East Rashid, Baghdad — A young man wearing a tan shirt emblazoned with the Iraqi flag and with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder approaches the doorway of Saint John’s Church, peeks inside, and motions to the American G.I. sergeant standing next to me. They step outside and I watch as the Iraqi makes a sign of the cross, points to the building, and then points to the American’s M-4 rifle, and waves his hand. After a few seconds, the sergeant gets it: no weapons inside the church. The sergeant leaves his weapon with another soldier as he reenters.
Saint John’s — one of about two dozen Chaldean Catholic parish churches in Baghdad — is located in East Rashid, a Sunni neighborhood described by both Iraqi and American officers as “former al-Qaeda headquarters.” Church leaders manage a small but growing congregation of Iraqi Catholics, many of whom were able to attend their first Mass in years this past Christmas. The pews that day were also full of local Sunnis supporting their Christian neighbors, as well as invited Americans.
The story of Saint John’s is significant, and for the residents in this part of Al Doura it’s a return to normalcy. Chaldean Catholics have lived in this neighborhood for centuries, part of Baghdad’s complex tapestry. However the need to defend the church is a recent development — and in a way, an encouraging one. I was intrigued by the dozens of armed men in tan shirts standing in the streets near the church, as well as the hundreds I’ve seen in Baghdad so far. Who are these Sons of Iraq?
I step outside to find out more about the man in the tan shirt who persuaded the sergeant to disarm himself. He is a Sunni member of the Al Doura market area’s “Sons of Iraq” (formerly known as Concerned Local Citizens), the local security militia paid $10 per day to maintain order and to collect intelligence in their neighborhoods. Asked why he took it upon himself to enforce church rules (on a U.S. Army sergeant, no less!), he told me, “I respect the Christians here, they are my brothers.”
Prior to my trip, I was worried the Sons of Iraq would consist only of former Sunni insurgents, recklessly roaming their neighborhoods — armed, but without uniforms — on the dime of U.S. taxpayers. I was off target — as most pundits have been — and leave Iraq convinced that the “Sons” must play a key role in securing Iraq’s future. Some 91,000 have been stationed on Iraqi streets since the Anbar Awakening occurred in the fall of 2006, constituting a grassroots Iraqi surge of equal importance to our own.
Admittedly, I only observed the Sons (I’m told there are “Daughters of Iraq” as well) in southeast Baghdad, but after speaking candidly with senior American officials, I have little reason to believe that their composition and motives vary drastically elsewhere. Most importantly, the variance that does exist is a reflection of Iraq’s diverse population. All Sons of Iraq and their leadership are required to be residents of the neighborhoods they protect and are not allowed to enforce law outside their assigned area or to conduct offensive operations.
Over 11,000 Sons of Iraq (two thirds of them Sunni, one-third Shia) operate in southern Baghdad alone, and I watched them man checkpoints and interact with local residents. Every prospective Son of Iraq is fingerprinted and receives a retinal scan, after which they are screened through national and local security databases — both American and Iraqi. This process ensures that, while their ranks may include some former insurgents, the Sons are purged of hard-core fighters, foreign fighters, and insurgent leaders.
One Son of Iraq told me, “A few of my friends joined al-Qaeda, and now they are dead or captured. I never did, and this gives me a chance to keep al-Qaeda from coming back.”
Their task is to maintain checkpoints in their area, and report any insurgent or criminal activity to Iraqi and American forces. I pressed several American commanders hard: “Do you have a problem with rogue elements within the movement?” Surprisingly, there is very little. Early in the movement, some units — especially in Anbar Province — sought and killed al-Qaeda members. But today, anyone who conducts offensive operations or shows any sectarian tendencies is quickly fired and disarmed.
The importance of these forces can hardly be overstated. After American and national Iraqi forces clear an area of insurgents, the Sons of Iraq remain to hold the neighborhood and protect the population, driving out the final remnants of resistance.
This is only step one, of course: Iraqis must eventually secure themselves, especially if American force levels are reduced prematurely. The sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007 left such deep scars and inherent mistrust of outsiders, that national-level Iraqi security forces are scarcely tolerated, let alone trusted. With time, this mistrust will fade. But in the near term — which is most important — the local Sons provide the trusted and local indigenous forces needed to maintain security gains and ensure insurgents don’t reconstitute. Counterinsurgency 101.
The Sons are not nearly as well trained as their Iraqi army and police counterparts, but to a man, they expect to eventually become formally recognized as trained Iraqi police. They want to serve their country in uniform and — as soon as conditions permit — without consideration of sectarian background. For me, the encounter at the church was a window into the non-sectarian history Iraqis tell me they are fiercely proud of, and eager to regain.
American units are working doggedly to facilitate the transition of Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi police, but the process is slow. One Son of Iraq told me, “As long as I can feed my family, I will continue fighting for my neighborhood as a Son of Iraq. I hope to join the Iraqi police very soon. But I submitted my paperwork months ago, and have heard nothing.” The central Shia government is dragging its feet on most of the 11,000 applicants — who, when approved, will be paid by the Iraqi government, rather than the Coalition. But discerning American commanders believe the groundswell of security and prosperity in Sunni areas will eventually convince the Shia government to approve and employ more Iraqi police.
That said, limited police allocations and stringent (and sometimes sectarian) requirements at the national level will prevent many Sons of Iraq from becoming Iraqi police. This is a serious problem, and both Iraqi and American leaders realize it. In southeast Baghdad, Colonel Ricky Gibbs and his staff are working hand-in-hand with Iraqi leaders to institute local Civil Service Departments that will absorb this flow and provide comparable payment for stable vocations. As Col. Gibbs observes, “With security coming around, now we need a surge in services.”
I’ve seen similar projects fail in the past, but for the first time in four years, the neighborhoods are secure enough that all interested parties — the Iraqi government, the State Department, USAID, the NGOs, and the U.S. military — are all finally at the table and prepared to make progress. More importantly, local Iraqi leaders are leading the effort to ensure that any American plan is ultimately sustainable. Our ability to integrate Sons of Iraq into the police force and simultaneously help Iraqis provide alternative jobs will determine whether we translate recent drastic security gains into permanent stability.
In the near-term, the signs of success at the street level are obvious, with Sunnis protecting Christians and working alongside Shia police units. Al-Qaeda’s former headquarters in Al Doura hasn’t seen a significant attack in months, and I walked freely through the neighborhood, unarmed and with limited protection, for the better part of two days.
So, next time you hear antiwar groups say “We are arming Sunni militias who will turn their guns on us,” throw the facts back at them. The young men I met are sick of the violence and have said “enough!” They want safe streets for their families and neighbors. The Sons of Iraq are not an end state, but they are a significant step forward in America’s complex counterinsurgency fight.
– Captain Pete Hegseth, who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2005 to 2006, is executive director of Vets for Freedom. He’s currently back in Iraq covering the surge for NRO.