Failing to Disband Militias, U.S. Moves to Accept Them
Failing to Disband Militias, U.S. Moves to Accept Them
By Dexter Filkins
New York Times
Tuesday 25 May 2004
Baghdad, Iraq - With only weeks to go until an Iraqi government takes over, American officials have failed to disarm the tens of thousands of fighters in private militias deployed almost exclusively along ethnic and religious lines.
In the 15 months since the fall of Saddam Hussein, American officials have declared repeatedly that they would disband the private militias, recognizing that their narrow, sectarian interests could threaten a unified and democratic Iraqi state.
But with the sharp deterioration of the security situation in recent months, American officials appear to have resigned themselves to working with militias in Fallujah, Baghdad and elsewhere even as American soldiers die fighting them in street battles in Karbala and Najaf.
A senior allied official said Monday that the Americans were engaged in delicate negotiations with several of the country's main militias to disband and integrate them into the security forces. The official said the Americans hoped to announce an agreement with the militias as early as this week. But it is not clear, with so few weeks left before the transfer of sovereignty, whether the Americans will have the leverage to disarm the militias.
The danger is that on June 30 the Americans will hand over power to an Iraqi administration that will not have a monopoly on the use of armed force, in an environment that many fear could set the stage for sectarian and ethnic warfare as the country moves toward what are intended to be democratic elections.
As that date approaches, the Americans are quietly allowing some of these armed groups to flourish and, in some cases, have even helped recreate them.
In Fallujah, the scene of deadly fighting last month, American commanders agreed to set up an Iraqi security force composed almost entirely of former members of Mr. Hussein's Republican Guard and anti-American guerrillas.
In Baghdad and southern Iraq, the Americans have allowed the two largest Shiite militias, the Badr Corps and the Dawa army, to remain intact, largely on the promise by their leaders that the fighters will stay off the streets.
In northern Iraq, as part of the effort to disband the 60,000-man Kurdish militia, entire military units simply donned police uniforms of the new Iraqi state but otherwise stayed in the same place with the same commanders.
Even fighters in the Mahdi Army of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whom American soldiers have been killing in large numbers in recent weeks, may be given a chance for legitimacy. In a recent news conference, the general commanding American forces in Najaf and Karbala said he would be willing to consider taking Mahdi Army militiamen into a new Iraqi security force being set up to help secure southern Iraq.
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 18, the deputy defense secretary, Paul D. Wolfowitz, suggested that the American government had accepted the continued existence of the militias, provided they remained friendly to the United States.
Asked if he intended to disarm militias controlled by the mainstream Shiite parties like Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Mr. Wolfowitz suggested that he did not.
"That is not part of the mission unless it is necessary to bring them under control," he said. "The approach to those militias is to try over time to integrate them into new Iraqi security forces. And the real answer to disarming militias is to create an alternative security institution. And then the militias can go away."
Most of the militias were formed during Mr. Hussein's rule by groups opposed to him, and they have evolved into the armed wings of various political groups and factions.
The decision to turn over control of Fallujah to former members of the Republican Guard has bought a measure of peace and stability to the city after weeks of ferocious fighting.
But one former American official familiar with the issue said that while tolerating militias may lead to greater security in the short term, doing so could threaten the democratic process and risk dividing Iraq along ethnic and religious lines.
"We are not going to get free and fair elections, and we are not going to get sustainable democracy of any kind in Iraq unless we make some kind of progress in demobilizing these militias," said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority.
Mr. Diamond said he was worried that the militias, most of which are connected to political parties, would use their guns to intimidate voters, steal ballot boxes and assassinate opponents. "Everything we know from similar situations in other countries tells us that the militias will use their control of arms to create facts on the ground," he said.
The persistence of the militias is fueled by the deep insecurity each of the main ethnic and religious groups feels about the others. No one wants to disarm first, so no one disarms at all. Iraqi political and religious leaders complain loudly about the other groups' militias, but rarely mention their own.
A senior leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq sharply criticized the American decision to gather former Republican Guard soldiers into a "security force" in Fallujah.
"Of course we are not happy - they are Republican Guards, with the same uniforms, the same mustaches," said Adel Abdel Mehdi, the group's leader.
Yet Mr. Mehdi's party controls one of the largest militias in Iraq, the Badr Corps, whose cadre are thought to number in the thousands. Not only does Mr. Mehdi not regard the Badr Corps as a problem, he says they should be deployed to provide security around the country.
So far, the Americans have held firm, vowing to crush any militia, like the Mahdi Army, that comes out into the streets. But since the Iraqi security forces disintegrated in the face of the uprisings in Fallujah and southern Iraq last month, the American forces have begun to reconcile themselves to two realities.
One is that the rapid military training offered to the Iraqis failed to turn them into effective fighting forces. The other is that Iraqis are reluctant to fight other Iraqis on behalf of the Americans.
