Jun 8, 2007
BUHRUZ, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. forces have begun arming nationalist guerrillas and former Saddam Hussein loyalists -- and coordinating tactics -- in a marriage of convenience against al Qaeda radicals in one of Iraq's most violent provinces, senior U.S. commanders tell CNN.
This new alliance, a result of the deepening divisions among Iraqi insurgent factions, was on display earlier this week at a highway intersection in the town of Tahrir. There, a group of some 15 insurgents publicly chanted: "Death to al Qaeda."
"The al Qaeda organization has dominated and humiliated Sunnis, Shiites and jihadis. It has forced people from their homes. They can't get enough blood. They killed many honest scholars, preachers and loyal mujahedeen," one of the group's spokesmen read from a written manifesto.
It's a sharp turnaround from just two months ago when the same insurgent forces were focused on fighting U.S. troops and driving them out of Diyala province, about 40 miles north of Baghdad.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of Multi-National Division North, believes U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Vietnam and Latin America offer precedents for the strategy he is now pushing in this region of Iraq.
"We've seen this in previous counterinsurgency operations, using local nationals, arming them and forming them into scouts," he told CNN. "That's the primary role we want to use them in. They know the territory. They know the enemy."
The changing strategy isn't just confined to Diyala, according to U.S. officials. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told CNN Thursday that tribal forces in Anbar, the restive Sunni province west of the Iraqi capital, have "decided to oppose al Qaeda and fight with the coalition forces against them."
"What's taken place in Anbar is almost breathtaking," he said. "In the last several months, tribes that turned a blind eye to what al Qaeda was doing in that province are now opposing al Qaeda very vigorously. And the level of violence in Anbar has plummeted, although there clearly is still work to be done."
At the highway intersection in Tahrir, the insurgents said they had named their anti-al Qaeda alliance the United Jihad Council. They said the newly formed council was an umbrella organization of smaller insurgent units, including the 1920s Brigades, the Mujahedeen Army, Islamic Army and the Salaheddin Brigades.
CNN videotaped gunmen posting lookouts on rooftops throughout Tahrir and patting down civilians -- checking for potential al Qaeda infiltrators -- as they made their way to prayers at local mosques.
Nationalist insurgents say al Qaeda excesses are behind their falling-out. Several sources said al Qaeda members burned a 7-year-old child alive and murdered women and other children in the towns and villages around the provincial capital of Baquba. They did not give names or dates to back up their claims.
"They [al Qaeda] ruled with tyranny. They really harmed our town, so we had to stop them, and they left, no return," said one young gunman, who claimed membership in the nationalist 1920s Brigades.
Other civilian and insurgent sources in the towns of Tahrir and neighboring Buhruz said al Qaeda had imposed strict regulations, including a ban on smoking -- punishable by the amputation of a finger or hand -- and a curfew on citizens walking in the streets after 4 p.m.
Some citizens said al Qaeda had even banned Friday prayers.
Based on anecdotal evidence, offered by civilians in Buhruz, al Qaeda was financing its military operations by forcing citizens to pay a "war tax," as well as by kidnapping for ransom, selling smuggled fuel on the black market, and even using forced labor to harvest oranges and dates from sprawling plantations throughout the region.
In Buhruz, Capt. Ben Richards is one of the U.S. field commanders cementing the U.S. military alliance with its former foes from the nationalist insurgent factions. He said the new strategy was highly pragmatic.
"If we go in with the mindset that every one of these persons has tried to kill an American, I don't think that's true, though in many cases it may be. But if you think that, then you're setting yourself up for a mindset that is not productive for us or for the Iraqi people," Richards, commander of a troop of Stryker combat vehicles, told CNN.
Richards described assistance from the former insurgent factions and what he calls other "concerned local nationals" as "militarily crucial."
His key ally in the region is a man known as Abu Ali, who says he has never belonged to an insurgent force but was an officer in one of Saddam Hussein's feared military intelligence units.
To date, Abu Ali says he has received 39 weapons and about 1,000 rounds of ammunition from the U.S. military. The insurgent factions he represents, however, are known to have significant arsenals of their own weapons, including light machine guns, assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
Publicly, Abu Ali is grateful for the assistance he and his followers have received from the U.S. military. He predicts he can help clear the entire province of al Qaeda militants within six months if the U.S. Army provides more ammunition and supports insurgent operations with air cover and help from tanks and armored personnel carriers.
But while the marriage of convenience may be successful for now, Abu Ali and his followers seem to have no intention of making a lasting commitment to the Americans.
"After we are done with al Qaeda," Abu Ali says, "we will ask the Americans to withdraw from Iraq. ... If they do not withdraw, there will be violations and the American army will be harmed."
He adds, "Especially after the help the U.S. Army has provided us, we would like them to go home as our friend, not enemy."
With the alliance only beginning to bear its first successes, few U.S. commanders seem to be looking toward the end of the affair. But there is a realization that it is a balancing act -- to prevent al Qaeda infiltration and to maintain the collaboration of nationalist insurgents.
"It's a risk worth taking," Mixon said.