Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Measures of Progress in Baghdad

This Thanksgiving Day feel-good story has everything.

“Americans are our protectors and saviors,” said the killer of Al Qaeda’s “White Lion” in Baghdad.

It gets better.

“You can move freely in Amariyah at any time of the day or night,” Abul Abed said. “You can even see women without head scarves, wearing tight jeans!”

From last Thursday's Chicago Tribune:

New boss turns the tables on Al Qaeda
Ex-Sunni insurgent becomes U.S. ally

By Liz Sly, Tribune foreign correspondent; Nadeem Majeed contributed to this report

November 22, 2007


The once-dreaded Al Qaeda in Iraq stronghold of Amariyah has a new boss, and he's not shy about telling the story of the shootout that turned him into a local legend and helped change the tenor of the Iraq war.

Earlier this year, Abul Abed, a disgruntled Sunni insurgent leader, began secret talks with the Americans about ending Al Qaeda's reign of terror in this run-down, formerly middle-class Baghdad neighborhood, renowned as one of the city's most dangerous. He had been gathering intelligence on the group for months.

One day in late May, he said, he decided it was time to act.

He hailed the car carrying the feared leader of Al Qaeda in the neighborhood, a man known as the White Lion, on one of Amariyah's main streets. “We want you to stop destroying our neighborhood,” he told the man.

“Do you know who you are talking to?” said the White Lion, getting out of his car. “I am Al Qaeda. I will destroy even your own houses!”

He pulled out his pistol and shot at Abul Abed. The gun jammed. He reloaded and fired again. Again, the gun jammed.

By this time, Abul Abed said, he had pulled his own gun. He fired once, killing the White Lion.
“I walked over to him, stepped on his hand and took his gun,” Abul Abed, which is a nom de guerre, said at his new, pink-painted headquarters in a renovated school in Amariyah, as an American Army captain seated in the corner nodded his head in affirmation of the account. “And then the fight started.”

It was the beginning of the end for Al Qaeda in Amariyah. The next day, a firefight erupted. Al Qaeda fighters closed in on Abul Abed. Most of the 150 men who had joined him fled. Holed up in a mosque with fewer than a dozen supporters, Abul Abed thought the end was near.

“The blue carpet was soaked red with blood,” he recalled. Then the imam of the mosque called in American help.

A friendship was born.

Now Abul Abed, a swaggering former major in the Iraqi army and reputedly a top leader in the influential Islamic Army insurgent group, reigns supreme in Amariyah -- with considerable help from the U.S. military.

Still wearing the White Lion's pistol tucked into his belt, he commands his own 600-member paramilitary force, called the Knights of Mesopotamia. He receives $460,000 a month from the U.S. military to pay, arm and equip them. They wear crisp olive green uniforms with smart red and yellow badges bearing the Knights' horse-head logo. They are well-armed, and some have flak jackets.

But they don't really need them. Since the Knights drove Al Qaeda out of Amariyah after a two-month battle, the neighborhood has become largely safe.

“You can move freely in Amariyah at any time of the day or night,” Abul Abed said. "You can even see women without head scarves, wearing tight jeans!"

An 'Awakening' in Iraq

Men like Abul Abed have helped change the face of the war. Following in the footsteps of the late Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the tribal leader who led the Sunni revolt that drove Al Qaeda from the base of its operations in Iraq’s Anbar province, more than 70,000 people, most of them Sunnis, in 148 groups have joined in the so-called Awakening, or Sahwa, movement, according to the U.S. military, turning against Al Qaeda and turning to the Americans for help.

Since Abul Abed's fight in Amariyah, some of the most feared Baghdad neighborhoods, including Abu Ghraib, Fadhil, Ghazaliyah, Dora and Adhamiyah, have followed suit, forming their own brigades of Knights, welcoming the U.S. military and receiving U.S. money.

Abul Abed is coy about his insurgent connections. He gave his real name as Saad Erebi Ghaffouri al-Obaidi, though he is known across Baghdad as Abul Abed. U.S. officials, Amariyah residents and Sunni leaders say he was a prominent commander in the Islamic Army. He described himself as a former Iraqi army major who "went into business" after the regime fell. He won't say what business.

But he acknowledged that many of his men once fought Americans and now work closely with them.

“They recognize that they made a big mistake,” he said. “They realize that they were on the wrong path and that they wasted many chances with what they did.”

The implications of creating this network of trained, armed paramilitaries loyal not to the government but to an assortment of local strongmen have yet to be played out. U.S. officials said they are relieved that the revolution within the Sunni community has helped to sharply reduce the number of attacks. According to the military, attacks in Iraq fell 55 percent between March and October.

The U.S. wants to absorb the Sunnis who have joined the Awakening movement into the Iraqi security forces, but so far the Shiite-led government has hesitated, concerned that they will one day turn against the government. If the government continues to frustrate the Sunnis, U.S. officials are concerned their new allies could go back to the insurgency.

“That's the big intangible that makes me nervous,” said Col. Martin Stanton, who oversees the reconciliation and engagement effort. If there is no progress on getting the paramilitaries regular jobs with the security forces and delivering services to Sunni areas, Sunni frustrations will continue to mount, he said.

“The question is, what's the break point? ... How long before people start getting sick of it and start checking out?” he said.

‘Americans are our protectors’

Abul Abed said the Sunni revolution has gone too far for that.

“Americans are our protectors and saviors,” he said.

The real enemy of Iraq, he says, now is Iran. He pulled out his mobile phone to show pictures he has saved of the bodies of his four brothers, who were kidnapped and murdered in 2005 by what he suspects was a Shiite death squad with ties to Iran. One of them had a nail driven into his head. Another was missing a hand.

“Even animals wouldn't do that,” he said, his face darkening. “Iran is so deeply infiltrated in Iraq, the problem here still cannot be solved. Iran wants to demolish us. If the Americans leave, then you can count Iraq as a second Tehran.”

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