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U.S. targeting insurgent group in N. Iraq

Men detained during an April 23 security sweep in Tikrit, Iraq, wait behind concertina wire at an Iraqi police station. The operation, initiated by U.S. troops but carried out by Iraqi soldiers and police, targeted members of a neo-Baathist insurgent group that has proven a persistent, if rarely deadly, foe of U.S. troops across much of northern Iraq.

MICHAEL GISICK/STARS AND STRIPES

By MICHAEL GISICK | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 25, 2010

TIKRIT, Iraq — It was nearly midnight as four platoons of American soldiers stepped down from armored vehicles into the courtyard of a palace-turned-police station in this city where crumbling monuments mark the hometown of Saddam Hussein.

For the next six hours, as some 300 Iraqi soldiers and policemen fanned out to search the city for fighters still loyal to Saddam’s vision of a Sunni-led country, the Americans stayed at the station, monitoring the feed from a reconnaissance drone and waiting.

U.S. troops are continuing to pull away from a front-line role in security operations. But that mission last month also reflected a generally cautious approach to targeting an insurgent group that, unlike al-Qaida and its brethren, retains significant public support among Iraq’s Sunni minority.

American troops have coaxed Iraqi units into several large-scale operations against the group, known as the Men of the Army of al-Naqshbandi, or the JRTN. But U.S. officers acknowledge that local security officials — themselves mostly Sunnis — remain either sympathetic to the group or at least hesitant to view it as a serious threat.

“There’s been a reluctance to go after the JRTN, so we kind of initiated this,” Lt. Col. Robert “Bubba” Cain, the commander of the U.S. unit based in Tikrit, said as he waited at the police station during the operation. “In their eyes, al-Qaida is the real threat. That’s their focus. At this point, JRTN is not a huge driver of instability. They’re really just harassing us.”

American officials describe the JRTN as an Internet-savvy collection of ex-Army officers and anti-American nationalists drawing inspiration from both a 14th-century order of mystical Islam and a revived version of Hussein’s Baath Party. Founded on the day Hussein was executed in 2006, the group has proven a persistently irritating foe for U.S. troops across Sunni areas of northern Iraq.

Unlike al-Qaida, which is reviled by most Iraqis for its indiscriminate attacks on civilians, the Naqshbandi have made a point of attacking only Americans. The attacks are rarely lethal, often featuring grenades hurled at vehicles designed to withstand massive bomb blasts, or small explosives attached to canisters of gasoline. But a marginally effectual campaign of violence has led to a highly successful fund-raising operation, American officers say.

“On the one hand, it’s a religious order, and on the other it’s kind of a Ponzi scheme,” said U.S. Army Maj. Pat Proctor, the operations officer for the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery Regiment, based in Tikrit. “They attack us — it’s usually not really effective — but then they post a video of it on the Internet and they get donations from all over the country.” This month, Iraqi police arrested a man in Tikrit who allegedly heads propaganda operations for the group.

U.S. officers say their main concern is that the Naqshbandi could serve as a rallying point for not just anti-American sentiment but for Sunnis disenchanted with Iraq’s political process, especially if a Shiite-dominated government again emerges in Baghdad, as appears increasingly likely. That, in turn, could lead to a heavy-handed crackdown by government forces, deepening the country’s sectarian divide.

But weeding out the JRTN has proven difficult. Friendly tribal leaders control the swath of desert southeast of Tikrit where the group is based, and local police are largely part of the same tribal system or are sympathetic to the JRTN message.

“We can roll up a bunch of people and send them to jail,” Proctor said. “But they’ll just pay their way out.”

Officers say it’s difficult to accurately estimate the group’s strength, but the military has previously floated figures in the low thousands. Like many insurgent groups, the JRTN relies largely on part-time fighters hired to carry out attacks.

American units have tried to push agricultural projects and other economic initiatives as a way to siphon support away from the JRTN, but officers say the group’s ability to pay for attacks on U.S. troops remains a significant contributor to the local economy.

And despite the American projects and a general decline in violence, Tikrit is not exactly friendly terrain. Alongside the many monuments built by Saddam Hussein, an artist last year erected a large bronze statue of a shoe, honoring the Iraqi journalist who hurled his footwear at President George W. Bush during a 2008 press conference.

Meanwhile, the group’s influence has spread, with cells operating across a broad swath countryside between Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul, officers say.

“Al-Qaida doesn’t really have a message that appeals to people anymore, but the nationalist message of the Naqshbandi does resonate,” says Lt. Col. Geoffrey Catlett, who commands an armor battalion in Hawijah, 50 miles northeast of Tikrit. “And they’re very well-funded, so they’ve sort of become an umbrella group for nationalist resistance.”

While local police are ambivalent in their view of the group, he said, most senior officers also know they will ultimately be judged by the security level in their area.

Col. Khalil Ahmad, the police chief in Tikrit, said he sees no difference between an attack on U.S. forces and one against his own men.

“If they’re making problems in my area, they’re my problems,” he said.

But American officials worry that Sunni officers like Ahmad might conclude that their own government is more hostile to them than are the JRTN.

Like many other officers, Ahmad has spent years as a temporary contract employee, a status that makes him ineligible for promotion. Several of his lieutenants were fired earlier this year during largely arbitrary purges of security personnel with supposed ties to the Baath Party.

“They’re not officially recognized as permanent employees and the government could fire them tomorrow,” Cain said. “Their concern is that they’re out here chasing bad guys, and if they get fired they’re going to be real vulnerable.”

Ahmad, reflecting the hope that led to heavy Sunni turnout in the March parliamentary elections, said he was optimistic the new Iraqi government would “give us back our rights.”

But with a Shiite coalition appearing to close in on a governing majority in Baghdad, the departing Americans worry what will happen if the Sunnis are left out.

gisickm@estripes.osd.mil

U.S. soldiers monitor an April 23 security sweep in Tikrit from a mobile operations center. Though the Americans were involved in planning the operation and monitored with a reconnaissance drone, no American troops were directly involved in the sweep.
MICHAEL GISICK/STARS AND STRIPES

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