunni group, the Volunteers, is different from the American-allied tribes in the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province, in part because it patrols only 40 minutes from central Baghdad and close to large Shiite districts. So American commanders view this as a crucial test case for whether Shiite leaders will tolerate new alliances with Sunni groups.
If General Nassir’s unit, the Muthanna Brigade, is any indication, the outlook is not promising, said Lt. Col. Kurt Pinkerton, a 41-year-old California native who has spent the past months cultivating his relationship with Abu Azzam.
About a month ago, the Iraqi brigade, which is predominantly Shiite, was assigned a new area and instructed to stay away from Nasr Wa Salam, Colonel Pinkerton said. But he said he believed that the Iraqi soldiers remain intent on preventing Sunni Arabs, a majority here, from controlling the area. He cites a pattern of aggression by Iraqi troops toward Abu Azzam’s men and other Sunnis, who he believes are often detained for no reason.
Recently, and without warning, Colonel Pinkerton said, 80 Iraqi soldiers in armored vehicles charged out of their sector toward Nasr Wa Salam but were blocked by an American platoon. The Iraqis refused to say where they were going and threatened to drive right through the American soldiers, whom they greatly outnumbered.
Eventually, with Apache helicopter gunships circling overhead and American gunners aiming their weapons at them, the Iraqi soldiers retreated. “It hasn’t come to firing bullets yet,” Colonel Pinkerton said.
A few weeks ago, he said, a Sunni detainee was beaten to death while in custody of the Muthanna Brigade. And in the past year, he said, Muthanna soldiers detained two of Abu Azzam’s brothers, both of whom said they were abused, and raided Abu Azzam’s house.
Colonel Pinkerton’s experiences here, he said, have inverted the usual American instincts born of years of hard fighting against Sunni insurgents.
“I could stand among 1,800 Sunnis in Abu Ghraib,” he said, “and feel more comfortable than standing in a formation of Iraqi soldiers.”
He credits the Volunteers for taking on Sunni extremists, including Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown group that claims loyalty to Osama bin Laden’s principles. Abu Azzam’s men, including some local Shiites, have been lining up by the hundreds to submit to retina scans and fingerprinting so they can apply to join the Iraqi police. Some already stand guard, with loaded Kalashnikov rifles, alongside American troops.
Working with the Americans, Abu Azzam’s men have helped drive Islamist militants out of his group’s sector, he says, except for a hard-to-reach area north of Nasr Wa Salam. They have led American troops to weapons stockpiles, he says, and prevented car bombings.