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Iraq Report: Turning on al Qaeda

11:18 AM, Jun 12, 2007 • By BILL ROGGIO
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Nearly four months since the Baghdad Security Plan was announced, the Sunni population in the provinces continues to turn on al Qaeda in Iraq, and attempts to weaken support for the group inside Baghdad are showing early signs of success. Al Qaeda in Iraq, for its part, has focused its attacks largely in the provinces, and zeroed in on the Iraqi Security Forces, the anti-al Qaeda Sunni community, and Iraq's bridges.

capt.sge.lyj07.110607054358.photo00.photo.default-359x512.jpgUS soldiers walk past a Sunni mosque as they patrol
southwest of Baghdad, 07 June.
AFP/File/Roslan Rahman

The most significant development inside Baghdad over the past week occurred in the Sunni-dominated western neighborhood of Amiriyah, where a group of local residents and Sunni insurgent groups (largely fighters from the 1920s Revolution Brigade and the Islamic Army in Iraq) banded together to eject al Qaeda from the neighborhood.

Al Qaeda in Iraq overreached in attempting to set up a Taliban-like state in the Baghdad neighborhood, and the locals rebelled. "The group sprung up last week when several local leaders called on neighborhood residents to take up arms against al Qaeda after unprovoked killings in the neighborhood," Jane Arraf reported from Baghdad last week. "At least two local imams normally opposed to the presence of American soldiers agreed to cooperate with the U.S. forces."

The group requested that the U.S. unit stationed in the area stay out of the fighting, but U.S. and Iraqi forces did provide weapons, ammunition, food, and guidance. In some cases, they did fight alongside the self-described "freedom fighters." The Anbar Salvation Council, the grouping of Sunni tribes and former insurgents, also sent advisers to assist and fight with the Amiriyah fighters.

The Amiriyah fighters are now patrolling the neighborhood and conducting raids jointly with U.S. and Iraqi forces. Lieutenant Colonel Dale Kuehl, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment noted that more al Qaeda were killed or captured in the area during the past week than had been in the six months prior.

While many news outlets have characterized the support of such Sunnis fighting against al Qaeda simply as the creation of new Sunni militias; but this view reflects a misunderstanding of counterinsurgency strategy. Part of a successful counterinsurgency strategy includes turning moderates against the radical, irreconcilable elements of the insurgency--in this case al Qaeda in Iraq.

The strategy is certainly not without risk, particularly in the charged sectarian environment of Iraq (and in Baghdad in particular). The Shia Iraqi government looks with suspicion upon armed Sunni groups of any stripe. But the goal is to secure the local areas first, develop trust with the Iraqi government later, and ultimately incorporate these groups into the Iraqi Security Forces. We can reasonably hope that this might be the beginning of a reconciliation process, however long and painful.

In Amiriyah, the aim is to transform the "freedom fighters" into a local police force. In Anbar, the tribal levies of the Anbar Salvation Council have been incorporated as Provincial Security Forces, and are training in police academies. American forces have also insisted on gathering biometric data--to include both fingerprints and retinal scans--from members of the security forces, as well as the serial numbers of the weapons they carry.

One way to gauge the effectiveness of the effort to turn Iraq's Sunni community against al Qaeda in Amiriyah, Anbar, Salahadin, Babil, and Diyala provinces is to watch al Qaeda's response. And thus far, al Qaeda appears to feel threatened. They have issued verbal attacks against the Sunnis--calling them traitors--and launched physical attacks against their leaders.

In Baghdad and the surrounding provinces, al Qaeda has viciously attacked the local Awakening movements, which are modeled after the successful Anbar Salvation Council. Anti-al Qaeda clerics and tribal leaders have been targeted for assassination. In Anbar, al Qaeda has conducted a campaign against the local sheikhs and leaders of the Anbar Salvation Council.