At opening of Iraqi town’s new government center, local leaders voice fears of a return to violence
Stars and Stripes March 6, 2008
NASIR WA SALAAM, Iraq - There seemed plenty to praise as local officials took to the podium at the grand opening of the new government center in this town a few miles west of Abu Ghraib.
A year ago, when this predominately Sunni region between Baghdad and Anbar province was torn by fighting, such a day would have seemed unlikely. But that was then. In his speech on Tuesday, Thamer Kaddam Zaydan al-Temimi, a leader of area Sons of Iraq groups — armed civilians who patrol neighborhoods — compared his country to Germany and Japan emerging from World War II.
“It’s time to build,” he said, wearing a gray suit, striped shirt and designer sunglasses. “It’s time to put down the rifle and pick up a shovel.”
A bulldozer parked behind the podium seemed designed to amplify the message.
But in an interview a few minutes later, al-Temimi, known as Abu Azzam, dug into considerably less optimistic territory.
“This area is still on fire,” he warned. “It might explode at any moment.”
Among many of the Iraqi officials at the grand opening, two words set the celebratory mood on its head: Muthana Brigade.
The brigade, a Shiite-dominated unit of the Iraqi army, has begun to push its area of operations out from Abu Ghraib and into the surrounding countryside; it’s expected to arrive in Nasir Wa Salaam within a few months, American commanders say. And as they acknowledge, its presence is not welcome among the Sunni population.
“If this brigade takes over, maybe this area goes back to violence,” said al-Temimi, whose Sons of Iraq groups total just over 1,500 men. “We want to get rid of this brigade.”
Ehassan Jabbar, a colonel in the old Iraqi army who commands a group nominally under al-Temimi’s control, amplified that message.
“If they operate in these areas, we will come to a negative point,” he said. “The peaceful experience will be dead. Completely dead.”
This is what’s facing the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 21st Stryker Infantry Regiment, which took control of the area just under two months ago. As in other areas that saw drops in violence, commanders are pushing for badly needed infrastructure repairs and the transition of security into Iraqi hands. But rebuilding has been slow to materialize from the Shiite-dominated central government, and American commanders see a recent uptick in violence here as indication that Sunni, non-al-Qaida insurgents remain capable of capitalizing on slow progress.
Handing off security to the Muthana Brigade, meanwhile, stands as a delicate job.
Still, although American commanders acknowledge widespread complaints of brutality and sectarian bias against the brigade, they see considerable posturing in the hard-line proclamations of leaders like al-Temimi.
“A lot of it is about them trying to set the conditions that are the most favorable to them,” said Lt. Col. Mario Diaz, the battalion’s commander. “The less influence the government of Iraq has in this area, the more influence they have.”
Al-Temimi has shown considerable savvy in modulating his public pronouncements, Diaz said, producing a newsletter that promotes his television appearances and rails against Iranian influence while also, in one issue, featuring a cartoon of a gun with the barrel twisted back to fire at the shooter.
“I think he knows that violence is not in his or anyone else’s best interest,” Diaz said. “But he’s definitely aware of his audience.”
While most at the opening took a similarly harsh stance toward the Iraqi brigade, a few offered more conciliatory words.
“If the brigade opens their hands to the people, there can be improvements,” said Najah Nouri, the administrator of Abu Ghraib’s hospital. “If people see the Muthana Brigade dealing with them in the right way, I don’t think there will be problems.”
Even al-Temimi said the problems center not so much on the brigade as a whole as on its leader, a politically connected brigadier general named Nassir Ghanim Dawud al-Agali.
“The vehicle is broken and instead of fixing the tires, they need to get rid of the driver,” al-Temimi said.
Nassir invited several sheiks and local officials to his compound last weekend, which American commanders saw as a hopeful step. But in large part, Nassir returns the sentiments of leaders like al-Temimi and Ehassan Jabbar, whom he views as former insurgents — a point U.S. commanders aren’t inclined to argue. While another Iraqi battalion that operates in the area sent representatives to the center’s opening, Muthana Brigade sent no one.
The opening of the government center — a humble affair consisting of a double row of trailers surrounded by blast walls — was in part a function of the Muthana Brigade’s presence, though. Aside from a few municipal offices serving Nasir Wa Salaam, most of the offices should be in Abu Ghraib, but officials refuse to meet there because they fear being detained by the Muthanas.
Diaz said he plans to work closely with the Iraqi brigade as it extends its influence and points to the brigade’s move into a small part of the area a month ago as reason for some optimism. After several early incidents between Muthanas and Sons of Iraq members, Diaz said, things have been largely quiet.
At any rate, barring a change of heart by the Iraqi government, Muthana is coming to Nasir Wa Salaam.
“This is what’s got to happen,” Diaz said. “This is the future. The future involves Iraqi security forces.”
But at least on this day, al-Temimi was sticking to his hard line.
“What is the real role that should be played by the Americans?” he asked himself rhetorically, his lieutenants crowding around.
“It should be a big role,” he answered. “When the Americans say they can’t do anything to stop this brigade from coming, people believe they are playing games with us. We are a young country, but we weren’t born yesterday.”