Iraq: The Cost of Protection

In Iraq there are about 78,000 armed individuals dubbed Concerned Local Citizens (CLCs). Their jobs: to protect their fellow Iraqis, staff checkpoints and help rid the country of terrorists. They're also pulling down a collective $23.4 million monthly, at $10 a day each. Joining the United States to defeat Al Qaeda and assorted insurgents is a noble enough endeavor that carries considerable risk, but it is also a sizable business. And in a country where tribal allegiances are paramount and loyalty to outside entities fluid, the chance to make money and gain power--not national pride--may be the key drivers for the Iraqis' civic activities.

The seven provinces that comprise the U.S. military's Multinational Division--North have about 15,000 CLCs, meaning a monthly payroll of some $4.5 million. Here in troubled Diyala province, U.S. Army commanders work closely with 2,000 to 3,000 CLC members, conferring almost daily in sessions that seem remarkably like corporate meetings. CLC leaders talk mostly about salaries and the number of new members and supplies they need, doggedly trying to expand their resources and extend their reach. They regularly devote time to reporting perceived problems with other CLC outfits and fretting about excesses of rival leaders, who are often of a different tribe.

"They release [apprehended] terrorists after only a few hours," Jasim Taha Dhari Alawsi complains about another CLC leader in a meeting with Capt. Travis Batty of Bravo Company. He adds that once, when he handed over three suspected Al Qaeda operatives to the Americans, he was threatened by a different leader who thought he should have let them go. Worse, that leader wanted Alawsi to split money earmarked for water projects "50-50" with him. Finally, he reports, the man "is in touch with Al Qaeda in Iraq under the blanket."

Batty absorbs all this with equanimity, accustomed to the province's intertribal--and intratribal--jousting. In this area of northern Iraq, near Muqdadiyah, the Mahdawi clan, who are Sunnis, leads the CLCs. In nearby Qizilja, the Timimi tribe, which is Shia, is in the ascendancy, under the leadership of the powerful Mahdi Hassan Attia, the local mukhtar (magistrate).

Batty suggests a joint meeting at his K-Wal combat outpost. "Can you get the sheiks to all come here so we can all talk together in a safe place?" he patiently asks Alawsi. But by then the man is on to his next request. He wants 10 boxes of ammunition for his CLCs' AK-47 rifles. "We don't have that kind of ammo," Batty responds. "We only get it when we go into a house and confiscate it." Batty and his fellow soldiers of Second Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, use M-4 rifles.

The conversation soon returns to funding. "My brother has three sons who were killed by Al Qaeda," the CLC says. "Do you have some money I can give him?" Again, the answer is no. Next comes the news that a rival CLC leader received $5,000 from the Americans for refurbishing a school, but turned over only $3,000 to the headmaster. "In that case we will give the money directly to the headmaster in future," Batty says.

Later, at a clinic in Muqdadiyah, Capt. Christopher Blaha, commander of Blackfoot Company, learns that some CLCs are thinking about quitting because they have not been paid. Aides of CLC leader Abu Abdel al Rahman inform him that their group consists of 71 CLCs and that Rahman has had to pay them less than $300 a month to make the money stretch. Blaha, a blunter personality than Batty, says the budget covers 40 people and that either some CLCs will have to be dropped or the larger contingent will have to accept permanently lower wages.

Eager to impart some good news, the aides report that some area residents have been coming back to live and that 400 families are poised to return. Buoyed by the news, Blaha says he will see what he can do about the extra number of CLCs. "Get their names and towns," he instructs. "Take their names and we will run them past the mukhtar." Turning from his hosts, Blaha explains that the Army must run candidates through a database to make sure they're not Al Qaeda or Qaeda supporters. "Not recently, anyway," he adds dryly.

In fact it is virtually impossible to be sure all CLC recruits have Qaeda-free resumes. Many have had some kind of connection with Al Qaeda in Iraq, even if it just a relative being a member of the terrorist group. At the CLC meeting, Blaha says he has heard there is a significant Qaeda presence in Babylon. "Definitely," responds Rahman. "The leaders have fake names, but if I go to Babylon I can tell who they are." Based on that identification, the Americans will have cause to detain the suspects or at least question them further. Blaha is happy for the CLCs' assistance, but warns again that there is no budget for an "infinite" number of CLCs.

"We cannot have CLCs and Iraqi police in houses for much longer," he says to the Arab interpreter. "That's not a way to secure an area, by occupying people's homes. And any more checkpoints will make it impossible to drive down the road. They can't keep getting more and more CLCs. They have to find other ways to live. We cannot hire all the men in the city to protect the city. They ought to be doing other things--doing different work, encouraging people to reopen shops. It cannot be that 'my whole town's economy is securing itself'."
Rahman, clearly a canny politician, says, "We want to make sure nothing happens. We don't want Al Qaeda to come back again. And we are the first target because we are protecting the country."

It is an argument that, for the moment, trumps all else. U.S. forces need the concerned local citizens now. But what happens with them in the future is a matter of considerable concern to the central government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Baghdad is nervous about the prospect of thousands of Sunnis and Shias scattered around the country after the Americans leave, armed with modern weapons, obsessed with their own agendas and led by powerful, charismatic and ambitious men.

"[Rahman's] tribe, the Mahdawis, have a history of fighting for Al Qaeda," says one Army official who does not want his name used given the sensitivity of the issue. "But they have earned trust by not promoting violence." However, he continued, "They're setting themselves up for power in the future and they're looking for money and weapons. But for now they are out there getting shot at and they're pretty courageous in all this fighting." Indeed, there are clear signs that the insurgents are now targeting those known to be CLC members: several severed heads belonging to those working with American forces have been dumped around Diyala.

The question is what happens after the fighting stops and the Iraqi Army and Iraqi police are unable to absorb all the CLCs into their ranks. U.S. authorities are aware of these concerns. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker says the CLC initiative "was never intended to be a stand-alone movement for an indefinite period." Crocker suggests that they should receive vocational and job training so that they can find civilian employment further down the road. "It makes no sense" to try to incorporate them into the Iraqi security forces, he says. Current plans indicate that those standing security forces will accommodate only about 20 percent of all the CLCs. That would leave more than 60,000 men, accustomed to having authority and receiving a paycheck, suddenly without jobs. The big question then will be whether they'll be willing to give up their weapons, too.

Iraq: The Cost of Protection | World