Iraq: Militias and Civil War The Pentagon is using militias in sectarian battles (a long but important expose)

by A.K. Gupta

Foreign
Policy


Following the collapse of Iraqi security forces during the Shia and Sunni uprisings of April 2004, the Pentagon shifted to using Iraqi militias against the insurgency. The first militias, special police commandos and a U.S. Marine-trained unit (the “Hillah SWAT team”) were described as aggressive, motivated forces that were taking the lead in the counter-insurgency. 

Two-and-a-half years later, the militia gambit has reached an impasse. While resistance activity has decreased in some regions, it has intensified in others and the number of attacks against U.S. forces, Iraqi forces, and civilians keeps increasing overall. 

The recent killing of the Iraqi commander of the Hillah SWAT team has opened a window on failing U.S. efforts to defeat the insurgency and stand-up Iraqi forces. The U.S. military relies on the militias because their performance is comparatively better than the paper-tiger Iraqi police and military, but the militias are heavily dependent on the Pentagon for logistics and support and owe little allegiance to the Iraqi state. 

The militias have assumed such a central role because they are at the heart of a dirty war being instigated by U.S. forces. Their secretive nature gives the Pentagon plausible deniability of unseemly activities, but the strategy has also become self-defeating. 

The Pentagon is using the militias in sectarian battles, which has created new fronts in a war that is really a series of intertwined wars. One of these is the civil war, which the militias have helped bring forth through death squad activity. This has deepened U.S. involvement in the Iraqi quagmire, bringing the military to the breaking point. 

The U.S. strategy, at least as stated, is to create national police and military forces that can take over the fight against resistance groups while standing on their own. Toward that end, the Bush administration heralded 2006 as “the year of police” (which has degenerated into the year of police-run death squads). But the use of militias conflicts with the goal of standing up security forces loyal to the Iraqi state and nation. 

The major political parties, particularly the Shia and Kurdish ones, rely on their militias, not national forces, to guard party offices and leaders. Some, such as the Kurdish Peshmerga, serve wholesale in the Iraqi military. This creates a disincentive among Iraqi politicians to support national forces because power is based on one’s own militia and funding the military or police might mean funding a rival’s militia. 

The civil war has also undermined support for national police and military. Popular support has grown for ethnic and religious-based militias as a better guarantor of security than a government that has little presence beyond the Green Zone. 

The lack of governmental and popular support, combined with corruption and an incompetent bureaucracy, has crippled the military and police. Even though there are 300,000 Iraqi security forces now on the books, one U.S. general says that “at any one time” they’re only at 65 to 75 percent strength.  


Leaving The Army In Droves 

A recent report in Stars and Stripes described the dire situation in the heartland of the resistance. “Iraqi soldiers in Al Anbar province are leaving their army in droves,” the June 11, 2006 report stated, “draining much-needed personnel from fledgling Iraqi security forces and preventing U.S. troops from reducing troop strength in the volatile region.” The main reasons were “Lousy living conditions, bad food and failure to receive regular pay,” with some units losing almost half their strength. At one point hundreds of Iraqi soldiers went “on strike” in protest, refusing to go on patrols or to guard bases. On top of the desertions, at any one time, half of the 13,000 Iraqi soldiers in Al Anbar are on leave and there are only 5,000 police in the entire province. 


  • They tend to be much better equipped than police forces and even military units. Some are also directly paid by the U.S. military. 
  • U.S. forces use them for “culturally sensitive” operations, especially raiding mosques, thereby inflaming the civil war by using sectarian units to assault places of worship that also serve as organizing centers. 
  • While touted as being able to provide better intelligence, the militias engage in the same type of mass round-ups in which U.S. troops have engaged.  

     

The Marine Way Of War 

Since July 2006, police commandos and the overwhelmingly Shia Hillah SWAT team have aided U.S. forces in large-scale battles against Mahdi Army fighters. Like the police commandos, SWAT team members were trained by Dyncorp, which means Pentagon-hired mercenaries helped form the sectarian militias now being used as the tip of the spear in the U.S. war. 

In the fall of 2005, another Marine unit trained and armed members of a Sunni tribe, forming them into the “Desert Protectors.” Their role was to aid in the counter-insurgency war against the Sunni resistance in the Al Qaim region, bordering on Syria. Despite accusations from both Iraqis and U.S. soldiers that the Desert Protectors were engaged in death squad activities, about 1,000 members from both the militia and the tribe, the Abu Mahal, were incorporated into local police and army units, essentially institutionalizing warfare between Sunni groups. Two other Marine-trained units were set up last year, one of which was disbanded after engaging in revenge attacks. 

The Hillah SWAT Team was established in the summer of 2004 in Babil province south of Baghdad in an area known as the “triangle of death.” Reuters described the force as “Iraqi police commandos calling themselves the Black Scorpions” and placed their training as starting in July 2004 with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). National Review Online, also placed their training as beginning that July. Interestingly, a third account, in the LA Times, stated the Marine-led training began in August as the Iraqis had already been “training in Hillah with private-sector security firms.” 

As mentioned, that security firm is the Virginia-based Dyncorp, which has snagged numerous contracts to train Iraqi police. The first Dyncorp contract was made public on April 9, 2003—the day Baghdad fell—while recruiting had begun even earlier. All told, Dyncorp has been awarded more than $1 billion in police training contracts; the latest was a nine-month contract through May 31, 2007 for $318 million. Other than counting names on a payroll, however, the police training has been a complete failure. Even some U.S. military officers admitted recently that, “All the U.S. military is doing is training and arming Iraqis to fight a looming civil war.” 

In addition to one Dyncorp employee who was hired to consult with Marine trainers, other Dyncorp employees, known as International Police Liaison Officers, were supervising training at the Babylon police academy in al-Hillah while the Hillah SWAT team was being formed. The SWAT team doesn’t appear to be directly linked to the police commandos, but it was established as an elite police unit, as were the commandos. Both were formed at the same time and the SWAT team’s current size, about 800 men, is about the same as a commando battalion. While it’s referred to as a SWAT team (special weapons and tactics), the Hillah unit is also distinct from a separate U.S. initiative to create 20 provincial SWAT teams of 27 men each. The Hillah SWAT team by itself is larger than the entire SWAT program. By January 2005, it already had 500 men under arms. 

An LA Times report from November 27, 2004, gave an estimate of 125 while noting that another “125 Iraqis are due to join the SWAT force from police training camps in Jordan this weekend, and the Iraqi government plans to see 500 in uniform.” This is noteworthy as the SWAT members were trained either by Dyncorp, which was awarded a $27 million contract in 2003 to “build and operate the police-training center” in Jordan or by another mercenary company conducting classes there—the Virginia-based Science Applications International Corp. 

Perhaps even more significant, “the federal overseer of the effort” to train the police was Steven Casteel, a veteran of Latin America’s dirty wars whose name keeps surfacing in reference to militias. While Casteel was referred to as the “senior advisor” to the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, this was just a euphemism. Like other Americans serving as “senior advisors” to Iraqi ministries under the Coalition Provisional Authority, Casteel was actually running the ministry until the CPA went out of business on June 28, 2004. 

The Hillah SWAT team is almost completely dependent on the Pentagon. The 24th Marines “handpicked” an initial “core of 12.” The Iraqis trained and operated “alongside the MEU’s Force Reconnaissance platoon” and even wore the same uniforms. A Babil Reconstruction photo essay from March 2005 shows U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officers overseeing the construction of the Hillah SWAT headquarters. Another photo essay shows the Hillah SWAT team boarding Marine Corps helicopters after conducting a joint raid. 

Using helicopters for raids indicates that the units are being trained as a high-end force. Unable to pay or even feed army units, the Iraqi government is a long way from acquiring the technology, infrastructure, and skills to use helicopter assault teams. It raises the question: What are these SWAT team members being trained for? As they will be dependent on U.S. forces for years to come, they aren’t being groomed as replacements. The real purpose of the SWAT team and other militias is as a complementary force in the counter-insurgency war. They perform functions U.S. troops can’t, such as “raids on mosques and other sensitive sites that U.S. forces are reluctant to breach.” Able to move effortlessly in Iraqi society, they are also an indigenous source of information. The Marines said the unit provides them with “95 percent of our intelligence.” 

The SWAT team has been used extensively in counter-insurgency operations. In a period of 6 months, the 24th Marines conducted “58 joint raids” with the team, capturing “nearly 500 insurgents,” according to a Marine Corps News report. In one “citywide sweep of Lutafiyah,” Marines, Iraqi police and national guard rounded up “200 military-age men.” While noting that many “were eventually released,” the report’s conclusion was that it sent a “clear message” to insurgents. There was no acknowledgement that similar fishing expeditions by U.S. forces, cordoning off towns and arresting all “military-age males,” helped ignite the insurgency in the first place. Also, engaging in such indiscriminate arrests indicates that the intelligence appears to be suspect. 

Behind the scene, at least at first, Marines training the SWAT team derided their capabilities. In a daily briefing in late November 2004, as a new batch of recruits were set to arrive by helicopter, one Marine officer presented a slide: “‘2100: Clown Car arrives,’ the slide said, referring to the helicopters. ‘2101: Be ready for negligent discharges,’ the entry continued, warning of accidental shots from the AK-47’s carried by many of the recruits. ‘Recommend “Duck & Cover’,” it concluded. 

The Hillah SWAT team was described as being “94 percent” Shia, “while most of the insurgents in the area are Sunnis.” The commander, “Col. Salaam Turrad Abdul Khadim, a former Iraqi special forces officer who recruited his team from the ranks of unemployed soldiers in Hillah,” mentioned proudly that in August 2004, while U.S. forces were engaged in open warfare against al-Sadr’s militia, his SWAT team members killed 42 Mahdi Army fighters “in Hillah in one day—all of them Shiite.” 

Two years later, the Hillah SWAT team would be fighting the Mahdi Army once again. On July 22, 2006, in the town of Musayyib in Babil, U.S. forces killed 15 Mahdi militia in a 3-hour firefight. It was “part of a systematic drive U.S. forces had been ordered to carry out against the Mahdi Army of anti-American firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr.” An aide, Sheik Jalil al-Nouri, claimed that U.S. and Iraqi forces initiated the attack against the Mahdi Army office in Mussayib. Also on the same day, “Local officials said the Americans conducted a similar raid on al-Sadr’s office in Mahmoudiya.” 

The U.S. Central Command said that the SWAT team was among the Iraqi units that took part in the “day-long battle” that “killed 33 terrorists.” The SWAT team also searched a “Husaniyah Mosque in an attempt to capture terrorists who attacked the Coalition unit and fled into the mosque before continuing to fire on the Soldiers.” 

The Hillah SWAT team commander, “Col. Salam al-Mamuri,” was killed by a bomb blast in his office on October 13, 2006. A Washington Post story stated that “Mamuri had founded the Scorpion brigade soon after Americans arrived and had led it ever since.” All the evidence indicates otherwise, however. The Marines trained, armed, and led the SWAT team, which wasn’t established for almost a year and a half after the original invasion. But the report does follow the Pentagon line of portraying the unit as an “Iraqi initiative.” One U.S. Special Forces soldier said the SWAT team was “literally the only Iraqi unit under arms in the south that is completely independent of the political parties and the militias.” Independent of everyone except for U.S. forces, of course, as the unit “cracked down…fiercely on Shiite militias,” namely, the Mahdi Army. This also fits with the Pentagon tendency to go after the Mahdi Army while sparing the Badr Corps. 

 

This episode of one Shia militia attacking another could be dismissed as an aberration except weeks later police commandos, backed by U.S. forces, clashed with Sadr’s followers in two separate instances in the southern city of Diwaniyah. In the first instance, on August 28, an all-out battle erupted between Sadrists and Iraqi troops “consisting largely of young rural, tribal Shiite men.” One analyst, Juan Cole, described it as a battle that began when the provincial governor ordered the arrest of a “local selfstyled leader of the Mahdi Army.” The governor, Khalil Jalil Hamzah, represents the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which has engaged before in deadly battles in the South with Sadr’s followers. The difference this time is that the U.S. military intervened on the side of SCIRI by dropping a 500-pound “satellite-guided bomb on an ‘enemy position’ while flying in support of Iraqi and coalition troops.” More ominous, according to Cole, is that the fighting was an example of “militia-on-militia violence” as SCIRI’s Badr Corps tangled with the Mahdi Army under the guise of police commando units in Diwaniyah. 

Then in September a second clash occurred in Diwaniyah when “a joint Iraqi and American patrol raided one of Mr. Sadr’s offices at night, leading to a three-hour exchange of gunfire between militia forces and Iraqi police commandos.” Still another battle took place in Diwaniyah on October 8 between U.S. forces and Sadr’s followers. 

In two more incidents police commandos were dispatched to large-scale battles between militias and were accused of taking part in sectarian killings in one. In the first, Shia militias were blamed for going on a rampage in the region near the city of Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, after 17 Shia day laborers were abducted and killed on October 13. Residents said the Mahdi Army took revenge on Sunni families in Balad, while the Badr Corps did the same in the village of Duluiya, across the Tigris River from Balad. 

Interior Ministry police units were dispatched, but they were accused of taking part in the killing of as many as 100 Sunnis over 4 days. The units included two battalions of “quick-reaction” commandos, which is around 1,500 men. Police Major Hussein Alwan said “commandos believed to be members of the Shiite Badr Organization” had entered Duluiyah two days after the killing of the day laborers. Sunni residents said that the killings in Balad were the work of Mahdi Army fighters who had “poured in from Baghdad in pickup trucks similar to those used by Interior Ministry commandos.”  

Mahdi Army spokeperson Ammar Joda al-Musawi was candid about the operation. He said that the Khadimiyah branch of the militia from Baghdad responded to an “SOS call” from Shiite leaders in Balad “to protect them from being killed by the Salafis” (the insurgents). “Mahdi Army fighters in plain clothes crowded into two buses and headed to Balad. More Mahdi Army fighters followed in army uniforms and army vehicles,” Musawi said. Others wore the blue-and-white camouflage pants that Iraq’s Interior Ministry commandos wear, but with black T-shirts to distinguish them from the real commandos.” Days later, as Sunni fighters flooded the area and Shiite militiamen from Baghdad remained under the guise of “civilian defense groups,” the real police “sat meekly in their vehicles” near a Shiite checkpoint into the city, “ceding control of the road to the militias.” 

Some 20,000 U.S. troops were just 15 miles away  at the sprawling Camp Anaconda, but commanders hesitated to dispatch troops because they “viewed the upheaval in Balad as a new test for the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.” 

Even as the fighting paused in Balad, a conflict broke out in the southern city of Amara, near the Iranian border. This time it was a Shia-on-Shia slugfest, pitting the Badr Corps against the Mahdi Army. The police intelligence chief for Maysan province, Ali Qassim al-Tamimi, was killed (along with four bodyguards) by a roadside bomb on October 19. Tamimi was described as a top Badr official and the bombing was blamed on the Mahdi Army. Local police, said to be controlled by Badr, retaliated by arresting the brother of the local Mahdi Army commander and then the militias were off to the races. Within a day, the streets of the city of 250,000 became a battleground as 200 Mahdi fighters routed the police and destroyed their headquarters and 2 other stations. A truce was hammered out the next day, but not before 25 people were killed and 160 injured. About 2,300 Iraqi troops rushed to the city, aided by police commandos. Even more ominous, while Amara remained calm but tense, within a day clashes between the two Shia militias occurred in two other towns south of Baghdad. 

