Bloody suicide bombings continued to slaughter dozens of Iraqi civilians in recent weeks, and a new United Nations report says that 2 million Iraqi children suffer from malnutrition, disease and disrupted schooling. Yet reports from a variety of sources indicate some decrease in violence recently, and in some areas people hungry for a semblance of normal life have begun to come out into the streets. There are growing indications, however, that this has come not primarily from the military “surge” pressed by President Bush, but from a potentially dangerous U.S. decision to make deals with various militias, particularly those in Sunni areas linked to former Baathists.

Vali Nasr, a well-known Middle East scholar affiliated with the Council on Foreign Relations, told National Public Radio recently that much of the decline in violence is not a result of the U.S. “more troops on the ground policy,” but of “deal-making” with Sunni and Shia militias,. The U.S. has “settled for individual deals in individual neighborhoods,” Nasr warned, “but that doesn’t mean lasting peace.”

“The real question,” he said, “is whether this is sustainable.”

In a recent interview, Salam Ali, a spokesperson for the Iraqi Communist Party, said that while there has been a “tangible” improvement in conditions, especially in Baghdad, it is based on several problematic circumstances.

One is the violent sectarian cleansing of neighborhoods over the past two years that has led to a kind of negative stability, with several million Iraqis displaced from their homes. Another is the suspension of activity by the Shiite militias of Moqtada al-Sadr, blamed by most Iraqis for some of the worst sectarian violence. Finally, there is the “rather questionable cooperation between the U.S. and armed groups that have switched sides.” These groups, which had been hostile to the political process in Iraq, now are “cooperating with American forces for their own political goals,” Ali said.

The U.S. has made deals with thousands of former armed insurgents, many with ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, providing them with arms and cash to patrol neighborhoods, first in Anbar Province and now in Baghdad.

The New York Times reported Dec. 22 that the U.S. has hired some 65,000 to 80,000 “volunteers” in neighborhood patrols, known as Awakening Councils or Concerned Local Citizens. The number is expected to grow to over 100,000. Most are being paid an average of $300 a month, a large sum for Iraqis, and the U.S is supplying them with weapons and, in some cases, reconstruction contracts. The official U.S. line is that these forces will be eventually integrated into the Iraqi government army and police forces.

But many Iraqis are suspicious of the motives of some of these groups, and there is growing concern that that the U.S. is in effect setting them up as private militias outside government control.

Some Iraqis welcome indications of fracturing among reactionary forces who would like to return to power. But the U.S. tactic is also sparking fear that these same forces are getting a boost from the U.S.

The governing Shiite Islamic parties, already reluctant to give up or share power, see the U.S. deals as a threat. This is complicating efforts to end sectarian polarization, even as many Iraqis want the government to more actively pursue national reconciliation.

While the government says it will integrate a portion of the “volunteers” into national security forces or provide them other jobs, Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi told a Dec. 22 news conference the groups would not be allowed to have any infrastructure, such as a headquarters building, that would give them long-term legitimacy.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the biggest Shiite Islamic party, told reporters the groups should be an “arm of the government … not a substitute for it.”

Ali said the Iraqi al-Qaeda first set up shop in Anbar early in the U.S. occupation. He characterized it as a “marriage of convenience” between former Saddam Hussein intelligence and military personnel and extreme Sunni Islamic forces. The province was fertile soil for this, with a political scene dominated by tribal elements and links with Saudi and Jordanian smugglers going back to the 1980s and ’90s and the imposition of U.S. sanctions. Gradually, the al-Qaeda group became better funded than the Baathist/nationalist forces, and last year announced it planned to set up its own Islamic government. According to Ali, the Baathists and tribal forces felt they had been marginalized, and decided to make a tactical alliance with the U.S. to strengthen their own positions.

Ali described it as part of a “process of metamorphosis” among the Baathists. They no longer represent the Baath Party as an entity — it is beset by splits and bickering. “The former Baath Party leadership has lost control of many of its own people,” he said.

“What is going on now is a process of fragmentation in these armed groups,” whose leaders are degenerating in some places into local “warlords,” funded by the U.S., he said.

Ali called it a very “fragile” and volatile situation. Unfortunately, he said, “U.S. interference is proving to be a major obstacle to any real progress toward national reconciliation.”


Also read What’s Behind Bush’s ‘Surge’ in Iraq? by Joel Wendland,


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.