June 19, 2007 in Nation/World

U.S. effort arms Sunni Muslims

Nancy A. Youssef and Leila Fadel McClatchy
Associated Press photo

An Iraqi soldier guards arrested suspected al-Qaida members in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, on Monday.Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – A U.S. program to combat al-Qaida in Iraq by arming Sunni Muslims undercuts the Iraqi government and years of U.S. policy and is a tacit acknowledgment that the country’s violence is really a civil war, some U.S. military officials in Washington and foreign policy experts say.

The program, which Bush administration officials have hailed as a sign of progress in Iraq, has sparked heated debate among military and foreign policy analysts. It is opposed by the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Supporters see it as a welcome change in the American approach in Iraq, one whose benefits have been obvious in the drop in violence in Iraq’s Anbar province, where al-Qaida formerly held sway. They say it could give impetus to the Shiites and Kurds to make political concessions.

But others contend the program has long-term repercussions that can only be guessed at now. By giving weapons and training to Sunnis in Anbar and Baghdad who’ve been previously associated with Sunni insurgent groups, the program endorses unofficial armed groups over official Iraqi forces as guarantors of Iraqi security, military officers who oppose the program say.

Those officers also say it abandons the long-stated U.S. goal of disarming militias and reinforces the idea that U.S.-trained Iraqi forces cannot control their country.

At the Pentagon, at least six officers who served in Iraq shook their heads when asked about the idea of arming the Sunnis. They said they had little faith in a Sunni community that was aggressively killing their comrades just months ago.

“Why did we spend all that capital disarming them last year?” asked one military officer who served in Iraq last year under former Iraq commander Gen. George Casey. “As a military man, I cannot fathom the logic of putting more weapons out there.” The officer declined to be identified, because he was not authorized to speak about the matter.

By specifically aiding Sunni groups, it also seems to be an acknowledgement that Iraq is mired in a civil war that pits Sunnis against better-armed Shiite militias, some say.

“It is the U.S. basically acknowledging that Iraq is in a civil war,” said Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiism at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan foreign policy organization. “And that the (Iraqi) government is irrelevant.”

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