With friends like al-Qaida, who needs enemies?

In what has become the Iraq war’s most surprising turnabout, Sunni tribesmen who once traded shots or laid roadside bombs against U.S. troops in Iraq’s western Anbar province have switched allegiances and are now helping Americans battle Islamic militants.

The tribesmen, who once hoped that al-Qaida in Iraq would help rid them of U.S. forces, say they were misled and double-crossed by the religious extremists. Instead of aiding and abetting al-Qaida, thousands of tribesmen have now enlisted in the Iraqi police force as well as a newer paramilitary force based on tribal areas.

The shift began more than six months ago, when al-Qaida subjected the clans to a ruthless campaign of murder, intimidation and extortion aimed at centralizing their control of the western insurgency. The tribes, who even under Saddam Hussein were known for their fierce independence and unruliness, said they weren’t about to take things sitting down.

“What has happened here — the destruction, the killing — has shown what al-Qaida does,” said Sheikh Abdul Sattar, the leader of a tribal federation that is known variously as the Anbar Awakening and the Anbar Salvation Council.

“We have reached a point, an unbearable point,” Sattar said in February. “They are the ones who have destroyed the life of our families. They have destroyed our way of life. They are nothing but paid criminals. This is not Islam.”

Since the tribes have joined the fight against al-Qaida, violence in Anbar, particularly the former insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, has plummeted. U.S. forces are using the lull in violence to begin long-delayed economic and infrastructure projects.

The units, which are essentially tribal militias or security details, wear no formal uniforms, but draw paychecks and some equipment from the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. Commanded and staffed by many former regime military officers and soldiers, the units employ their own intelligence shops and have, according to U.S. commanders, shown great ability in rooting out weapons caches and suspected terrorists.

Their efficiency has, in some cases, raised concerns that they may be taking the law into their own hands and performing extrajudicial executions, but U.S. commanders say that is not the case. However, commanders say they need to watch the units very closely to ensure that they do not devolve into runaway militias.

Col. John W. Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, said the units would eventually undergo training at a police academy in Jordan and ultimately be employed as full-time police officers.

“Over the course of the next year, we think we’ll have all of them cycled through the training academy,” Charlton said in February. “The idea is that they will be a provincial police force.”

In a May interview at his headquarters on Camp Ramadi, Charlton said the main enemy was al-Qaida in Iraq.

“That’s the group we’re going after. In the past there had been some nationalists, resistance groups — 1920 Revolutionary Brigade is one of the more prominent ones. The former Baathists, the former regime elements,” he said. “Their objective, of course, was to drive the coalition forces out of Iraq.”

Of al-Qaida, he said “their methods were very, very brutal. Pure murder and intimidation. They would go in (and) anyone that was even thought to be cooperating with the Iraqi police or the coalition forces was killed. Family members killed. Very brutal, heads cut off, bodies left out in the village for everyone to see. Just complete domination.

“So the people in this area realized, eventually, they were not only having family members killed, but their entire way of life was about to be taken away from them by this al-Qaida terrorist element.”

But, Charlton said, the winds could shift again.

“The return of those nationalist groups is something that I’m concerned about. As al-Qaida gets eliminated from this area, we’re looking to see if these nationalist groups come back in and assert their influence. …”

Reporter Teri Weaver contributed to this report.

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