Published January 13, 2015
American commanders in southern Iraq say Shiite sheiks are showing interest in joining forces with the U.S. military against extremists, in much the same way that Sunni clansmen in the western part of the country have worked with American forces against Al Qaeda.
Sheik Majid Tahir al-Magsousi, the leader of the Migasees tribe here in Wasit province, acknowledged tribal leaders have discussed creating a brigade of young men trained by the Americans to bolster local security as well as help patrol the border with Iran.
He also said last week's assassination of Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, who spearheaded the Sunni uprising against Al Qaeda in Anbar province, only made the Shiite tribal leaders more resolute.
"The death of Sheik Abu Risha will not thwart us," he said. "What matters to us is Iraq and its safety."
The movement by Shiite clan leaders is still in the early stages but offers the potential to give U.S. and Iraqi forces another tactical advantage in curbing lawlessness in Shiite areas. It also would give the Americans another resource as they beef up their presence on the border with Iran, which the military accuses of arming and training Shiite extremists.
Similar alliances with Sunni tribes in the western Anbar province helped break the grip of groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq and were widely cited in the Washington hearings as a major military success this year.
Such pacts to fill the vacuum left by Iraqi police and soldiers unable or unwilling to act against Shiite militias carries even greater potential spinoffs for Iraq's U.S.-backed leadership—but also higher risks.
Shiites represent about 60 percent of Iraq's population and the bulk of the security forces and parliament. Worsening the current Shiite- on-Shiite battles could ripple to the highest levels.
But U.S. officials at the heart of the effort hope to tap a wellspring of public frustration with militias and criminal gangs to recruit the tribal volunteers.
"It's an anti-militia movement ... Shiite extremists of all stripes," said Wade Weems, head of a Provincial Reconstruction Team leading the dialogue in the Wasit province southeast of Baghdad.
"We see consistently expressed deep frustration or anger with the activities of militia that appear to be untethered to any sort of guiding authority, appear to be really criminal in nature," he added.
But while the military has made inroads with Sunni leaders in some Baghdad neighborhoods and areas surrounding the capital, including Diyala province, officials stressed it's too early to know if efforts to extend the strategy to Shiite leaders will take root.
"This is a very different province and a very different dynamic and we're not going to just adopt lock, stock and barrel another province's model and impose it here," Weems said. "This will take some time for us to understand exactly what it is these tribes want to do."
In Anbar, the goal of the Sunnis was to drive Al Qaeda in Iraq away from towns and villages because of the terror movement's attempt to impose a rigorous Islamic lifestyle.
In Wasit, which borders Iran, the goal is to rein in armed Shiite groups, some of them probably armed by Iran, which are locked in a power struggle that is making life intolerable for ordinary people.
U.S. officers believe last month's fighting among rival Shiite militias during a religious festival in Karbala may have been the last straw. Up to 52 people died in the clashes, which marred what was supposed to be a joyous celebration.
Anger also rose after the assassinations of two southern provincial governors that were seen as part of a brutal contest among rival Shiite militias to control parts of Iraq's main oil regions.
Fearing a backlash, Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of Iraq's biggest militia, ordered a six-month freeze on his Mahdi Army's activities and began reorganizing the force to purge unruly elements.
"Al Qaeda clearly made a mistake in Anbar," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday during a news conference. "But Jaish al-Mahdi (the Mahdi Army) may have made some mistakes in the Shia area—the violence at Karbala on the religious holiday, the assassination of the two Shia governors."
"There are some signs that the Shia are perhaps beginning to have the same—get the same kind of wake-up call with respect to their extremists that the Sunnis in Anbar did," he said.
Since Karbala, Weems said he has attended a "flurry of meetings" with sheiks interested in ways they can use their formidable influence to help restore order.
"They are well aware of what's happened in Anbar province, the role that the tribes played in securing some of the less secure areas in that province," he said. "There has been a good deal of success with those, not just in Anbar but in other areas."
Army Capt. Majid al-Imara, who said he has been charged with establishing the new force, said each battalion will be made up of 350 men chosen by tribal leaders, and they will be armed and equipped by the Iraqi government and paid $300 monthly, he said.
Col. Peter Baker, the commander of the 214th Fires Brigade that took over Forward Operating Base Delta near Kut in June, also said the idea was for the tribal volunteers to act as an "auxiliary police force" that could provide security in an organized fashion but let the sheiks maintain control of tribal members.
He said the long-term effect of al-Sadr's order was unclear, but he expressed willingness to reach out to the extremist groups to join the process, saying he was getting the word out through intermediaries but had not contacted the militants himself.
"There is a power struggle within the insurgency, within the extreme Shia," he said. "If they stand down, then there's a chance. If they don't stand down, then that's a signal of what their intentions are."
One of the obstacles is the lack of a single enemy, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq, which alienated Sunni tribal leaders and even other insurgents by killing sheiks and trying to impose a strict interpretation of Islam.
Shiites are getting increasingly fed up, however, with the fighting among rival militia groups, as well as the criminal nature of gangs engaging in extortion and setting up illegal checkpoints.
Weems acknowledged fears that the tribal leaders could abuse their authority and said he expected the movement to start with small groups that would receive mandatory training in when and how to use force, with careful monitoring.
"As with any group that is taking on a security function where the police seem to be failing, there are concerns," he said. "We'll probably adopt a model of growing these from smaller groups and measuring their success before we broaden it."
But, he said, the ultimate goal was to quickly "integrate those tribal volunteers into one branch of the Iraqi security forces, be it the army, the police or—here in Wasit—the border patrol."