U.S. troops aren’t just training Iraqi forces, they’re also keeping an eye on them, watching for signs they could be moonlighting in the Shiite death squads that target Sunnis.
Bound and tortured bodies — both Sunni and Shiite — turn up every day in the capital, dumped in the streets. Sunni Arabs say their people are the victims of Shiite militiamen who have infiltrated government forces, especially paramilitary commando units of the Shiite-led Interior Ministry.
In Dora, one of the Baghdad’s most violent neighborhoods with a mix of Sunnis and Shiites, U.S. troops working with Interior Ministry units say they can feel the Sunni mistrust.
“There’s a fear that when (the Interior Ministry) comes in, it may not be on a legitimate mission, unless they’re with us,” said Lt. Col. Greg Butts, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Regimental Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division that oversees Dora.
Gaining public acceptance of the Interior Ministry commandos, recently renamed the “National Police,” has become a priority for U.S. forces. American commanders plan eventually to hand over counterinsurgency operations in large swaths of Baghdad and other cities, including Samarra, to the Interior Ministry as part of the broad effort to move U.S. troops into a background role — and eventually out of Iraq.
But both U.S. and Iraqi officers say winning public trust will take time.
Violence in Dora
Sunni leaders in Dora have even warned U.S. commanders that they will fire on commandos that try to approach their homes, Butts said.
It’s not an idle threat. Earlier this month, residents in the Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah battled for two days against Iraqi forces, believing they were Shiite death squads. Up to 13 people were killed.
Suspicion does not run as deeply toward the Iraqi army, a better-trained force controlled by the Defense Ministry, which is run by a Sunni. However, Interior Ministry commandos play a major role in many counterinsurgency operations, especially in the Baghdad area where sectarian tensions run high.
Many Sunnis consider them indistinguishable from Shiite militias.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned on Sunday that militias form the “infrastructure of civil war” in Iraq. The Iraqi government must incorporate them into its armed forces so that their loyalty is to the state, not their sectarian leaders, he said.
But determining a commando’s true allegiance is not easy.
During a recent patrol in Dora, one commando turned on his cell phone to proudly display an image of Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical anti-American cleric. Sadr’s powerful Mahdi Army of militiamen is accused by Sunnis of attacking their mosques in retaliation for the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad.
U.S. commanders have launched an effort to gain the public’s trust for the Iraqi forces.
Slowly mingling Sunnis and Shiites
For example, Butts said about 150 Sunni Arab recruits were recently added to an Interior Ministry battalion operating in Dora to better diversify the force. Before, the battalion, which numbers about 500 men, was 97 percent Shiite.
U.S. trainers are pushing the commandos to move more often into neighborhoods to meet residents and to do goodwill missions, such as trash cleanups.
The commando squads have been renamed the National Police. But a name change likely doesn’t resolve much. The Wolf Brigade, possibly the most feared commando unit, was recently renamed the Freedom Brigade. But mention of the commandos still invokes fear and hatred among many Sunni Arabs.
To allay those fears, American soldiers have handed out thousands of cards that encourage residents to call authorities if they see commandos, or fighters posing as commandos, on suspicious missions without U.S. troops.
The calls go directly to U.S. headquarters instead of the Interior Ministry.
No renegades caught yet
So far, U.S. troops haven’t caught any renegades, Butts said. They get a tip and “we’ll be out there in 10 to 15 minutes, and no one will be there,” he said. “There are a lot of rumors ... A lot of people are scared.” U.S. troops in Dora have orders to halt unfamiliar patrols and confirm their identities.
Shiite leaders say that Iraq’s Sunni insurgents stir mistrust by disguising themselves as Interior Ministry commandos to stir up trouble.
Since commandos do not wear a standard uniform — four different types of uniforms were seen in just one squad — insurgents can easily disguise themselves by purchasing similar outfits in the markets. Only recently were commandos banned from wearing ski masks to hide their identities.
Butts said that for many Iraqis, the only proof that a commando is with the Interior Ministry is if he is “standing next to a coalition vehicle.”
Mixed reactions to commandos
On a recent patrol through Dora, the commandos were met with mixed reactions.
In one cluster of apartment buildings, they were greeted by smiles from mostly Shiite residents, some of whom asked for more patrols.
But in areas with larger Sunni populations, slurs against the troops were spray painted along several blocks.
So long as that tension remains high, commando units will need U.S. help to repel the insurgency and contain sectarian violence, said Lt. Ali Abdul Redha, one of the new Sunni commandos.
“If (U.S. troops) leave Iraq now, there will be a big civil war,” he said. “For example, do you know we cannot enter Dora without coalition soldiers? That’s the way people there want it.”
Some U.S. trainers of the Iraqi police say the Interior Ministry force is on track to do independent patrols by the fall.
But many American soldiers say much work needs to be done. For example, the intimidated commandos rely too much on checkpoints and often find excuses to skip out of foot patrols where they could confront insurgents — and gain the trust of residents.
“Unfortunately, they don’t like to go to where there’s a lot of activity,” said 1st Lt. Chuck Williams of Laurel, Miss. “I don’t press the issue so much because I don’t think they’re prepared.”
The commandos are also hampered by equipment shortages, including weapons and body armor. They regularly travel on roads strewn with roadside bombs but lack armored vehicles.
“This is supposed to be the year of the police, but they keep asking when they’re going to see this stuff,” said Marine 1st Lt. Chance Puma of Norfolk, Va.