These events represent the “fractalization” of the sectarian war. The national struggles between sects are being replicated on smaller and smaller levels in cities, towns, and villages. The U.S. military and Iraqi government are throwing “official” militias into the mix because they have been given the equipment, arms, and ability to strike quickly anywhere. 

The United States is eager to crush Sadr’s movement, but has hesitated from launching an all-out assault because the ruling Shia coalition includes 30 members of the National Assembly allied with Sadr. But at the same time, “American officials have been increasing the pressure in recent weeks on Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a conservative Shiite, to rein in armed militias like the Mahdi Army.” 

The Bush administration has apparently made a Faustian bargain, supporting SCIRI and its Badr Corps against rival forces among both Sunnis and Shia. In the process, it’s stoking another front in the sectarian war—Shia vs. Shia—that already includes Americans vs. Iraqis, Sunni vs. Shia, and Arabs vs. Kurds. The desperation of the Bush administration is so great that it is now backing the party that is the closest ally of Iran’s Islamic government—the regime that it most wants to topple. 

Nonetheless, the use of U.S.-backed militias in intra-Shia violence is overshadowed by their use against Sunni guerrillas. This is in addition to mainline forces set up along sectarian lines. These include an overwhelmingly Shia and Kurdish national army, as well as the 7,700-member public order brigades, which are “virtually all” Shia. 


Freedom Guard 

In early 2005 Marines established two militias in Al Anbar province to help fight Sunni Arab insurgents. During Operation River Blitz that February, the 7th Marines Regiment brought along the Iraqi Freedom Guard, “operating as a private security firm paid and trained by the Marines.” First said to be comprised of 61 men paid $400 a month each, there was no effort to hide their role as a militia. Marine commander Col. Craig Tucker said the unit was “like Blackwater.” The U.S. Central Command referred to the unit as the “Freedom Guard Battalion,” suggesting their number was far higher than 61, as Iraqi police battalions are comprised of 800 men. 

Curiously, the same Freedom Guard was present in Ramadi more than a month earlier, conducting a joint patrol with a completely separate U.S. Army unit in mid-January. Their commander went by the same name, a decidedly un-Iraqi “Lt. James.” Many in the guard were said to have “fought alongside U.S. Marines in the November Fallujah offensive…and showed tactical discipline that pleasantly surprised the American soldiers.” Present during the Fallujah offensive in November 2004 was the 36th Commando Battalion, a Kurdish-based militia, considered one of the most capable units in the Iraqi army. The Freedom Guard was disbanded and later “wrapped into the Iraqi army” after being accused of a revenge attack in the town of Haqliniyah on March 22, 2004. 

During the same operation in Al Anbar, Marines of the 23rd Regiment were accompanied by 20 members of a special forces unit called the Freedom Fighters, described as Shiites from Basra with “little love between them and the Sunni Arab citizens of Anbar.” 

With a population of about 250,000, the Al Qaim region of western Anbar, about 200 miles northwest of Baghdad, is the setting for Iraq’s forgotten war. For all the talk of the “Sunni Triangle,” the deadliest terrain for U.S. forces has been the Euphrates River running from Al Qaim along the Syrian border through scores of battle-scarred towns to Ramadi and Fallujah. Al Qaim has exacted a heavy toll on U.S. troops, with 11 dying there in May 2005 alone. The U.S. response has been to subject it to almost constant warfare. From spring to fall 2005, U.S. forces launched “at least nine major assaults and several smaller ones” along the Euphrates River running east from Syria “to disrupt insurgent networks of safe houses and smuggling routes for fighters and suicide bombers going to Iraq’s interior.” 

The Marine-led campaign culminated in a “mini-Fallujah” in November 2005 codenamed Operation Steel Curtain. One small city in Al Qaim, Husaybah saw 90 percent of its residents turned into refugees. Fleeing months of U.S. aerial bombing that killed and wounded hundreds, Husaybah’s population dwindled from 50,000 to 5,000 by the time 2,500 U.S. Marines, soldiers, and sailors began their assault. 

