They told him they had let two of them go because they couldn’t identify them. “Next time we’ll take you with us,” they said.
U.S. military officials say cooperation from a so-far small group of imams, neighborhood leaders and even former insurgents trying to drive out al-Qaeda is a promising spark. But both U.S. and Iraqi military commanders are wary of fanning it out of control.
“We don’t want to give them too many weapons in case they turn on us,” said a commander of the largely Shiite Iraqi Army in the neighborhood.
The Saddam-era Iraqi Army veteran recognized by the U.S. military as the leader of the group was disappointed with the lack of local participation and eager for more tangible support from American forces.
“At the beginning it was great but after we had some people killed, a lot of people dropped out,” he told me, disheartened.
He said they had started out with about 150 volunteers but now had no more than 30 fighters. As for support from the American forces, “what support are they giving us?” he asked. “You saw with your own eyes – we had six or seven martyrs.”
“We need to be stronger in this neighborhood – the people of the neighborhood. We can’t do it alone. So if we work with the American forces we can start to have security here and then we’ll work on the other neighborhoods,” he said.
U.S. and Iraqi commanders favor standing back and letting the two groups fight.
“We’re still negotiating how we’re going to work together,” said Lieutenant Colonel Dale Kuehl, of the 1st Battalion 5th Cavalry Regiment, in charge of Amiriyah.
“This is not al-Anbar, this is the capital,” said Kuehl referring to an area where Sunni tribes have turned against al-Qaeda with the tacit approval of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.
“We are going to have to find a way to work together on this. I can’t turn Amiriyah over. They will have to find a way to work with the Iraqi Army.”
The resistance group said it had killed five suspected al-Qaeda members. The U.S. says it killed at least two more after one of its patrols came under attack on Saturday. The resistance leader has had at least six people killed and several more wounded, including one fighter shot in the chest on Saturday.
On Friday, ten U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter were injured – one of the soldiers seriously – when a large cache of explosives at a house in Amiriyah blew up after they were led there by an Iraqi informant. They said they did not believe they were ambushed since the informant was with them in the house at the time.
On Saturday another American soldier was killed in the neighborhood after his armored vehicle struck a buried IED.
Sunday the neighborhood appeared calm – for the first time in days there were both men and women in the street.
At the mosque where I watched American medics treat wounded Iraqi fighters when the clashes begin on Thursday, they had ripped up the blood-soaked carpet.
“Did you ever think you’d be standing in a mosque?” I asked one of the soldiers. “And they invited us here,” he said.
Shortly after I arrived with soldiers from the 1st Battalion 5th Cavalry Regiment they received a tip there were 12 bodies at another neighborhood mosque. They decided to go with one of the Iraqi fighters to identify them.
As the Bradlee fighting vehicles approached the mosque, the streets were full of people.
There were no bodies, nor an ambush. The soldiers stopped to talk to people living nearby.
One Iraqi man said the mosque on Wednesday had broadcast calls for residents to fight al-Qaeda. He told Sergeant Stephen Bradshaw he hadn’t seen any of them. “I’ve only seen the fighting on the news,” said the man, who did not want to be identified. “If I saw them of course I’d fight them.”
He said he’d felt safe enough on Sunday to go to his job at a government office in the nearby district of Mansour.
Tough choices for strange allies
The U.S. is weighing how much support to give the group.
“What they want to do would not be effective and that’s go out and fight by themselves,” said Captain Kevin Salge, a company commander with the Stryker’s 1st Battalion 23rd Infantry Regiment.
Salge was in the house on Friday which exploded but was not seriously injured. On Sunday he and his men escaped injury when their armored vehicle was hit by an IED.
Compared to al-Qaeda the resistance fighters appear undermanned, undertrained and underequipped.
“Which is why we’ve been telling them stay in this area, secure yourselves, secure your weapons, and come out with us - come out with the Iraqi Army, tell us what’s going on and let us be the muscle behind it to go out there and get them.”
“So far they’ve been working with that – a lot of times they get frustrated they want to jump out but they know that they don’t have the numbers to go out there and fight a huge war.”
For the U.S. military fighting a multi-layered insurgency often sheltered by the local population, this is at least a symbolic victory.
“When you consider the phones calls from the sheikhs, the sheikhs voted – they have chosen a side,” said Major Chris Rogers, of the 1st Battalion 5th Cavalry Regiment, referring to two sheikhs who last week decided to cooperate with U.S. forces.
For the resistance group, U.S. forces that some of them might once have attacked have become the lesser of two evils.
“At the moment the American forces are the ones with the power, the Iraqi Army and anyone else don’t matter,” said the resistance leader. Asked whether he had been part of the insurgency, he answered: “that question puts me in a difficult position.”
Kuehl said areas where the resistance was operating had become much safer for his forces.
“For an American soldier to walk through there is not an issue right now - you’re not going to be hit by an IED, you’re not going to get shot at and that’s unusual – I couldn’t have said that a week ago.”
The area has been one of the most dangerous for U.S. forces in Baghdad. Six 1-5 Cav soldiers and their interpreter were killed here three weeks ago when their Bradley was hit by an IED. The 1-23 Stryker brigade has taken the majority of its casualties in Amiriyah.
“I’d say that most of them are local guys – now they may have been local guys that were mixed up with something else in the past but from what I’ve seen the training level is not that much,” said Kuehl. “They probably know how to build IEDs and shoot a weapon and that’s about it – I don’t see them as hard-core terrorists I think most of them are just people who want to defend their homes.”