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U.S. Partners With Former Insurgents
Associated Press | August 15, 2007BAGHDAD - Wearing a bandanna that hides his face, Omam Abed leads U.S. soldiers on raids in the west Baghdad streets where he grew up - kicking down doors and interrogating neighbors in search of fighters for al-Qaida in Iraq.
The 20-year-old is part of a ragtag collection of former Sunni insurgents - some even from the al-Qaida ranks - who have thrown their support behind U.S.-led security forces under pacts of mutual convenience.
The Sunni militiamen have grown leery of al-Qaida in Iraq and its ambitions, including self-proclaimed aims of establishing an Islamic state. The Pentagon, in turn, has latched onto its most successful strategy in months: partnering with former extremists who have the local know-how to help root out al-Qaida in Iraq.
But for Abed and others, this new war also brings grave dangers.
In Abed's Amariyah neighborhood - an affluent district that was home to privileged insiders under Saddam Hussein - the U.S.-allied band of about 150 former Sunni militants is now the No. 1 target for al-Qaida hitmen.
Last month, two of Abed's best friends, both 18-year-old members who also decided to aid U.S. forces, were dragged out of their high school during final exams and beheaded. Their bodies were flung up into a tree with the severed heads displayed on the sidewalk below, according to Abed and U.S. military officers stationed in the area.
There was no claim of responsibility, but the scene didn't need one. All knew it was a ghastly warning to residents who choose to challenge al-Qaida in Iraq, which takes inspiration from Osama bin Laden but whose direct links to his terror network is unclear.
"They weren't wearing masks on missions, so al-Qaida recognized who they were. They were my friends - we were always the three of us, like brothers," Abed told The Associated Press in an interview this week, choking back tears.
He would not give his real name out of fear for his safety, and would not comment on his past insurgent activity. His codename - Omam Abed - means "courageous slave" in Arabic.
Since the murders, Abed wears a mask or scarf to conceal his identity when he accompanies U.S. and Iraqi soldiers on raids. These are the same palm-shaded streets with wide green lawns where he played as a boy. His father was a prominent businessman who owned a textile factory here before fleeing to Syria in 2003. Almost everyone knows Abed and his family.
"I want to stay and help my neighborhood, and the future of my country, but sometimes I'm scared I'll also be targeted," he said.
The Amariyah beheadings - and waves of other attacks - suggest a mounting al-Qaida campaign of reprisals against fellow Sunnis who challenge group's footholds in Iraq.
On Saturday, militants bombed the northern Baghdad home of a moderate and highly regarded Sunni cleric, Sheik Wathiq al-Obeidi, who had recently spoken against al-Qaida. He was seriously wounded and three relatives were killed.
The same day, police said a local tribal leader in Albu Khalifa, a village west of Baghdad, was killed by gunmen who stormed his home. Sheik Fawaq Sadda' al-Khalifawi had recently joined an anti-al-Qaida alliance in Iraq's western Anbar province.
The U.S. military credits these relationships with weakening al-Qaida in its former strongholds in Baghdad, Anbar and Diyala province north of the capital. In Diyala, about 16,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops began a military push this week against Sunni insurgents who have fled a crackdown in the provincial capital of Baqouba, the military said Tuesday.
In Abed's Amariyah neighborhood, attacks on U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and civilians dropped from 40 in the last week of May to just six incidents in the first week of August, according to U.S. military figures.
But in most cases, the U.S. military is unable to offer protection to its unexpected allies.
Abed wears a beige bulletproof vest with "Allah Akbar" - `God is great,' in Arabic - written in permanent marker across the front. He bought it on the black market with his own money. He does not earn a salary for working with U.S. forces, and the military does not provide him with weapons, equipment or safe haven.
Several times each week, mortars fall on the headquarters of Abed's group - known by various names including the Freedom Fighters and Amariyah Volunteers. The group's leader, a 40-year-old who uses the nom-de-guerre Abu Abed, said his fighters foiled two attacks in which suicide bombers disguised as women tried to infiltrate security around his base.
"(Al-Qaida) is trying to get me or my family. I'm constantly changing locations - not staying in one place longer than a few hours - and moving my children," said Abu Abed, who also refused to comment on his own insurgent past.
American military officials acknowledge that Abed's group is in danger because of its cooperation with U.S. forces. But - as former insurgents - the fighters are not eligible for services provided to civilians or legitimate Iraqi security forces.
"It's just not something we can do," said Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.
At least two members of the group were former allies of al-Qaida, said Kuehl, 41, from Huntsville, Ala. Others, he said, were part of the Islamic Army in Iraq, the 1920s Revolution Brigades and Tawhid and Jihad - all Sunni insurgent groups responsible for past attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
The U.S. military offers humanitarian aid, but the fighters are denied access to U.S. bases and military hospitals. American medics, however, have treated them on the battlefield.
Kuehl is awaiting approval from his commanders for a 90-day security contract under which the fighters would be paid to man checkpoints and conduct regular patrols through Amariyah. The salaries would be commensurate with the Iraqi police, about $300 a month.
Until the contract wins U.S. approval, the fighters remain unpaid volunteers.
Capt. Dustin Mitchell, with the 1st Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Reconnaissance Troop, said it sometimes creates awkward moments for his soldiers.
"We try to help them out within the guidelines if our commanders approve it," said the Louisville, Ky., native. "If not, we're the guys who look them in the eye and have to say, `I'm sorry.'"
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