Former insurgents serve as scouts for U.S. troops
BAQOUBA, Iraq » Two months ago, a dozen Sunni insurgents -- haggard, hungry and in handcuffs -- stepped tentatively into a U.S.-Iraqi combat outpost near Baqouba and asked to speak to the commander: "We're out of ammunition, but we want to help you fight al-Qaida," they said.
Now hundreds of fighters from the 1920s Revolution Brigades, an erstwhile Sunni insurgent group, work as scouts and gather intelligence for the 10,000-strong American force in the fifth day of its mission to remove al-Qaida gunmen and bomb makers from the Diyala provincial capital.
Little so well illustrates the Middle Eastern dictum: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
And as it struggles in the raging heat and violence of central Iraq, the U.S. military appears to have bought into the tactic in its struggle to pull what victory it can from the increasingly troubled American mission in Iraq, under congressional pressure for a troop pullout and a presidential election campaign already in the minds of voters.
Each U.S. Army company in Baqouba, an hour's drive northeast of Baghdad, has a scout from the Brigades. Others have become a ragtag intelligence network and still others fight, said Capt. Ricardo Ortega, a 34-year-old Puerto Rico native of the 2nd Infantry Division.
The Army has given some of the one-time insurgents special clothing -- football-style jerseys with numbers on the chest -- to mark them as American allies.
U.S. commanders say help from the Brigades operatives was key to planning and executing the Baqouba operation, one of a quartet of U.S. offensives against al-Qaida on the flanks of the Iraqi capital.
The informants have given the American troops exact coordinates of suspected al-Qaida safe houses, with details down to the color of the gate out front, said Lt. Col. Avanulas Smiley, 40, commander of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment.
The American decision to bring insurgents into the mission has angered Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who told visiting Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week that the tactic -- getting too cozy with former enemies -- would backfire.
But U.S. officials defend the strategy, first tested in Iraq's once-volatile western Anbar province, where U.S. officials tout success in turning Sunni tribal leaders against al-Qaida.
"They're grassroots, organized -- even like neighborhood firemen -- and they've decided they want a safe environment," said Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, deputy operations commander for the Army's Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division. "Will we leverage that? Darn right we will. And is it a potential risk? Sure it is -- but it's one we're willing to take."
The Schofield Barracks-based 25th Combat Aviation Brigade is providing helicopter support for Operation Arrowhead Ripper in Diyala province. On Friday, attack helicopters from the brigade killed 17 al-Qaida insurgents near Khalis, according the U.S. Central Command.
The attack helicopters observed the gunmen trying to infiltrate the village and engaged and killed the gunmen.