The real new Iraqi army?

By Page Rockwell
Published February 24, 2005 10:16PM (EST)

Insurgent attacks in Iraq continue to be widespread and lethal. The New York Times reports 21 people killed today, following yesterday's death toll of 22. U.S. troops are doing what they can to provide security, while continuing with efforts to transform thousands of Iraqi civilian recruits into a viable security force of their own. In the meantime, the Iraqi government has devised its own solution to the insurgency problem: counterinsurgent militias.

The Wall Street Journal [subscription required] reported last week that approximately a dozen brigades of unofficial fighters -- whose combined forces may total as high as 15,000 -- first became known to U.S. troops last fall. The brigades are supported by the new Iraqi government: "The unplanned units -- commanded by friends and relatives of cabinet officers and tribal sheiks -- go by names like the Defenders of Baghdad, the Special Police Commandos, the Defenders of Khadamiya and the Amarah Brigade. The new units generally have the backing of the Iraqi government and receive government funding."

The WSJ speculated that these unplanned units are uniquely effective because of personal relationships; each recruit is hand-picked by a brigade general and assigned to a unit whose soldiers have similar tribal and religious backgrounds. The fledgling Iraqi Army apparently can't compete at this point. Perhaps for this reason, U.S. officers in Iraq aren't cracking down on the units -- which aren't a part of official U.S. plans -- choosing instead to give them some funds for weapons, according to the Journal, and to keep the issue relatively quiet. "'We don't call them militias. Militias are...illegal,' says Maj. Chris Wales, who spent most of January tracking down and finding these new forces. 'I've begun calling them Irregular Iraqi ministry-directed brigades.'"

It's a matter of realpolitik for Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, too. Petraeus currently oversees the massive U.S. effort to help train and equip Iraqi military units. "There is a tension between on the one hand encouraging and fostering initiative and on the other executing the plan for the Iraqi Security Forces that everyone agreed on," Petraeus said, according to the Journal. "To be candid, I would err on the side of fostering initiative. I want to get the hell out of here.'"

But the nature of the brigades prevents U.S. officials from running background checks on their recruits. Their fighters might have ties to insurgent groups, or might not even be Iraqi citizens, but still receive the benefits of government funding and U.S. troop support. And some are saying the lack of accountability makes the counterinsurgent militias no different than the insurgents themselves -- they may have different targets, but they share the same violent tactics. One blogger at Blue Lemur argues that the irregular brigades are just terrorist groups with friendlier names: "American [authorities in] Iraq are allowing these unaccountable Iraqi death squads to exist because their terrorist aims satisfy the needs of the American forces." Perhaps that's overstating the case a bit -- but using rogue groups to fight rogue groups, while perhaps considered necessary by some for the short term, indeed may make an already unstable, unpredictable situation even more fraught with risk.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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