Cloudy Fate for Iraqi Sunnis Fighting Al-Qaida

The U.S. military has set up Sunni paramilitary groups throughout Iraq to combat al-Qaida. Security has improved as a result of the effort, but the future of the forces is uncertain.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In parts of Iraq, the U.S. military has been setting up Sunni tribal security forces to fight al-Qaida. There are nearly 100,000 of these U.S.-backed fighters across the country. They're taking significant risks working with the American forces. Today in Diyala province, one of them, a prominent Sunni sheikh was killed by a suicide bomber. The force of Sunni fighters is still growing in places like Samarra, north of Baghdad, more are being hired.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was recently embedded with the U.S. military in Samarra. She attended a meeting between tribal leaders and local American commanders.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The U.S. military is hiring men for the newly born Samarra Rescue Council; the al-Bazi tribe is providing the fighters who'll form the bulk of the force in this city and in the surrounding areas. The Iraqis and the Americans sit around the room and negotiate.

Colonel Michael McBride is the commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, now in charge of Samarra. He puts a figure for the number of men he wants to hire for each part of the Samarra region.

Colonel MICHAEL McBRIDE (Commander, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division): We have 50 (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: (Speaking Arabic)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The tribal leader he's talking to speaks through a translator. The military has asked for his identity to be kept a secret for fear he will be targeted.

Unidentified Man: Four hundred eighty, sir, not 300 fighters.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He tries to up the number of fighters the U.S. will take on. Col. McBride looks unconvinced.

Col. McBRIDE: No, no, no, no.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Samarra Rescue Council was formed in February and there are already about a thousand Sunni fighters on the American payroll here. Since the invasion five years ago, Samarra has been an insurgent hotbed. The bombing of a Shiite shrine here in 2006 setup a wave of sectarian attacks that intensified Iraq's civil war. Many of the men sitting around the room on this day were only months ago fighting the Americans. Now, they are selling them their services and security has improved. The Americans are hiring them as fast as they can.

Sheikh KHALID AL-HASAM (Former Insurgent Leader): (Speaks Arabic)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sheikh Khalid al-Hasam(ph) is the man the American military reached out to first here. A one-time insurgent leader, he spent a year in the U.S. military detention facility at Camp Bucca and then he left for Syria. He only came back a month ago. All the men who were being hired here are from his tribe. It's a system of patronage that keeps the money and power literally within the family. His relationship with the Americans is one based on expediency. The sheikh said he still wants U.S. Forces to leave Iraq. He speaks of wishing Saddam Hussein had stayed in power. But for the past five years he says, the Sunni tribes were ignored or manipulated by everyone.

Sheikh AL-HASAM: (Speaks through translator) We were naked after the Americans disarmed us. Then the national police came too and then al-Qaida followed. So the tribal leaders, in Samarra especially, were left with no weapons, no power. They used us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says that the time for the tribes has finally come.

Sheikh AL-HASAM: (Speaks through translator) We will protect our city if any attack happens. We will respond no matter who attacks it even if it is the government or the Americans.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Shiite-led government is leery of the Sunni tribal fighters. It is said that only about 10 to 20 percent of them can be absorbed into Iraq's security forces. One tribal leader asks Col. McBride what will happen to his men after their contracts with the U.S. military are up. He says many of them will eventually want jobs with the Iraqi army and police.

Sheikh AL-HASAM: (Speaks through translator) We have faith that in the future these fighters, all of them or most of them, will be able to be hired by the government security services.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He warns that they will insist on their forces being legitimized. Col. McBride responds with caution.

Col. McBRIDE: We can always assure as you were.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He then asks the crucial question.

Col. McBRIDE: I mean, what assurances that we have from the government right now?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So far, very few.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Also this story from Iraq. Today, a young man approached U.S. soldiers on patrol in the Mansour district of Baghdad. According to witnesses it appeared he wanted to talk with them. Instead, he detonated a bomb that he had strapped to his body. Four of the Americans died instantly. Another later succumbed to wounds sustained in the blast.

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