None of this is ever far from the minds of American commanders, and as Captain Loftis walked up to the gates of the factory he told me that, just a week earlier, “these guys were not on the radar screen. It actually kinda surprised us when we saw the first new checkpoint about a week ago and we were like, ‘Who are these guys?’”
We’re very cautious when we see Sons of Iraq groups, not so much because we’re worried that they’re doing some kind of nefarious activity, but it’s more of, we want to make sure they’re part of the security solution. Let’s make sure they’re part of the security solution, let’s embrace them and see who they are. We can’t be naïve about it, though. Some of these guys might be exactly the people we were fighting five or six months ago, maybe last week before they threw up the checkpoint. It could be a cover, but this is all about them making legitimate progress to secure their area.
We walked through the smashed gates of the plant, and were led to a small room in a one-story building that looked like it used to be administrative offices (no one could explain how the group seemed to have taken over the facility), where we were met by Sheik Maher, a thin, mustachioed man dressed in a dark tracksuit and kaffiyeh, and Ahmer, professional-looking man in a crisp, tan sport coat and jeans. Both claim to be former lieutenant colonels, Maher in the army and Ahmer in intelligence. American soldiers and Iraqis jammed into the room where they pored over a map of the area, trying to pinpoint the locations of the eight new checkpoints that the Sheik’s men had established. The Iraqis made their case, describing all they can do to improve security in the area if given a contract to join the Sons of Iraq movement.
Loftis pulled out all the tools in his counterinsurgency tool box, scolding a soldier for standing with his back to one of the Iraqis, which is considered rude, and working quickly to assign the Iraqis responsibility. He asked them to make a sign that the Americans can copy and distribute to the checkpoints so they’re easily identifiable as being under U.S. patronage. “If we make the signs,” Loftis said, “we probably won’t use the right language.”
But best of all, Loftis speaks Arabic. A former intelligence and Special Forces officer, the Army sent him to language school in the early ’90s, and it’s a tool he uses effectively to catch the nuances in language that might be lost when relying on translators. At one point, deep in conversation in Arabic, Loftis and the Iraqis unleashed a big laugh, which Loftis translated for the rest of us: “I asked him why he wants security in his area, and he told me that once his area is secured, his men can join the Iraqi army and police and then overthrow the Maliki government!”
I wasn’t so sure he was kidding. Later, when I asked Loftis about this, he told me that Maher was merely trying to see how the Americans would react. What Loftis found much more interesting was that during the meeting, Ahmer used the phrase, “at the time of the fall of Saddam,” and Sheik Maher broke in to correct him, saying, “You mean ‘at the time of the occupation.’”
The Iraqis have different words for “coalition forces” and “occupation forces,” and Sheik Maher explicitly used the latter in conversation, Loftis explained, so “he kind of showed where his compass is pointing.” In other words, Maher was showing Loftis his disdain for American forces, but given the choice between fighting the Americans and al Qaeda, he’s made the decision to fight al Qaeda and take American money for doing so.
So who, exactly, are Maher and Ahmer? There are indications that Maher is affiliated with the 1920s Revolution Brigade, a Sunni insurgent group that has long battled American forces and has been stridently anti-coalition. “Obviously maybe some of the stuff these guys have done is bad,” Loftis said, and they “aren’t necessarily happy with coalition forces being here, but we’re the lesser of the two evils that they have to deal with.” “But you’ve got to move forward. They’re Iraqi patriots is what they are.”
At this point in the war in Iraq, it appears that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. And while many of these insurgent groups are reconciling with American forces, Maher’s joke about the Maliki government shows that among some, reconciliation between Iraqis has a long way to go.
Part One, “The Rejected,” is here.