boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Some Sunnis in Iraq receive US arms to fight Al Qaeda

Commanders consider strategy fraught with risk

A US soldier ran past a bridge destroyed yesterday, apparently by a suicide vehicle bomber, 20 miles south of Baghdad. Several US soldiers and an Iraqi civilian were reported wounded. (Petros giannakouris/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

BAGHDAD -- With the four-month-old "surge" in American troops showing only modest success in curbing insurgent attacks, American commanders are turning to another strategy they acknowledge is fraught with risk: arming Sunni Arab groups that have promised to fight Al Qaeda-linked militants who have been their allies in the past.

American commanders say they have successfully tested the strategy in Anbar Province and have held talks with Sunni groups suspected of prior assaults on American units, or of links to groups that have attacked Americans, in at least four other areas where the insurgency has been strong.

In some cases, the American commanders say, these groups have been provided, usually through Iraqi military units allied with the Americans, with arms, ammunition, cash, fuel, and other supplies.

American officials who have engaged in what they call "outreach" to the Sunni groups say the groups are mostly ones with links to Al Qaeda but disillusioned with Al Qaeda's extremist tactics, particularly suicide bombings that have killed thousands of Iraqi civilians. In exchange for American backing, these official say, the Sunni groups have agreed to fight Al Qaeda and halt attacks on American units.

Commanders who have undertaken these negotiations say that in some cases Sunni groups have agreed to alert American troops to the location of roadside bombs and other lethal booby traps. But critics of the strategy, including some American officers, say it could amount to the Americans arming both sides in a future civil war.

The United States has spent more than $15 billion in building up Iraq's new army and police, whose manpower of 350,000 is heavily Shi'ite. With an American troop drawdown increasingly likely in the next year, and little sign of a political accommodation between Shi'ite and Sunni politicians in Baghdad, the critics say, there is a strong prospect that any weapons given to Sunni groups will eventually be used against Shi'ites.

American field commanders met this month in Baghdad with General David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, to discuss the conditions Sunni groups would have to meet to win American assistance. Senior officers who attended the meeting said that Petraeus and the operational commander who is the second-ranking American officer in Baghdad , Lieutenant General Raymond T. Odierno, gave cautious approval to field commanders to negotiate with Sunni groups in their areas.

One commander who attended the meeting said that despite the risks entailed in arming groups that have until now fought against the Americans, the potential gains against Al Qaeda were too great to be missed.

He said the strategy held out the prospect, after three years of largely fruitless efforts by the Americans, of finally driving a wedge between two wings of the Sunni insurgency that have previously worked in a devastating alliance -- diehard loyalists of Saddam Hussein's formerly dominant Baath Party, and Islamic militants belonging to a constellation of Al Qaeda-linked groups.

Even if only partially successful, the officer said, the strategy could do as much or more to stabilize Iraq, and to speed American troops on their way home, as the "surge," ordered by President Bush late last year, which has thrown nearly 30,000 additional American troops into the war but failed so far to fulfill the aim of bringing enhanced stability to Baghdad.

In a separate development yesterday, Iraq's leading political blocs agreed to remove the speaker of parliament, Mahmoud Mashadani, a Sunni, from his position after accusations that his bodyguards assaulted a Shi'ite lawmaker as the speaker cursed him and then dragged him to the speaker's office.

Four lawmakers and an aide confirmed the details of the skirmish and the effort to remove Mashadani, including Saleem Abdullah, a parliament member and spokesman for Mashadani's bloc, the Iraqi Consensus Front.

Abdullah said the new speaker of the 275-member Council of Representatives would be probably be another Sunni Arab.

The US military yesterday reported the deaths of three American troops. Among them were an airman killed in a roadside bombing in southern Iraq; and two soldiers -- one killed in Baghdad and another who died of injuries in Diyala Province.

Near Mahmoudiya yesterday, an apparent suicide vehicle bomb brought down a section of highway bridge, wounding several US soldiers and blocking traffic on Iraq's main north-south artery.

There was no immediate US Army confirmation on the number and severity of the casualties. An Iraqi civilian also was injured.

The explosion collapsed one of two sections of the Checkpoint 20 bridge crossing over the north-south expressway, 6 miles east of Mahmoudiya. The attack occurred in the area south of Baghdad dubbed the "triangle of death" for its frequent Sunni insurgent attacks. Members of a private security company, Armor Group International, and an Army quick reaction force worked for 45 minutes to pull men from the rubble.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES