There is growing concern that local militias now allied with the U.S. are turning their guns on each other as the U.S. prepares to pull back its presence. These groups have been tasked with pacifying some of the most restive corners of Iraq contributing to the measure of stability enjoyed by the country in the last few months. “We’re paying them and training them so they’re effective,” says Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, of America’s new partners, many of whom are former insurgents. But there are signs that these groups, called Concerned Local Citizens by the U.S. military, are already turning on each other in competition for territory. “There is some inter-militia fighting,” said John Jones, State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team leader for Diyala province.
Jones, who was visiting Washington last month, says that the fighting has “by and large” not entangled coalition forces in hostilities. But what concerns officials is how to keep the CLCs in line as the U.S. presence recedes. President George W. Bush said in the State of the Union address that 20,000 troops will pull out of Iraq in the coming months. “When the American troops get out, you will have a vacuum. These guys will filter into it,” says a U.S. official in Iraq about the CLCs. “It sounds good now because they are not shooting at us.”
American brass is banking on the Iraqi government filling that vacuum. The U.S. general in charge of training Iraqi forces said Friday that the Iraqi government will be taking more of a role in running the CLC program. “The government of Iraq is very much a part of the program,’ said Lt. Gen. James Dubik, commander of the Multinational Security Transitional Command in Iraq, “and at some point they will run this program.”
There are about 70,000 Iraqis in the CLCs, armed and funded by the U.S. But the Iraqi government has agreed to eventually take over the program, said General Dubik, with the plan to vet and absorb about 30% into the Iraqi police or Iraqi military. So what about the roughly 50,000 that would leave unemployed “The others will go into some other civil service corps, vocational training or other job-related training,” said, Dubik. “That system is still in development.” The question is, will the unintegrated CLCs hold on to their weapons and potentially cause havoc Korb asks, “Will [the CLCs] turn on the central government at some point”
The militias are already showing that they can take on a life of their own. “Some CLCs are street gangs,” says the U.S official in Iraq, “somebody crosses into somebody else’s territory, he’s going to get shot.” Already, there are cases of these neighborhood watch groups turning on each other in a contest for influence and territory. Diyala PRT leader Jones says that CLCs have helped calm the restive provincial capital Baquba in the short term. No easy task, as the city was the headquarters of al-Qaeda in Iraq as recently as last year. “I know in Baquba it has helped. It has cut down on the violence. There is some inter-militia fighting, but by and large it does not involve coalition forces getting involved,” says Jones. “There are other parts of the province which it hasn’t worked as well yet, but I think they’re aiming at that.”
Four Army combat brigades and two Marine battalions are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq in the next few months. General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. forces in Iraq, has warned that too fast a drawdown could result in the “disintegration of the Iraqi security forces, al Qaeda-Iraq regaining lost ground, [and] a marked increase in violence.” “American troops,” said the President during his State of the Union speech on Monday, “are shifting from leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces.” But when it comes to CLCs, the transition will be difficult because the central Baghdad government does not trust these bands of armed former insurgents. “The Maliki government is not comfortable with these forces,” says Korb.