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 Seven in an ongoing series.

Captain Christopher Loftis, commanding officer of C company, 2/25 in Tarmiya, was trying to feel out a group of Iraqi men who hoped to join the Sons of Iraq movement. The men were standing around a checkpoint that flew the yellow flag of the Anbar Awakening movement at an intersection a few miles outside of town, and he was asking them how things were going.


The response was the same each time: “more weapons” to fight the insurgents. Loftis would smile, shake the man’s hand, and move on. It was the usual request, always denied, but given that these men weren’t even under contract to provide security, the plea was a little premature. The captain had come out to this checkpoint in front of a former Saddam-era uranium processing plant not just to meet these men, but the men who organized them, along with about six hundred others who wanted a contract with the American Army to provide security.


The Sons of Iraq program, begun in the spring of 2007 and funded by U.S. taxpayers to the tune thus far of $123 million and counting, is basically a private militia—80,000 strong at this point—hired by the American military to help fight the insurgency. Not surprisingly, the success of the SOI has produced conflict with the Iraqi government. At a meeting the day before with the local Iraqi police commander, the police complained that two people had been kidnapped and released by an “illegal checkpoint” manned by the SOI the night before, and that some of the men at these new checkpoints were wearing masks. The police commander wanted to make some arrests, which brought the American civil affairs officer assigned to Tarmiya, Major Guidry, to the edge of his seat. “Just get their names and give them to us,” Guidry warned. “We don’t want to put you in a position where you’re in conflict with Abna al-Iraq [Arabic for Sons of Iraq],” The police colonel frowned, but agreed not to do anything drastic.


This is how easily things can turn in Iraq. If the police commander had rolled up on the checkpoint and tried to arrest the men staffing it, the situation could easily devolve into a gun battle between Iraqi government forces and the irregular forces being paid by, and deriving their legitimacy from, the Americans. It’s not a situation that anyone, for obvious reasons, wants. For starters, it would spotlight the fact that the American military is paying citizens to do the work that the Iraqi government security forces have been unable to do, therefore calling into question the effectiveness of the government itself. Also, in Iraq’s tribal society, such a confrontation would likely start a bloody cycle of revenge with U.S. forces caught in the middle.


In a piece about the increasing use military contractors by the American military, Michael Walzer wrote recently in The New Republic that:


the state is constituted by its monopoly on the use of force…This is what states are for; this is what they have to do before anything else—shut down the private wars, disarm the private armies, lock up the warlords. It is a very dangerous business to loosen the state’s grip on the use of violence…


But this loosening of the state’s grip on the monopoly of violence is the only way that the American military has found to pull Iraq back from the unrestrained chaos of 2007, which set records for American and Iraqi deaths. And for now it’s working, at least when it comes to keeping the American death toll lower than it had been for much of the past several years.


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?’”


Loftis continued,


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.


Part Two, “Men With Guns,” is here.


Part Three: “Night Patrol,” is here.


Part Four: “The Suicide Bomber” is here.


Part Five: “The End of the Weapons Cache” is here.


Part Six: “Riding to Tarmiya” is here.

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