- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2008

Omar Jaffar spends his days helping keep the streets of his Baghdad neighborhood safe for his fellow Sunni Muslims. He has an urgent message for President-elect Barack Obama:”Don’t take American soldiers away just yet,” Mr. Jaffar said in his home in the capital’s Adhamiyah section. They are needed for “maybe five years. Who knows? We need them.”

Mr. Jaffar, 19, belongs to the Sons of Iraq, a paramilitary group of about 100,000 once-hostile Sunni Muslims that the U.S. pays to help pacify Baghdad and other regions. Though the group is allied with the American military, the Shi’ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki views it with suspicion, expressing fears that it may become a belligerent militia.

That leaves the Sons of Iraq suspended between competing agendas: a U.S. one aimed at minimizing violence and an Iraqi government goal to marginalize potential internal enemies, said Terrence K. Kelly, a senior operations researcher for the Rand Corp. in Pittsburgh.

“They would be exposed” if U.S. forces left, he said. “Iraqi security forces could come get them. That’s their big worry.”

Mr. Jaffar and about 1,800 fellow Sons of Iraq members in Adhamiyah help the United States hunt terrorists. The neighborhood once harbored members of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. Before the Sunnis began joining forces with the United States, it also was a bastion for Sunni Muslim insurgents who bedeviled U.S. forces with ambushes and roadside bombs.

The Sons of Iraq cling to U.S. forces in part because they view the Iraqi government as antagonistic. Shi’ite Muslims, sectarian rivals of Iraq’s Sunni minority, dominate the al-Maliki government, and Sunnis were a mainstay of deposed leader Saddam Hussein. His 25 years in power featured roundups and executions of Shi’ites, many buried of them in mass graves discovered since 2003.

“We don’t know if the government wants to live with us or not,” said Mr. Jaffar, who called it a tool of Shi’ite-ruled Iran.

U.S. troops are the organizers, paymasters and military muscle behind the Sons of Iraq. In Adhamiyah, members don’t think they can get along without them.

“Maybe they could just go and stay inside bases and come out when we need them,” suggested Mahmoud Musaib, 24, who once belonged to the Special Republican Guard, the Republican Guard unit that was late dictator’s personal security force.

The Sons’ fate may become enmeshed in discussions over how and when U.S. forces will be drawn down in Iraq. The Iraqi government on Sunday approved an accord with the Bush administration that would let U.S. forces stay until the end of 2011. It is subject to parliamentary consent.

During his campaign, Mr. Obama pledged to withdraw combat forces earlier, within 16 months of his January 2009 inauguration, and bolster U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama has said he would keep some troops in Iraq to train the country’s military and police, conduct counterterrorism missions and protect U.S. civilian personnel.

Either deadline would test whether the Iraqis can hold al Qaeda at bay and suppress anti-government Iraqi Sunnis.

“The Iraqis may not be quite ready to take care of their own security,” said Lt. Frank Simmons, whose B Company from the 3rd Brigade, Fourth Infantry Division, patrols Adhamiyah and keeps tabs on the Sons of Iraq in a so-called “overwatch” role. “The place is still dangerous.”

The patrols also raid hideouts to round up enemy suspects fingered by the Sons of Iraq and neighborhood informers.

On Nov. 10, attackers detonated a bomb in an Adhamiyah market, and then a suicide bomber followed up by detonating another explosive. Twenty-eight people died. The perpetrators haven’t been identified.

Mr. Jaffar said his father was in Saddam’s army, making him a target of Shi’ite wrath. “Saddam kept the country in control,” he said. “We didn’t have this killing of each other.”

Anti-Sunni rampages by Shi’ite death squads in 2005 and 2006 especially targeted Sunnis who belonged to Saddam’s extensive security apparatus.

Al Qaeda, in the meantime, began killing anyone suspected of cooperating with the U.S. Since the Sunni-U.S. alliance started in western Iraq about two years ago, violent incidents have plummeted.

Mr. Jaffar said al Qaeda operatives killed two of his brothers because he wanted to help the U.S. defend Sunnis against Shi’ite marauders. A comrade, Omar Jamal Ibrahim, said a Shi’ite terrorist bombing of a gas station killed his father. Al Qaeda assassins killed a third companion of Mr. Musaib’s, he said, because he started cooperating with the U.S. forces.

In 2005 and 2006, bodies often littered the shore of a stretch of the Tigris River that separates Adhamiyah from the large Shi’ite Kadamiyah neighborhood to the west, said Qusay Ahmed, 34, who joined the Sons of Iraq in 2007. Many had been dumped there by Shi’ite marauders, he said.

These days, Mr. Ahmed never leaves Adhamiyah, saying he’s afraid someone will finger him for having worked in Saddam’s security services.

“I wouldn’t even cross the river for a glass of water,” he said. “It’s not time for the Americans to think about leaving.”

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