US confirms it is arming Sunni insurgents
The U.S. military has confirmed that it is arming Sunni insurgent factions to try to contain al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, according to a report in Monday's New York Times by veteran Iraq correspondent John Burns.
"With the four-month-old increase in American troops showing only modest success in curbing insurgent attacks, American commanders are turning to another strategy that they acknowledge is fraught with risk: arming Sunni Arab groups that have promised to fight militants linked with Al Qaeda who have been their allies in the past."
American officers acknowledge that it is arming some groups that are suspected to have been involved in American attacks as well as link to Al Qaeda. Some American officers maintain they are simply arming both sides of a civil war.
"With an American troop drawdown increasingly likely in the next year, and little sign of a political accommodation between Shiite and Sunni politicians in Baghdad, the critics say, there is a risk that any weapons given to Sunni groups will eventually be used against Shiites," reports the Times. "There is also the possibility the weapons could be used against the Americans themselves."
But commanders maintain that the strategy has shown to be successful in driving a wedge between former Sunni Baathists and Al Qaeda, two groups who have often worked together since the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
That strategy was first use in the Anbar Province of Iraq, where attacks on US troops plunged after tribal sheiks, angry with the killing of Sunni civilians at the hands of Al Qaeda, recruited and armed thousands of men to join tribal security and police forces. Now the military is spreading the "Anbar model" throughout Sunni Iraq.
With the agreement to arm some Sunni groups, the Americans also appear to have made a tacit recognition that earlier demands for the disarming of Shiite militia groups are politically unachievable for now given the refusal of powerful Shiite political parties to shed their armed wings. In effect, the Americans seem to have concluded that as long as the Shiites maintain their militias, Shiite leaders are in a poor position to protest the arming of Sunni groups whose activities will be under close American scrutiny.
But officials of Mr. Maliki’s government have placed strict limits on the Sunni groups they are willing to countenance as allies in the fight against Al Qaeda. One leading Shiite politician, Sheik Khalik al-Atiyah, the deputy Parliament speaker, said in a recent interview that he would rule out any discussion of an amnesty for Sunni Arab insurgents, even those who commit to fighting Al Qaeda. Similarly, many American commanders oppose rewarding Sunni Arab groups who have been responsible, even tangentially, for any of the more than 29,000 American casualties in the war, including more than 3,500 deaths. Equally daunting for American commanders is the risk that Sunni groups receiving American backing could effectively double-cross the Americans, taking weapons and turning them against American and Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government forces.
Americans officers acknowledge that providing weapons to breakaway rebel groups is not new in counterinsurgency warfare, and that in places where it has been tried before, including the French colonial war in Algeria, the British-led fight against insurgents in Malaya in the early 1950s, and in Vietnam, the effort often backfired, with weapons given to the rebels being turned against the forces providing them. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Third Infantry Division and leader of an American task force fighting in a wide area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers immediately south of Baghdad, said at a briefing for reporters on Sunday that no American support would be given to any Sunni group that had attacked Americans. If the Americans negotiating with Sunni groups in his area had “specific information” that the group or any of its members had killed Americans, he said, “The negotiation is going to go like this: ‘You’re under arrest, and you’re going with me.’ I’m not going to go out and negotiate with folks who have American blood on their hands.”
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The following video interview with John Burns of the New York Times is from CNN American Morning, broadcast on July 11.