Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Shifting in Iraq

Heard this report this morning

There has been a shifting of alliances in a violent district of Baghdad as Sunni militants in the Amiriya neighborhood on the west side of the capital begin fighting alongside U.S. and Iraqi government forces against al-Qaida.

These former insurgents, who now call themselves the "Amiriya Revolutionaries," are helping to kill or capture al-Qaida members who were their allies just a few weeks ago.

Saad Abu al-Abed is a slightly built man with short, neat hair and a moustache. He is the only man not in uniform at a recent joint operations meeting between Iraqi and American soldiers working in Amiriya.

Sweating in an air conditioned office, the soldiers go through a list of suspected al-Qaida members still at large. This former Sunni insurgent smiles and says one of those men was killed last week. Another was captured and handed over to the Iraqi army. Everyone is relaxed, glad the ranks of the enemy are thinning. The atmosphere is friendly.

Later - sitting with only a reporter, a U.S. soldier and an interpreter in the room - al-Abed says he used to work as an intelligence officer in Saddam Hussein's army. Like a million other Iraqi soldiers, al-Abed found himself unemployed in 2003, when Paul Bremer, the American viceroy at the time, dissolved the Iraqi army.

"I went to work with my father," he says. "He had a photo studio. We had bakeries."

The stores were in Amiriya, once an upscale part of Baghdad that has now been overrun by sectarian militias. Al-Abed says the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, stole the family businesses. He says he started fighting the Mahdi Army after four of his brothers were killed by the Shiite militiamen.

"This isn't the way we were raised. If they're bad, that doesn't mean we behave like them," al-Abed explains. "I killed Mahdi Army. I didn't kill Shiites. I killed people who kill innocents and people who expelled people from their homes."

While he is determined to battle Shiite militiamen over the last remaining mixed neighborhoods in west Baghdad, al-Abed says that fight has to be put off for now. On Tuesday, he is preoccupied with ridding Amiriya of al-Qaida.

"I believe the cause of all the problems in Iraq right now is al-Qaida. They threatened the Sunnis, told them not to vote, so they didn't enter the political process," he says. "It allowed other people to take power, take charge of the security forces, it all goes back to al-Qaida

Al-Abed claims he has about a 100 men operating as a neighborhood watch in Amiriya, weeding out alleged al-Qaida operatives. Employing past skills, he provides intelligence to the U.S. and Iraqi army forces working in this area.

But relying on al-Abed's help is a risky gambit for U.S. forces because the new alliance could be used to settle old scores, says U.S. Army Capt. Peter Sulewski.

Sulewski says U.S. forces cannot be certain that al-Abed and his group are not just picking off individuals that they want to get rid of in their own fight for supremacy in the region. However, he says it is worth the risk.

Once he and his men have rid Amiriya of al-Qaida, al-Abed plans to go back to fighting the Mahdi Army. He knows the Iraqi security forces that he is currently cooperating with are filled with Shiites loyal to the Mahdi Army. He looks at the American soldier standing in the room and speaks through an interpreter. "My strength right now is dependent on the coalition forces being here," he says. "So, right now, I'm not afraid of the Mahdi Army.

When asked if he is afraid of the day the U.S. forces leave, he answers in plain English. "Yeah," he says.

Interesting to see that perspective is it not?

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