TAJI, Iraq — U.S. forces have brokered an agreement between Sunni and Shi’ite tribal leaders to join forces against al Qaeda and other extremists, extending a policy that has transformed the security situation in western Anbar province to this area north of the capital.
The extremists struck back yesterday with a suicide car bomb aimed at one of the Sunni tribes involved in the deal, killing three militiamen and wounding 14.
Members of the First Calvary Division based at nearby Camp Taji helped broker the deal on Saturday with the tribal leaders, who agreed to use members of more than 25 local tribes to protect the area around Taji from both Sunni and Shi’ite extremists.
Yesterday’s suicide attack took place at a checkpoint that was set up under the security plan and run by members of the al-Zobaie tribal militia, nicknamed “Freedom Fighters” by the U.S. troops. The Americans say they were attacked daily in the area 12 miles north of Baghdad before Saturday’s deal.
“We want to protect innocent civilians from killing and kidnapping,” said Nadeem al-Tamimi, a Shi’ite tribal leader. “We have been working against al Qaeda for two years and paying for it from our own pocket. But we’re not just against al Qaeda. We’re against all murderers and thieves.”
Shortly after that meeting, Mr. al-Tamimi received a call saying one of his relatives had been assassinated in what was described as a “warning” from the Mahdi Army, a Shi’ite militia nominally loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The Mahdi Army fought U.S. troops openly in 2004 when Sheik al-Sadr openly opposed participation in the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. But the militia splintered as sectarian violence increased, and Sheik al-Sadr allowed his followers to participate in the government as an opposition party.
Despite yesterday’s attack, U.S. troops believe they are making headway.
Immediately after Saturday’s agreement, soldiers from the Seventh Regiment of the First Cavalry Division calmly walked through Jurf al-Mila and nearby Falahat, both Sunni areas, to demonstrate the change since the tribal leaders first approached them.
Men from the village, most of the them carrying weapons, greeted the soldiers warmly, shaking hands and kissing cheeks in traditional Iraqi fashion.
Mr. al-Tamimi was to make formal the arrangement today at a meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and two other Shi’ite politicians, including Bahaa al-Araji, a member of Sheik al-Sadr’s parliamentary bloc.
U.S. Capt. Martin Wohlgemuth, who presided over Saturday’s meeting, said that step would allow members of the tribes to be officially hired and trained in the Iraqi police and military.
The proposed deal is the latest in a series of agreements that have brought the U.S. and Iraqi government into collaboration with various tribes and guerrilla groups that had in many cases been part of the insurgency.
Similar agreements in Anbar province have been credited with putting al Qaeda and its foreign extremists on the defensive while bringing relative peace to some of Iraq’s most violent areas.
The Taji agreement, however, is the first involving both Sunni and Shi’ite sheiks, and the U.S. military hopes it will help temper the increasing influence of the Mahdi Army in and around Baghdad.
“A month ago, every single one of these people was shooting at us,” said Sgt. Richard Fisk as he walked through Falahat pointing out places where his troops had been hit by roadside bombs.
Capt. Wohlgemuth said the tribal leaders approached the United States for support after a number of raids and detentions, coupled with increasingly brutal treatment of the local population by the group calling itself al Qaeda in Iraq.
The captain said that in some cases he has helped members of the new militia to get relatives released from U.S. and Iraqi custody, provided they were not linked to al Qaeda.
The militiamen indicated a fear of the Mahdi Army as well as of the Sunni insurgents and said they worried that Shi’ite families driven out of the area in the last two years might return to take revenge.
“They are both dangerous,” said one militiaman as he stood in front of a kabob stand in Falahat with a Kalashnikov around his neck while U.S. troops sat nearby.
Capt. Wohlgemuth arrived at the scene of yesterday’s bombing minutes after the explosion. There, he met with Hassan Naji al-Zobaie, the sheik in charge of the militiamen in Jurf al-Mila.
“For four years, different initiatives have fizzled. We can’t let this one fail,” he said of Saturday’s agreement.
Despite the initial success of such security arrangements, many Iraqis worry that the formation and arming of new militias will ultimately widen a civil war that has already killed thousands.
After yesterday’s car bombing, tensions between the Sunni militiamen and mostly Shi’ite Iraqi troops — who had failed to stop the car at a nearby checkpoint — nearly erupted into shooting.
“It is like raising a crocodile,” said Saad Yousef al-Muttalibi, a member of Mr. al-Maliki’s Cabinet who is in charge of negotiating reconciliation agreements. “It is fine when it is a baby, but when it is big, you can’t keep it in the house.”
c David Enders is reporting from Iraq on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.