‘Like A Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone’
I just got off a conference call with Col. Jon Lehr, who commands one of the surge brigades in Iraq. Lehr’s brigade, the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Infantry Division, has operated in Baghdad and Diyala province for the last 14 months and is on the cusp of finally returning home to Ft. Lewis, Washington. To say I was impressed with Lehr is an understatement: he made some really insightful and candid points about the complexity of the war.
Diyala is home to a mix of Sunnis and Shiites, and areas like Baquba and Muqtadiyah have been hotbeds of insurgent and sectarian activity. Lehr said violence is down 70 percent from when his unit deployed there last year — but there’s a risk of becoming "victims of our own success":
The more successful we are against Al Qaeda, the more we open the door for Shia extremists. We have to watch… to [see that we don't] create conditions for Shia [extremists] to conduct operations against Sunnis who are clearing Al Qaeda out. It’s really like a self-licking ice cream cone… If we’re successful against Al Qaeda [that] invites Shia extremists in [and that] invites Sunni insurgents [back]. It’s very complex.
One of the factors Lehr credits for his brigade’s success is the Sons of Iraq militia program. But when I asked him about its potential to create the next generation of Iraqi warlords, he sounded another note of caution:
Not all Sons of Iraq are created equal. There are two distinct groups: one, mainly associated with the rural areas, are more tribal [inaudible]. In my opinion, they’re easier to work with, and not tied to any political parties. The ones in the urban areas [like Baquba]… are more politically aligned. There are four major political groups in Baquba with [Sons of Iraq militias]: Saladin, the 1920s Revolution, the Mujahideen and Hamas of Iraq. They’ve confederated into, as I say, a confederate organization referred to as the People’s Committee.
To get to the heart of your question, our approach remains targeting bad individuals [with] sources, other technical means, [to determine] who the bad people are — the bad CLCs, the bad Sons of Iraq, [those] supporting crime or sectarian violence.
Lehr estimated that he’s detained at least 60 renegade members of the Sons of Iraq, and perhaps as many as 100, out of a program numbering 9000 militiamen and scheduled to reduce down to 8000 in the coming months. "It’s a self-cleansing process," he said. "We keep an eye on them, because many have former insurgent ties. Many more are very patriotic. [But they're] central to our strategy."