Operation Steel Curtain was part of a new Pentagon strategy of “clear, hold, and build”—“first sweep a town, then immediately garrison it and begin reconstruction.” Previously, troops would conduct short-term raids and assaults then move on to the next hot spot. Seven garrisons were constructed in various towns in Al Qaim, including Husaybah, housing Marines who would maintain a local presence along with Iraqi forces. 

They also brought a secret weapon with them—the Desert Protectors—described as an “informant group” that was “apparently the first unit of its kind in Iraq.” This U.S.backed militia has escaped scrutiny almost completely because much of the reporting on it has appeared in a source few—outside the military at least—consult: the Defense Department-authorized publication Stars and Stripes

The story of the Desert Protectors contains many of the elements of the militia strategy: Pentagon spin, a sectarian-based force, mass roundups, death squad activity, and the failure to create viable Iraqi security forces.  

As part of its strategy to insist that militias are Iraqi initiatives, the Pentagon portrayed the Desert Protectors as the brainchild of the Defense Ministry. During Operation Steel Curtain, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch claimed that “what we’re seeing across Iraq is that the people of Iraq are tired of the insurgency…. So the Minister of Defense said, ‘Hey, let’s recruit those people into the Iraqi Army.’ An initiative was started called the Desert Protectors.” 

The first mention of the Desert Protectors is in the October 8, 2005 issue of the Advisor, noting that 28 volunteers “were sworn into the Iraqi Army October 6, forming a platoon dubbed the ‘Desert Protectors’” at the East Fallujah Iraqi Camp. The camp was set up in advance of the second battle of Fallujah and was run by the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force. According to the assistant commandant Staff Sgt. Robert Sanders, “We provide them [Iraqi forces] with a secure rest area, training area and we feed them and get the supplies they need to them.” The training itself extends to both police and army units and is described as “basically like MCT [Marine Combat Training].” 

In other words, the U.S. military provides everything the Iraqi forces need to operate. Calling it an “Iraqi initiative” provides the Pentagon with deniability, even though the Desert Protectors, the militias, and the other Iraqis forces would fall apart almost immediately without the vast array of logistics and support functions it provides. 

A NYT account described the Desert Protectors as a U.S. project outright. Late in the summer of 2005 “members of the Abu Mahal tribe…approached the American military. In a program approved by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, the Americans provided weapons and training to the men.” 

Like other militias, the Desert Protectors have been singled out for their intelligence-gathering abilities. Maj. Gen. Lynch said, “The advantage is obvious: these individuals…are from that area. They know the town, they know streets, they know the people, and they can indeed access actionable intelligence.” 

On the ground, however, it’s the same story of mass round-ups. In many cases during the 17-day operation in Al Qaim, “testimony from the Desert Protectors was the only evidence against suspects before they were taken away.” One member of the U.S. Army’s Tactical Human Intelligence Team said, “They were fingering, like, 25, 30 at a time…. We said: ‘No way. We need to have evidence.’ They want to get everyone who’s not their tribe.” All told 800 men were detained for questioning and of those “more than 300 were sent to Abu Ghraib prison and the netherworld of the Iraqi detention system.” 


From Protectors To Death Squads 

The first hint of trouble happened even before Operation Steel Curtain ended on November 22, 2005. Stars and Stripes reported that after the Marines had assumed control of Husaybah in mid-November, they organized a town meeting in which one resident complained about the security situation. “‘They drive around and say they will kill the family and destroy the houses,’ the man said. ‘It is the same men that were here about two months ago’.” This is probably a reference to the Abu Mahal tribe as they had previously fled the town. 

