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Monday, June 11, 2007

U.S. arming Sunnis in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq - With the 4-month-old "surge" in U.S. troops showing only modest success in curbing insurgent attacks, U.S. commanders are turning to another strategy they acknowledge is fraught with risk: arming Sunni Arab groups that have promised to fight Al-Qaida-linked militants who have been their allies in the past.

U.S. officials who have engaged in what they call "outreach" to the Sunni groups say the groups are mostly ones with links to Al-Qaida, but disillusioned with Al-Qaida's extremist tactics, particularly suicide bombings that have killed thousands of Iraqi civilians.

In exchange for U.S. backing, these officials say, the Sunni groups have agreed to fight Al-Qaida and halt attacks on U.S. units. Commanders who have undertaken these negotiations say that in some cases Sunni groups have agreed to alert U.S. troops to the location of roadside bombs and other lethal booby traps.

U.S. commanders have successfully tested the strategy in Al-Anbar province and have held talks with Sunni groups suspected of prior assaults on U.S. units, or of links to groups that have attacked Americans, in at least four other areas where the insurgency has been strong. In some cases, the U.S. commanders say, these groups have been provided, usually through Iraqi military units allied with the Americans, with arms, ammunition, cash, fuel and other supplies.

he strategy of arming Sunni groups was first tested this year in Al-Anbar province, the desert hinterland west of Baghdad, and attacks on U.S. troops plunged after tribal sheiks angered by Al-Qaida strikes that killed large numbers of Sunni civilians recruited thousands of men to join government security forces and tribal police. With Al-Qaida groups quitting the province for Sunni havens elsewhere, Al-Anbar has lost its long-held reputation as the most dangerous place in Iraq for U.S. troops.

Now, the Americans are testing the "Al-Anbar model" across wide areas of central and north-central Iraq, where the Sunni insurgency is concentrated.

U.S. officers acknowledge that providing weapons to breakaway rebel groups is not new in counter-insurgency warfare, and that in places where it has been tried before, including the French colonial war in Algeria, the British-led fight against insurgents in Malaya in the early 1950s, and in Vietnam, the effort often backfired, with weapons given to the rebels being turned against the forces providing them.

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