BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP – A Shiite cleric, sitting before a tapestry embroidered with verses from the Quran, urged the U.S. commander to allow armed guards to patrol the streets around his mosque because he couldn’t count on police to do the job.
But the Americans turned down the request like dozens of others from Iraqis who increasingly look to militias or armed guards to protect them from the violence gripping Baghdad.
“We cannot have men with guns outside mosques and homes because then the law comes unto them and not from the government,” Lt. Col. Gian Gentile told the cleric. “If I say that your men can shoot at the men laying these bombs, then the next stop is for them to go looking for these men.”
That’s the dilemma facing U.S. troops as they try to stem the influence of armed groups, including organized militias, whose existence threatens the authority of the Iraqi government.
Incoming Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has promised to disband the militias and has repeatedly said that weapons should be exclusively in the hands of the army and police.
But such groups, ranging from neighborhood watch committees to organized militias, flourish because Iraqis don’t trust the police and army to protect them from Sunni insurgents, sectarian death squads, religious extremists and common criminals.
“I think the police are overwhelmed,” said 1st Lt. Shawn Wiley of Pine Bush, N.Y. “They don’t have the network or the infrastructure to respond to all these calls.”
The problem runs deeper than equipment and manpower. Many Sunnis believe the Shiite-dominated police and army are little more than extensions of Shiite militias and are harboring sectarian death squads.
In Baghdad’s mostly Sunni Azamiyah neighborhood, residents battled Iraqi forces for two days last month, leaving up to 13 people dead. Residents said they feared the mostly Shiite Iraqi soldiers were clearing the way for death squads.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials believe that tolerating armed elements that operate outside government control only serves to encourage what U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad describes as the “infrastructure of civil war.”
“If we allow Iraqi civilians to carry weapons all along the streets, then I believe we are ultimately leading to a broken Iraq of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and not a unified Iraq,” said Gentile, commander of the 8th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment.
Those fears escalated after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, which set off a wave of reprisal attacks against Sunnis. U.S. officials say sectarian attacks have eased and are returning to levels before the Samarra bombing.
But tension and mistrust linger among Iraq’s religious and ethnic communities.
Every night, armed men appear on sidewalks and in dark street corners across the capital — some simply bands of neighbors desperately trying protect their homes and families from militias linked to political parties.
U.S. soldiers said they’re often approached by residents who ask them to endorse their neighborhood watch groups or sign permits for them to carry weapons. Soldiers tell them such requests must be approved Iraqi authorities.
With or without permission, guards and militiamen continue to roam the streets after nightfall. Some guards watch over electrical generators or major highways. Others hunt for members of rival religious groups, kidnapping and killing in reprisal attacks.
Most neighborhood guards are unarmed and instead carry whistles and cell phones, U.S. soldiers said — but they usually have their Kalashnikov riles readily available in nearby homes. Armed guards usually quickly throw down their weapons at the first sign of a U.S. patrol, soldiers said.
Unauthorized checkpoints disappear fast at the first sign of the Americans.
“Often you’ll see five, six guys playing dominoes who say it’s their job to guard the streets,” Wiley said. “I haven’t had a problem with them. They know not to point their weapons at us.”
It’s not always easy, however, to tell the difference between militiamen and members of a less threatening neighborhood watch group.
In some Shiite neighborhoods “if you say you’re neighborhood watch, you’re probably Mahdi (Army),” Gentile said, referring to the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
“But down in others, I think they’re more genuinely trying to protect their neighborhood.”
More serious is trying to determine whether Iraqi police and soldiers are loyal to the government or to militia commanders. U.S. officers have ordered paramilitary troops of the Shiite-led Interior Ministry to stop posting photos of al-Sadr in their offices and flying green kites — a sign of support for al-Sadr — from police stations.
But Gentile acknowledges that he does not know how many militiamen are in the ranks of the police in his area.
“The important question is, do they still have a link to these organizations, or are they still influenced by them,” Gentile said. “The only way for this to work is for Iraqi security forces to be subordinate to a unity national government.”