With little more than a month to go before sovereignty is transferred, most of the big armed groups remain intact, sustained in the last year by either the tacit or explicit approval of the American administration.
In some cases, the Americans have allowed militias that it considers friendly simply to change their names. The Badr Corps, for instance, has changed its name to the Badr Reconstruction Organization, and its leaders claim that it is now involved only in cultural activities. The head of the group, Abu Hassan al-Ameri, remains in his same offices, and his men still carry Kalashnikov rifles. "All of our guns have been licensed by the Americans," Mr. Ameri said.
As with most other militias, the Badr organization is made up almost entirely of a single religious or ethnic group. So strong is the Shiite identification of the Badr Corps that in the 1980's, during the Iran-Iraq war, some of its members fought for Iran, another majority-Shiite country, against the Sunni-led forces of Iraq.
From the beginning, the task of disarming the militias has been a difficult one. Every Iraqi family is permitted to own one high-powered assault rifle, and virtually all of them do. Like the American minutemen of yore, the militias are composed mostly of civilians, who assemble - or disappear - on short notice.
While the United States has tried a hands-off approach with armed groups it regards as friendly, it has tried to co-opt ones that have demonstrated hostility. After the heavy fighting in Fallujah last month, American commanders accepted an offer from a former general in the Republican Guards to set up a security force of his former troops.
One result is that Fallujah has been mostly peaceful since the deal was reached a month ago. But the peace has come at considerable cost: It has enraged mainstream Shiites, who were stunned to learn that the Americans had resurrected the very soldiers they deposed a year before. Shiite leaders worry that the short-term peace in Fallujah will give way to disaster in the future.
"Today, they are in Fallujah; tomorrow they will be in Baghdad," said Mr. Mehdi, the Shiite leader.
These days in Fallujah, the line separating an insurgent and a member of the "security forces" is sometimes invisible.
"All the people in Fallujah are fighters," said Naji Obeid, a 35-year-old member of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, an American-sponsored force.
When the Marines tried to enter Fallujah last month, Mr. Obeid joined the fight against them. When the peace deal was struck, he put his Iraqi civil defense uniform back on and returned to work.
"The people, they were fighting against the Americans, and they were fighting to protect their city," he said. "And now they are in the new Iraqi Army, protecting their city."
American officials insist that the Fallujah security force will be disbanded soon. Yet there are indications that far from ending the Fallujah experiment, the Americans are considering applying its lessons in other cities.
In a news conference this month, Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the commander of the American division that has been battling the Mahdi Army, said he might be willing to accept members of that militia into a new, 4,000-man security force he and his men are creating to police areas like Karbala and Najaf.
"If the militia dissolves tomorrow, what I've got is 600 unemployed young men on my hands," General Dempsey said. "Some of them are probably decent young men who have been badly led astray."
For months, the solution posed by the Americans, at least publicly, has been to break up the command structure of the sectarian militias and disperse their fighters into ethnically mixed government-run security forces. Yet American officials concede that they have seldom accomplished that.
In northern Iraq, where Kurdish militias number as many as 60,000 men, the "pesh merga" have in some cases simply changed into Iraqi government uniforms.
Anwar Dolani, 46, was a pesh merga fighter for 25 years. A few months ago, he and 891 of his comrades joined a local battalion of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps together.
"The same peshmerga commanders are now the I.C.D.C. commanders," Mr. Dolani said.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Mr. Dolani said his primary allegiance was still to the Kurds, not the Iraqi nation. "If the Arabs try to be in charge of us and try to take our rights," he said, "we will not be silent. We will fight."
Only in rare cases have the Americans have been able to deploy ethnically diverse military units. While much of the Iraqi security forces disintegrated during the uprising of the Mahdi Army last month, one unit stood out: the 36th I.C.D.C. Battalion. That unit, a unique creation, was formed by drawing militiamen from the main Iraqi political parties and mixing them together.
General Dempsey has said the 36th Battalion is a template for the security force he plans to form to take over in places like Najaf and Karbala once the Mahdi Army is dispersed. "When things became difficult, they stood and fought," he said.
Under the plan being negotiated now, Iraqi militiamen would be offered jobs in the Iraqi security services and become eligible for army pensions. They would even qualify for job training.
But some Iraqis doubt that the 36th Battalion can be duplicated outside the ethnically mixed cities of Mosul and Baghdad. In most other parts of the country - Basra, the Sunni triangle - local populations tend to be much more homogeneous - and rivalrous.
Mr. Diamond, the former coalition authority adviser, said the Americans had initially intended to dismantle the militias fully and spread the fighters around. But after the revolts in Fallujah and the south, he says he is not so sure the Americans will be willing to do that, especially with those militias that are nominally friendly, like those controlled by the Shiites.
"You are talking about a long, long process," Mr. Diamond said. "I don't see that we have the will or the stomach for it anymore."
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