WASHINGTON -- The cornerstone of the evolving war strategy to be outlined next week by Gen. David Petraeus and President Bush, a "bottom-up" revolt of Iraqi Sunnis against al-Qaida extremists, is risky and already riddled with problems, according to senior U.S. officers and Petraeus' top counterinsurgency adviser.
Fed up with al-Qaida's campaign of murder and intimidation, Sunni tribal elders and insurgents who had been fighting alongside al-Qaida and attacking American troops began last year to quit that fight and temporarily align themselves with U.S. forces. The movement, which began in the western desert province of Anbar, has spread to other predominantly Sunni provinces and some Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad, contributing to a significant decline in violence there, U.S. officers said.
Taken by surprise that some 30,000 Sunnis are shifting from fighting Americans to cooperating with them, U.S. officials nonetheless have seized on the change as the most positive development yet in the Iraq war, and said it will be a major element in the report that Petraeus will make to Congress on Monday and Tuesday and in Bush's report to the nation later in the week.
On a visit to the heavily fortified U.S. air base at al-Asad this week, Bush hailed the "tribal revolt" as "vital to the success and stability of a free Iraq."
But the sudden growth of armed Sunni security forces amid Iraq's heated sectarian conflict carries significant risks for the United States and the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, according to David Kilcullen, who just completed a tour as the top counterinsurgency adviser to the U.S. command in Iraq.
Writing in the online magazine Small Wars Journal, Kilcullen warned that these Sunni groups could become independent power centers in a fracturing Iraq or turn against the Baghdad government. Echoing the concerns of senior commanders, Kilcullen concluded: "It is clear that the tribal revolt could still go either way."
Kilcullen said the new Sunni security forces could help stabilize Iraq if the United States helps enforce strict controls on them, requiring that they swear allegiance to the Iraqi government, recording their fingerprints and retina scans for identification, providing advisers and trainers, and developing programs to disarm them.
The Sunni security forces, depending on their location and skills, are paid and given some training by U.S. commanders, and eventually might be authorized to carry weapons "for defensive purposes only," said Lt. Col. Joseph M. Yoswa, a spokesman for the U.S. command in Baghdad. "We don't give them weapons, we don't give them ammunition," he said.
Even with such safeguards, Kilcullen concluded: "This will play out in ways that may be good or bad, but are fundamentally unpredictable."
In interviews with The Sun in Anbar last spring, Sunni tribal leaders who had been al-Qaida assassination targets stressed that their alliance with U.S. Marines was critical for their own safety. They said this temporary alliance against al-Qaida did not mean that they intend any reconciliation with the government in Baghdad, which they said is dominated by "Iranians."
Encouraging the growth of what are essentially friendly Sunni militias runs counter to what has been a four-year U.S. effort to consolidate power in Iraq's central government and to emasculate tribal power bases and sectarian militias.
For that reason, the "bottom-up" revolt won't be measured by any of the 12 benchmarks that are meant to gauge the security and political performance of Iraq's central government. These benchmarks, to be discussed by Bush and Petraeus next week, were the subject of an independent evaluation this week by the Government Accountability Office, which said the al-Maliki government failed to meet most of the 18 benchmarks established this year by Congress as a condition for funding of the war.
But beyond the benchmarks, several recent assessments have provided a sobering context for the rise of local Sunni security forces.
Iraq's 25,000-strong national police, 85 percent of whose members are Shiites, is widely viewed as corrupt and infiltrated by insurgents and Shiite militants, according to testimony yesterday by retired Gen. James Jones, a former Marine Corps commandant who headed a congressional commission examining Iraq's security forces.
The national police force ought to be disbanded and reorganized, Jones told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said the Interior Ministry, which controls police, is crippled by sectarianism and corruption.
But on the bloody streets of Baghdad and elsewhere, the appearance of armed Sunni citizens groups has been welcomed by U.S. commanders. The Sunni groups are manning checkpoints, driving out terrorist cells, and enforcing neighborhood watch programs to guard against infiltration by Shiite insurgents.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division fighting south of Baghdad, said he has put to work 10,000 Sunni "concerned citizens" who are manning checkpoints and performing other security functions. But he and other commanders have run into major problems in trying to persuade the Iraq government to accept these Sunnis into the regular Iraqi army and police forces. Only 1,500 of his 10,000 volunteers have been accepted, Lynch said.
"I'm not even pretending that the idea of concerned citizens is being welcomed with open arms by the government of Iraq," he told reporters in a briefing from Baghdad last month. "They're concerned about the idea of these members of the Sunni population becoming members of a security force." Lynch said he is working with Baghdad to give the citizens groups "a lasting legitimacy."
Gen. Jack Keane, who retired two years ago as the Army's second-highest officer and who has made regular assessment trips to Iraq for the U.S. command, acknowledged that the Baghdad government is "paranoid" about accepting armed Sunnis into the security forces. But he insisted that it is worth the risk to bring Sunni insurgents over to the American side.
"In my judgment, this is the most dramatic change since the 2003 invasion of Iraq," Keane told a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees. "Make no mistake about it, some of them a few weeks ago were fighting us," he said. "The big challenge is to link the al-Maliki government and its resources to this political action and maintain the momentum."
Supporting armed Sunni citizens groups is like "a sharp stick in the eye of the Shia," retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, told the joint panel.
Such groups "could become a liability if they turned against the Shiite militias or even Iraqi government forces," former Defense Secretary William J. Perry testified. Perry was echoing a concern raised last month in a National Intelligence Estimate, a formal joint report issued by the U.S. intelligence community.
The intelligence assessment said events in Iraq are being driven "primarily by Shia insecurity about retaining political dominance [and] widespread Sunni unwillingness to accept a diminished political status." The report noted that the increasing Sunni resistance to al-Qaida "has not yet translated into broad Sunni Arab support for the Iraqi government or widespread willingness to work with the Shia."
That was evident in the view of one local tribal leader in Anbar, Sheik Mal Alla Barzan Hamraim. In an interview in May, he eagerly discussed prospects for political reconciliation. But when pressed for specifics, he made it clear that he was not talking about reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites.
"The reconciliation is among [Sunni] tribes," he said. "What we want the U.S. to do is screen the Iraqi government, to clean out people with ties to Iran," he said, meaning Shiites.
The insurgent organization al-Qaida in Iraq is 95 percent Iraqi, with its senior leadership drawn from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and elsewhere, according to U.S. military officials. Jones said yesterday that the group is responsible for about 15 percent of the violence in Iraq.