The exact date when they were forced out is unclear, but Stars and Stripes reporter Andrew Tilghman noted on November 20 that, “Just a few weeks ago, a cadre of young men from the prominent Salamani tribe kidnapped 24 men from the rival Abu Mahals tribe, slashing their throats in a campaign of intimidation that forced many other Abu Mahals to leave.” He added that the United States had “recently began training and equipping an Abu Mahal militia”—the Desert Protectors. 

The next day another article by Tilghman contained more details: “The Marines have heard reports that the militia is threatening, assaulting, or even killing local residents from a rival tribe. Yet the militia has been an U.S. ally in the broader war against insurgents, and the Marines here are treading cautiously as they seek to disarm them.” The Salamanis were now the target, fearing that the militia would “seek revenge in the coming weeks.” The Desert Protectors were about 90 strong when they were deployed, but in just two weeks they had swelled to 400 men who were “remarkably well armed and carrie[d] new equipment traditionally associated with old Soviet Special Forces units. They have new uniforms, as well as Kalishnikov rifles, PKC guns in their pickups, rocket-propelled grenades, and other weapons that…were ‘secret.’” 

The Marines’ response to allegations of murder was to take a hands-off approach, using “delicate negotiations” to “urge” and “convince” the militia to lay down their arms. This is a microcosm of U.S. strategy. While there is a lot of talk about the state retaining a monopoly on violence, the Pentagon is willing to countenance all sorts of militias as long as they are serving its interests. 

The Desert Protectors were never disarmed, in fact, the opposite occurred. The whole town was turned over to them, from running the government to being incorporated en masse into the local police and army units. About 1,000 members of the Abu Mahal tribe joined the two forces. “The local Iraqi army commander is an Abu Mahal and his brother is chief of the newly-formed police department.” While the Marines claimed that they were trying to discourage the police chief from turning his force into a “tribal militia,” the majority of the department was from the tribe. One result, said a resident in Husaybah, was that “sometimes the Abu Mahals kill the Salamanis.” The Abu Mahals were also well taken care of by the Marines, who were “jubilant about the new ally.” One tribe member and Iraqi military intelligence officer—who talked to a reporter as “he received a thick stack of U.S. bills from Marines to pay for water trucks”—said that they “come and ask us what we need all the time.” 

The Marines were aware of “allegations that they were a rogue militia responsible for brutal vigilante attacks.” One U.S. officer, Maj. Louis Caporale, even admitted, “If they saw someone who they thought was Syrian, they’d kill them right there.” But it seems that the Marines’ sole concern was that the Desert Protectors were “good agents” who had “really fought against the foreign fighters.” 

More than six months after the Marines swept into Husaybah, however, the police were barely functional and an army brigade was falling apart. The local police station had been open less than a month when a suicide attack by a police officer wearing an explosive vest killed five police and wounded ten more on May 20, 2006. At that point, the police still didn’t have any vehicles and had not yet begun independent patrols. On top of that, they had yet to receive any pay from the Interior Ministry. 

Similar problems with an army unit in Husaybah had led almost half of them to desert. One company commander of the 4th Brigade of the 7th Iraqi Army Division lamented, “Many of my soldiers have not gotten paid in six months. Sometimes, they don’t eat for two or three days at a time. I tell my commander, but what else am I supposed to do?” From December, shortly after Operation Steel Curtain ended, to May the unit dropped from 2,200 troops “to fewer than 1,400...according to Marines who work with the Iraqi unit.” 

This is why the United States is still stuck in Iraq almost four years into the war. The militias formed by the Pentagon get what they need while the regular Iraqi police and military units are literally being starved. The militias by their nature are unable to take over from U.S. forces as they represent sectarian interests. In practice their military effectiveness is also limited. If 150,000 troops from the most powerful military in history can’t defeat the resistance, how can a rag-tag collection of Iraqi units? Thus, the militias are part of the U.S. war and not a replacement. After all, by building the world’s largest embassy in the heart of Baghdad and massive military bases elsewhere around Iraq, the United States is settling in for the long haul.  


A.K. Gupta is a freelance writer and editor of the Indypendent in New York City.