MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In Iraq, U.S. troops have been in an uneasy alliance with armed Sunni militants in Amriya, a district in West Baghdad near the international airport. The arrangement was put in place about six weeks ago. It ensures that these former insurgents will no longer attack U.S. troops in the neighborhood. They get support to operate as an unofficial local police force and they join the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq. The pact has sparked outrage from Iraq's Shiite-led government and security forces.
NPR's Jamie Tarabay recently embedded with the U.S. troops of the 1-5 Cavalry operating in Amriya and she filed this report.
(Soundbite of men conversing)
Unidentified Man: And who else lives here?
JAMIE TARABAY: U.S. soldiers of the Alpha team have information on a suspected al-Qaida cell leader said to live in this house in Amriya. As they enter, a heavyset middle-aged man hurriedly throws a gray tunic over his shirt and shorts. The soldiers go through the house, herding the women into another room.
Staff Sergeant Brandon Goodman asks the man his name and where he works. After a few minutes of conversation, the man admits it's him they're looking for.
(Soundbite of men conversing)
TARABAY: Then he tells him he's under arrest.
Staff Sergeant BRANDON GOODMAN (Alpha Team, 1st Cavalry, U.S. Army): Is he arrested before?
Unidentified Man: (Arabic Spoken)
TARABAY: The Iraqi man asks what he's done. His daughters in the next room realized what is happening and panicked.
(Soundbite of people arguing)
TARABAY: The man pleads with Goodman, says he works at the finance ministry and hasn't done anything wrong. After several minutes, Goodman ends the discussion.
Staff Sgt. GOODMAN: Hey. I understand all that. You are coming with me now.
TARABAY: The man was led away for further questioning.
Six weeks ago, U.S. troops wouldn't have known where to find the suspected al-Qaida member. Amriya was a hotbed of support to the Sunni insurgency and most of the neighborhood Shiites had been killed or expelled during the sectarian warfare that erupted last year.
So it was a relief to Lieutenant Colonel Dayel Keel(ph) when the community leader called him in May to say the residents of Amriya were tired of supporting al-Qaida whose militants had been kidnapping and killing locals. He said the residents were banding together to fight al-Qaida and wanted the Americans to stay out of the way.
What was that like, that moment, for you?
Lieutenant Colonel DAYEL KEEL (1-5 Cavalry, U.S. Army): Concerned, mixed emotions, do I allow this to - do I not allow it to happen and we continue to talk. We talked about 20 minutes and actually argued that I was a little hesitant. We don't want people to just taking up arms and going out in the street and fighting. But also I saw opportunity there. I could see that they were going to do this no matter what. They're not asking my permission, they're telling me that they're doing this.
TARABAY: By June 1st, they were running gun battles in the streets between these new community fighters calling themselves the Amriya Revolutionaries and al-Qaida fighters. As the militia moved to kill or capture al-Qaida members, U.S. troops stood, ready to help, but confused.
Captain Eric Cosper says the soldiers were unsettled watching men in civilian clothes shoot at each other, without knowing who was who.
Captain ERIC COSPER (1-5 Cavalry, U.S. Army): Literally, one of the first reports we got is one of the company commanders said I have three guys, faces wrapped, wearing, you know, like track suits carrying machine guys, waving at me and walking up to me. I don't feel that comfortable right now, but let's just see what happens.
TARABAY: The militiamen began working with U.S. troops to target suspected al-Qaida members. They passed on inside information on identities, whereabouts and ammunition caches. But it's still an uneasy alliance.
Lieutenant Colonel Keel lost 14 soldiers here in May to insurgent attacks, possibly from the same men his soldiers are now fighting with.
Are there any that you suspect anything behind the actual, like, lethal attacks?
Lt. Col. KEEL: I would say probably quite a few of them had been lethal attacks.
TARABAY: Against U.S. troops?
Lt. Col. KEEL: Yes. Then the question is, do I want to continue this fight? You know, success in a counterinsurgency is turning your enemy away from fighting, and working with you.
TARABAY: U.S. troops' efforts to secure Amriya includes building a wall around the neighborhood. Until it's completed, people have to move between Amriya and the rest of the city on foot. A mainly Shiite Iraqi army unit mans a checkpoint at the only entry and exit to the district.
Mr. NASHIB HASSAM(ph) (Retired Military Engineer, Amriya): (Arabic Spoken)
TARABAY: Sitting in the large marble foyer of his home in Amriya, retired military engineer Nashib Hassam claims the Iraqi soldiers at the checkpoint frequently fire randomly on civilians here. It's not the first time Sergeant Goodman has heard this.
When Hassam is asked his opinion on the Iraqi army, he responds, it's less than zero.
Mr. HASSAM: (Arabic Spoken)
TARABAY: Hassam claims the Iraqi soldiers deployed at the checkpoint are mostly Shiites, whose relatives were forced to flee Amriya in early sectarian fighting and now want revenge. Like other residents here, Hassam wants the return of the old Iraqi army of Saddam, along with its feared intelligence apparatus to stop Shiite militiamen from infiltrating security forces.
Not surprisingly, the Iraqi army commander here has little use for the Amriya Revolutionaries now allied with U.S. forces. Colonel Sabak Khassam(ph), a Shiite, refuses to even use the word revolution when talking about the group because it reminds Shiites of Saddam's Baath Party and the revolutionary coups it staged to seize power.
Colonel SABAK KHASSAM (Commander, Iraqi Army): (Through translator) The word revolution has a different meaning. It means revolt against the government. It means revenge. These fighters are simply civilians who live in Amriya and fight al-Qaida.
TARABAY: But Amriya's militiamen want to do more than just fight al-Qaida. They want to become the district's official police force. This is something the Iraqi government will not accept, says Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Mr. SAMI AL-ASKARI (Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Adviser): (Through Translator) For the Americans to arm these groups and give them legitimacy, in reality, they're creating new militias. And as long as these militias are sectarian, we expect the worst to happen. We expect this to be the seeds of a future civil war.
TARABAY: Askari doesn't believe the same rules apply to Shiite militias. He says they're part of the political establishment and will eventually be absorbed into the security forces. But the Amriya militia has the support of a Sunni-Arab political party headed by Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi.
Lt. Col. Keel says his battalion has put mechanisms in place to ensure the men who now fight alongside his soldiers in Amriya will never turn against them.
Lt. Col. KEEL: We've gotten their fingerprints, done retinal scans. I got all their names. I know who these folks are. I know where a lot of them live. If they choose to get away from the parameters we have given and they turn, then I'm going to go arrest them.
TARABAY: The Shiite-dominated government may resist legitimizing this new force. As it has with the other locally established armed groups in Sunni tribal areas in western Iraq. But Keel says the U.S. troops cannot remain in Amriya forever and west Baghdad will be lost if political reconciliation doesn't catch up with the military gains.
Lt. Col. KEEL: If we, being a coalition and the Iraqi government is not willing to give some kind of amnesty, we're going to be fighting - we could fight this forever, because you have not dealt with the underlying problem that this insurgency and that is a Sunni population being part of the political process.
TARABAY: Keel says a proposed amnesty for the Amriya revolutionaries is one way to forge an alliance between the district's Sunni population and the Shia-led government. If that doesn't happen, he fears the neighborhood will eventually descend into more sectarian bloodshed, whether al-Qaida is present or not.
Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.