U.S Program in Iraq Puts Militiamen on Payroll British journalist Patrick Cockburn talks about the expansion of a U.S. military program to hire Iraqi militiamen. The practice began in Sunni areas earlier this year, and now Shiites in Sadr City are joining the so-called "Awakening Councils."
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U.S Program in Iraq Puts Militiamen on Payroll

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U.S Program in Iraq Puts Militiamen on Payroll

U.S Program in Iraq Puts Militiamen on Payroll

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In Iraq, American commanders are trying some of the same strategies used in Afghanistan, specifically paying and arming former enemies.

ALEX COHEN, host:

Shiite militia members are getting cash and guns to try to keep the peace in the Baghdad slum called Sadr City. The program is modeled on the Awakening Councils where Sunni fighters were paid to help restore order.

BRAND: British journalist Patrick Cockburn is here now to talk about whether this is a good strategy. His latest book is about Shiite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Patrick Cockburn has also reported a lot in Afghanistan, and he compares the Iraq strategy with the one in Afghanistan where Americans funded the warlords.

Mr. PATRICK COCKBURN (Journalist; Author, "The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq"): It's a quick fix to fund the warlords. You can fund people who were once on the Taliban side. Then they seem to be on your side because you fund them. They're deeply resented by the local population. Nothing much changes. In the short term, maybe you can - they don't do anything because you're paying them, but in the long term, you've created a new problem. And whatever these people do, they're not really loyal to the government.

BRAND: So it's a short-term fix, but long-term it's a much bigger problem.

Mr. COCKBURN: Yeah. You institutionalize anarchy within the country. Ultimately you weaken the government, and you store up problems for the future.

BRAND: Now the Awakening Councils, those were considered a success, right?

Mr. COCKBURN: They were considered a success, but I think they were rather different than people imagine them to be. They started, really, in the end of 2006, beginning of 2007, in Anbar province. The Sunni tribes began to oppose al-Qaeda in Iraq, and ever since, the U.S. army in Iraq has been trying to replicate the same thing in other parts of Iraq, but with varying success. For instance, in parts of west Baghdad that I know, the Awakening Councils aren't so much against al-Qaeda, but are often made up of al-Qaeda members.

BRAND: So what about the Shia on the other side? Could this idea work with the Shia? Is it a good idea?

Mr. COCKBURN: I think it's a terrible idea. In Iraq, you can always get guns for hire, and somebody might argue better the U.S. pays them than somebody else pays them. But these people, one, may change sides. Two, you don't quite know who you're hiring. And I think in this case, it will be deeply resented in Sadr City, the bastion of the Mahdi Army, the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia leader.

BRAND: And yet, it is a source of income in a place with a very, very high unemployment rate.

Mr. COCKBURN: Yes, but it will also provoke a lot of opposition. And in Iraq, opposition tends to take the form of shootings and bombings. So I think it may open yet one more division between Iraqis.

BRAND: And is it dangerous for Iraqis to be seen working alongside the Americans?

Mr. COCKBURN: Oh, absolutely. And you know, at every level. That's why, you know, Iraqi soldiers who are from Baghdad, when they're on guard duty in Baghdad, wear masks over their faces. They don't want to be recognized. People might then track them to their homes and assassinate them. Even Iraqi officials often don't like to appear on television standing beside Americans. So, yes, it's very dangerous.

BRAND: And yet, isn't it more dangerous to allow these militias to amass their own power and to continue wielding it unchecked?

Mr. COCKBURN: You could argue that. But I doubt if this alone will really reduce the strength of the Mahdi Army in Sadr City. The presence of the Iraqi Army might. But if you set up local militias, it will be resented or, in some cases, they'll just take - your militia will be taken over by another militia. As I said, these are often guns for hire who will work for anybody. So I think it's what worked in Anbar province, this enormous area in west Iraq, where the Awakening Councils had popular support. It may not work at all in Shia areas where they're resisted by local leaders.

BRAND: So what would be a better strategy, do you think, to win over these Shia militias to the side of the Americans and the coalition forces?

Mr. COCKBUURN: I think it's difficult to win over militias. I think it is a very important in Iraq that the elections due at the end of this year and next year are seen by Iraqis as being fair elections. The Sadrists were expected, followers of Muqtada al-Sadr were expected to do well in them. I think if these elections are seen as fixed, then that will convince a lot of people that they have no recourse to the ballot box, and they'll go back to the gun.

BRAND: Journalist Patrick Cockburn. He's the author of the new book "Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq." Patrick Cockburn, thanks again.

Mr. COCKBUURN: Thank you.

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