On the Ground: Men With Guns

Captain Helberg strikes a delicate balance for a day

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For many of the journalists who have covered it, it has been the story of their lifetime, but we’ve nevertheless seen coverage of the war slip off the front pages over the last few months. While there are still plenty of reporters risking their lives doing great work in Iraq, much of the political, social, and economic complexity of today’s war seems to be getting lost in the election-year crush, even as the war continues to be a major issue in the campaign. This series is CJR’s attempt to add a little bit of context to the whole, while digging into stories that don’t always make it into our morning newspapers. This is Part Six.

A slim, slightly weathered-looking man with flecks of gray in his hair, Colonel Ehssan—leader of the local Sons of Iraq group—sits behind his desk, looking unhappy. We had driven from combat outpost Courage this morning to his headquarters, a first floor room in an old building set far back from the road, only a few miles from the base. The room, and the building, is typically Iraqi, meaning typically shabby, with sand-caked windows, peeling yellow paint on the walls, and a few long couches turned toward the colonel’s desk. A space heater sits in the middle of the room, providing whatever heat it can muster.

Ehssan’s group of Sons of Iraq volunteers are part of the 80,000 men the American Army and Marines are currently paying $300 a month each to man checkpoints in their neighborhoods, and they’re a large reason for the recent downturn of violence in Iraq. It’s a dangerous job. Given that there exists quite a bit of distrust between the mostly Shia Iraqi army and the predominately Sunni Sons of Iraq, and that the Baghdad government has mostly kept the Sons of Iraq at arm’s length—it is left to the Americans to pay the volunteers to do the job the Iraqi army and police should be doing. Add to this the increasing number of attacks against Iraqi checkpoints by al Qaeda and Shia insurgent groups, and you begin to see the precarious position these men are in.

With Charlie company’s Stryker vehicles idling out in the courtyard, where I had accidentally kicked a rusted AK-47 clip lying in the dirt on the way in, Captain Helberg and his interpreter settle in for their meeting with the colonel. On the surface, things really aren’t all that bad for Ehssan: his 250 SOIs are all under contract, meaning the American military pays them, and his men have all had their photographs, fingerprints, and retina scans taken by U.S. forces and issued identity cards. This information is entered into a central database, and if any prospective SOI member is already in the system, that means that they had been fingerprinted and photographed doing something that made the Americans unhappy at some point in the past, making them ineligible. On top of this, Ehssan has the backing of the local sheiks, and up to this point has had little interference from the Iraqi Police or Army. Still, there’s the local bogeyman, the Iraqi Army’s Muthana brigade, to contend with.

The colonel assures Helberg that he has no problem with the Iraqi army as an institution, just with the Muthana brigade, which he calls “sectarian.” He’s concerned that the Iraqi army recently shot at one of his checkpoints stationed on a bridge, but Helberg thinks that the only reason they were shot at is because they weren’t wearing the tan Sons of Iraq uniforms they had recently been issued, and they were camped out on a bridge, raising the Iraqi Army’s suspicions. The uniform issue is one that I had seen come up several times before, especially as the volunteers go outside the bounds of their contract and become more “expeditionary” as one officer charitably put it to me, meaning that some of them are heading out on patrols or are trying to hunt down insurgents, when they’re supposed to be nothing more than a stationary guard outfit.

This ís a perfect example of how the American military is, in a very real way, caught between three distinct groups of armed men trying to assert their place in the new Iraq. It’s difficult to try and appease, strengthen, and support the Sons of Iraq, the Iraqi Police, and the Iraqi Army when each group has its own ideas about how things should be run, and rarely consults with one another as to their plans—driven as they are by different leadership groups, agendas, and tribal and sectarian interests. As Kenny Clayborne, Charlie company’s First Sergeant would tell me later, if Muthana comes in to the area, “then there’s no need for the SOI guys to man the checkpoints any longer, and they’ll be out of jobs. Right now the SOI guys have some level of control of what is going on in their area, who comes in and out,” and understandably, they like this control, and being able to keep the peace.

