FORWARD OPERATING BASE ISKAN, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. forces are winning over once-hostile Sunni Arabs in Iraq, but the Sunnis could “flip back” if the government does not welcome them, a U.S. commander said on Wednesday.
Major-General Rick Lynch, commander of U.S. forces south of Baghdad, said 80 percent of the Sunni Arabs in his territory now were cooperating with U.S. troops, in a “major change in the battle space” over the past several weeks.
“But they could flip back tomorrow, and the only thing that’s going to keep them from flipping back is the government of Iraq,” he said during a briefing with his subordinates in the Euphrates River valley south of Baghdad.
The biggest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, the Accordance Front, pulled its six ministers out of the national unity government this month, saying Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government had ignored their demands.
Officers told the briefing the Euphrates valley area around Iskandariya -- part of what the U.S. forces call the “Triangle of Death” -- had become far quieter in the past two months.
Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs were organising themselves into patrols and signing contracts with U.S. forces to guarantee security in once-hostile areas, the officers said.
U.S. forces have been paying them cash and making biometric identity cards for their men. In return, the men guarantee to prevent attacks and give American forces safe access to their neighbourhoods.
“When we came here, this was tanks and Bradleys (armoured vehicles) just so we could get up this road,” said the battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Balcavage, pointing out a road on a map which he said was now safe.
“This used to be a mortar bucket,” he said, pointing to an area north of Iskandariya. “And there are no mortar rounds for two months.”
Although U.S. commanders say they have reduced violence in some Sunni Arab areas, they still blame the Sunni militants for spectacular attacks that kill scores of Iraqis. They said a multiple truck bomb that killed at least 200 people in northern Iraq bore the hallmarks of Sunni Arab al Qaeda.
But last month, Sunni Arabs who were U.S. forces’ main enemy for most of the past four years, were responsible for only a quarter of attacks on U.S. troops.
Since the U.S. programme with the sheikhs started in the area a few weeks ago, Balcavage’s men have so far taken biometric data from 743 men out of more than 1,000 volunteers.
Balcavage said one of his officers was out in a neighbourhood on the east bank of the Euphrates that morning, signing a contract with a sheikh who approached them a week ago.
But he said the sheikhs’ ultimate goal was to get official recognition and full police or army salaries for their men, which must be agreed by the authorities in Baghdad.
“They say: ‘What we really want is legitimacy. We want to be part of the Iraqi security forces’,” said Balcavage.
Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government has so far been sceptical about arming men it has viewed as enemies.
Still, the Iraqi army has launched a recruitment drive in the area, seeking 2,700 men, Balcavage said.
“Each day we’re flooding the gates. We’re taking all they can handle there,” said Balcavage.
The sudden rapprochement has made for strange bedfellows. Many of the tribes have fought each other. Many have fought against mainly Shi’ite Iraqi army units in the area, and many have fought against the Americans.
Balcavage said he had been approached by one sheikh looking for a deal after his men arrested the sheikh’s son for missile attacks on a U.S. base.
“He wanted his son, and I said: ‘We just found these rockets in his house, so let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about how you’re going to make sure this doesn’t happen again’.”
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