The U.S. strategy to build alliances with mostly Sunni tribal and local leaders has prompted 25,000 of their followers to turn away from the insurgency and at least nominally align with Iraq's Shiite-led government in the fight against al-Qaeda.
The number, from the U.S. command in Iraq, represents the first stab at measuring the effectiveness of the tribal strategy. The trend is likely to be a critical part of a report due in September to Congress and the White House by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
"I think it is the most significant thing that's happened in the past couple years," said Marine Maj. Gen. Mastin Robeson, deputy chief of staff for strategy and plans for Multi-National Force-Iraq. "They actually have come to us saying, 'We want to join you, we want to fight al-Qaeda.' "
Iraq's Shiite-dominated central government has taken almost no legislative action to resolve differences with minority Sunnis and broaden support for the government. The U.S. military's tribal strategy is an effort to build links with groups, many of them armed, at the local level and tap into their hostility toward al-Qaeda.
The strategy was initially aimed at Sunnis, which have made up the bulk of the insurgency against U.S. troops and the Iraqi government. Its goal was to separate former members of Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party and other "nationalist" insurgents from more extremist al-Qaeda militants who want to impose a strict form of Islamic law and form a government stretching across the entire Muslim world.
More recently, the U.S. strategy has broadened to include local Shiite leaders opposing extremist militias. Petraeus and other top commanders have cited alliances with tribal and other local leaders as an important sign of progress. "What we're starting to realize more and more is that reconciliation at the bottom may be the more important element in the short term," Petraeus said recently.
Alliances with local fighters are not among the 18 benchmarks established by Congress to measure the effectiveness of a troop increase that bumped the U.S. military presence in Iraq from about 130,000 to 160,000 this year.
Andrew Krepinevich, a counterinsurgency expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the tribal and local alliances are a good idea — but one with risks.
Tribal loyalty could be fleeting. Many tribes don't share democratic values or have much sympathy for Iraq's central government. "This is an alliance of convenience," Krepinevich said. "It's not necessarily an alliance of convictions."
Tribes are groups of people who are loosely linked through blood ties. In parts of Iraq, particularly rural Sunni areas, tribal leaders are powerful figures. Some Iraqis place tribal ties above national identity.
Some tribes turned on al-Qaeda and worked with U.S. forces last year in Anbar province, west of the capital.
The U.S. military, working with the Iraqi government, has tried to spread the movement throughout Iraq.
"We aren't arming them," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told CNN on Sunday. "There is no need to do that. Everybody in Iraq has several weapons, it looks like. We are providing them with some training and some money."
Tribe members and others who agree to support Iraq's government have to sign a pledge form and consent to biometric scans of their fingerprints and retinas so their data can be kept on file. They are also vetted by the Iraqi government.
About 25,000 have signed the pledge, most in recent months. "It's happening so quickly, the numbers are never up to date," Robeson said.
Iraq's government expressed early concerns about the plan, fearing it could boost the power of mostly Sunni tribes outside government control.
"There are questions in the minds of much of the federal leadership," Robeson said. "They've had to take some time to get their arms around it."
The Iraqi government has agreed to go along with the alliances on the condition that local fighters are eventually brought into Iraq's security forces. Iraq's army, police and other security forces consist of 346,500 trained personnel, according to the Pentagon.
Robeson said U.S. officials have been careful to pursue the strategy in a way that doesn't threaten Iraq's government.
U.S. officers say the movement may be a turning point in efforts to defeat the insurgency. The U.S. military's new counterinsurgency manual emphasizes the importance of depriving insurgents of public support.
"This is a tectonic shift in what's happening in Iraq," said Army Col. Sean MacFarland. As a brigade commander in Ramadi, MacFarland was responsible for building the first tribal alliances last year
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