Part of the problem is that the Iraqi government and its security forces have been absent from the area for so long. The local Sunnis don’t know what to expect when the government—a Shia-controlled government to boot—comes back. Clayborne tells me that when he served in Kirkuk in 2005, American forces were operating with Iraqi security forces “in ways that they haven’t even begun to do here.” He adds that “a lot of other places in Iraq are a lot further down the road in their partnership with Iraqi security forces. I never expected that I’d be in an area where I was operating pretty much independently of Iraqi security forces.”

This is changing, albeit slowly. The local police outpost boasts 455 police officers, led by Colonel Hamed, who has proclaimed his willingness to work with both the Sons of Iraq and the Iraqi Army. But there are still sectarian intrigues. During one meeting I sat in on between Helberg and Col. Hamed, the police chief let slip that the head of the Muthana brigade, General Nasser, was planning to meet with the local Shia sheiks of the al Tamimi tribe. No Sunnis had been invited. Helberg hadn’t heard anything about this meeting before this, and was obviously unhappy that the delicate balance he was working so hard to maintain might be undercut by backroom maneuverings of the Iraq Army.

But here with Col. Ehssan, Helberg is busy explaining that he can’t control what the Iraqi government chooses to do with its army, and that Muthana is, after all, the official security force of the Iraqi government. While Helberg and Ehssan are squaring off over the issue, a new wrinkle presents itself: a group of robed Sunni sheiks suddenly begins to file into the room, causing Helberg to crack a pained smile and mutter, “here we go.”

As the sheiks file in, the colonel continues to claim that Muthana will either arrest or kill all the young men in the area. And that with the Army will come the feared Shia group Jaish al Mahdi. Finishing with a cigarette-waving flourish, the colonel claims that he will be among the first arrested. The sheiks eagerly join in, threatening to take their tribes and move out of the area if the Muthana brigade comes in. One, who says he is speaking on behalf of all his fellow sheiks, tells Cpt. Helberg that if the Americans start working with the Muthana brigade, the Sunni sheiks won’t work with the Americans any more. “The Iraqi government is against the sheiks,” he proclaims.

Things have hit an impasse, but one of the sheiks gives Helberg the opening he needs to regain control of the situation: he asks what the Captain thinks of the sheiks. Helberg takes a few seconds, collects his thoughts. He starts by telling them that he knows they’re all honorable men, and that they’re respected by the people. He respects them. They’re leaders. The sheiks like this, and nod. Then comes the hammer: “You tell me that you want to work for a better Iraq, but your actions show me otherwise.” A charge goes through the room, and you can feel the sheiks bristle. He brings up the sheik meeting he had called the day before, where only the Shia sheiks showed up. The Sunnis plead ignorance, claiming that they figured all the Shia were at the Muthana ceremony celebrating their emerging role in the area, so they didn’t bother going. Helberg turns this back on them, telling them that the Shia could have been at the ceremony, but felt that the meeting—and working together with the Sunnis—was more important.

It’s a crushing blow. A few of the sheiks try turning the tables, saying that the Shia are stabbing them in the back by working with the Muthana brigade. One sheik rolls out an old Iraqi saying, “The Sunni and the Shia are like the Tigris and the Euphrates,” explaining that he doesn’t want to dump sewage in the rivers, but the Iranians, who back the Shia government in Iraq, are the sewage.

In the end, Helberg manages to wring promises out of the Sunni sheiks to work with their Shia counterparts, but it’s hard to be convinced that these words will be followed up by much effort at reconciliation. Walking back out to the Stryker vehicles for the trip back to Courage, I ask Helberg if he thinks the sheiks are serious about moving. “Some will move,” he says, shrugging. “I believe that. Some will take off their [SOI] uniforms and remove the happy faces and fight back, and some will go to ground and try to exist like they’ve done for years.”

And without a strong, non-sectarian national government in Baghdad to stop this from happening, Helberg’s prediction is probably close to being right on the money.

This is Part Six of an ongoing series.

Part One, “Up Close With the Counterinsurgency,” is here.

Part Two, “Meet the Sons of Iraq,”is here.

Part Three, “Fact From Fiction,” is here.

Part Four, “Dances With Strongmenm,” is here.

Part Five, “The Rejected,” is here.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.