When the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, reported
to Congress in early September about the progress of the war,
he cited alliances with a former U.S. foe -- Sunni tribal groups,
now split from al-Qaida -- as one of the most promising signs
what may be the most significant development of the past eight
months, the tribal rejection of al-Qaida that started in Anbar
province and helped produce such significant change there has
now spread to a number of other locations, as well," Petraeus
Progress has been seen in Baghdad, where an estimated 5,000 Sunni
fighters have joined local policing efforts in the last few months,
Col. Rick Welch, head of reconciliation for the U.S. military
command in the capital, told the Washington Post.
Al-Qaida's use of violence and intimidation toward Sunnis has
alienated militias and tribes that were fighting U.S. troops alongside
the Iraq group affiliated with Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
Tribal leaders also realized al-Qaida in Iraq was leading them
"on a path to destruction," and wanted to position themselves
to be in a legitimate position of power when U.S forces eventually
leave, wrote Dave Kilcullen, the former top counterinsurgency
adviser to the U.S. command in Iraq, in the online Small Wars
The counterinsurgency tactic of building alliances with these
groups is aimed at drawing them into the Iraq security forces
and reducing violence, but some experts say the tactic is fraught
with risks for the U.S. Military and the Shiite-led Iraqi government.
Iraqi government worries
One of the Iraqi government's biggest concerns has
been that the militias may turn against U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council
on Foreign Relations, said the tactic has created some fear within
the Iraqi government, but the coalition is "past the stage
of pristine policy choices."
"It is hard to get Iraqi government support for this tactic,"
Biddle said. "They are concerned the Sunni militias will
turn on them, which is not an unreasonable fear."
The lack of political progress and national reconciliation between
sects in Iraq was criticized widely by U.S. lawmakers during Petraeus'
While the empowerment of Sunni groups could pose a threat to
the Shiite majority, Lt. Col. John Nagl, author of a book on counterinsurgency
strategy, said the Shiite government should be supportive as long
as the Sunni militias are incorporated into the Iraqi army.
"Historically, this is how insurgencies are defeated,"
Another major point of concern for U.S. And Iraqi interests
is the concept of arming militias that might participate in future
violence or civil war.
But Carter Malkasian, director of the Small Wars Program at the
Center for Naval Analyses, said the concerns are misplaced.
"These forces already had arms, so you're not arming people
that did not have weapons," Malkasian said.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Military has taken further precautions
and is using biometric tests, including fingerprints and retinal
scans, to track fighters who will receive weapons.
In general, U.S. soldiers are approaching the tactic very cautiously,
said Richard Davis, a retired command sergeant major from the
U.S. Army currently working for a defense contractor.
"You don't want to arm Sunnis that are radical and will
perpetuate the fight," but there are Sunnis that believe
in a new Iraq, said Davis.
Bringing Sunnis into the fold
Building strong Iraqi security forces has been an ongoing
problem, one that earned the Iraqi police force scathing reviews
in recent reports.
The Iraqi security forces are comprised of the Iraqi Army, the
national police and the local police forces. Most likely, these
militias will be incorporated into local security forces, said
The process of building trust and incorporating former militias
into security forces will have to be a slow and gradual, he added.
The best way to ensure that these forces become a permanent security
force will be the presence of American troops, said Nagl.
"The single most important element of creating a truly Iraqi
army is the American transition teams that we imbed in Iraqi units,"
he said. "The best way to ensure that these security forces
are acting within the interests of the Iraqi government is to
watch over them with American forces. These teams can make great
Incorrect implementation of this policy could make the civil
war worse, warned Malkasian. The success will depend on execution,
and the presence of U.S. troops, he said.
A troop withdrawal at this time would likely empower al-Qaida,
especially in Sunni-dominated areas, said Malkasian. Previously,
al-Qaida easily defeated Sunni militias that didn't have U.S.
support, he said.
In his article, Kilcullen agreed it is too early to call the
tactic a success, writing "it is clear that the tribal revolt
could still go either way."
"Counterinsurgencies have a very mixed record," said
Biddle. "Petraeus knows the risks, he is very well aware
of them -- he wrote his dissertation on Vietnam."