6,000 Sunnis join security pact with U.S.
By Lauren Frayer - The Associated Press
Posted : Wednesday Nov 28, 2007 16:25:17 EST

HAWIJA, Iraq — Nearly 6,000 Sunni Arab residents joined a security pact with American forces Wednesday, in what U.S. officers called the largest single volunteer effort by Iraqi citizens since the war began.

About a dozen tribal sheiks, bearded and draped in black robes trimmed with gold braiding, signed the contract on behalf of local tribesmen at a small U.S. outpost in this dusty farming community American officers describe as the “last gateway” for militants flowing northward in Iraq.

It’s part of an American effort to trap insurgents who first fled military offensives in western Anbar province, then left Baghdad and the capital’s surrounding belts.

For about $275 a month — nearly the salary for the typical Iraqi policeman — the tribesmen will man about 200 security checkpoints throughout the area beginning Dec. 7, supplementing hundreds of Iraqi forces already here.

The movement of so-called “concerned local citizens,” along with the 30,000-strong U.S. troop buildup, has driven Sunni militants north, U.S. officials say, away from religiously mixed areas of Baghdad and into former Baathist communities where they sought sympathy and refuge.

About 77,000 Iraqis nationwide, mostly Sunnis, have broken with the insurgents and joined U.S.-backed self-defense groups. Those groups have played a major role in the lull in violence: 648 Iraqi civilians have been killed or found dead in November to date, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press, compared with 2,155 in May.

This past summer, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers drove al-Qaida-linked militants from a city they had named as the capital of their Islamic State of Iraq — Baqoubah.

Village mayors and others who signed Wednesday’s agreement say about 200 of the militants ended up here, on the edge of northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. U.S. military officers believe they are running out of places to go, and describe Hawija as the “last gateway” for north-bound militants.

About 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk, Hawija is a predominantly Sunni Arab cluster of villages which has long been an insurgent flashpoint.

The recently arrived militants hold sway over thousands of locals who are not jihadists themselves, but who fear defiance will cost them their lives, said Sheikh Khalaf Ali Issa, mayor of Zaab village.

“They killed 476 of my citizens, and I will not let them continue their killing,” Issa said, firm and solemn.

With the help of the new Sunni allies, “the Hawija area will be an obstacle to militants, rather than a pathway for them,” said Maj. Sean Wilson, with the Army’s 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division.

“They’re another set of eyes that we needed in this critical area, because a significant majority of the problems that occur in the whole Tamim province originate here.”

By defeating militants in Hawija, U.S. and Iraqi leaders hope to keep them away from Kirkuk, a city rich in oil and ethnic diversity — and a possible flashpoint for violence.

“They want to go north into Kirkuk and wreak havoc there, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid,” Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, the top U.S. commander in northern Iraq, told The Associated Press earlier this week.

Much of Iraq’s oil wealth lies beneath the Kirkuk region, as well as in the Shiite-controlled south. Kurds refer to Kirkuk as the “Kurdish Jerusalem,” and control of the area’s oil resources and its cultural attachment to Kurdistan are hotly contested.

U.S. military officials hope to keep Sunni militants from exploiting Arab nationalism in Kirkuk, where tens of thousands of Kurds were replaced by pro-government Arabs in the 1980s and 1990s, under Saddam Hussein’s “Arabization” policy. Now, the Iraqi government has begun resettling some of those Arabs to their home regions, making room for thousands of Kurds who have gradually returned to Kirkuk since Saddam’s ouster.

Tension has been rising over the city’s status — whether it will join the semi-autonomous Kurdish region or continue being governed by Baghdad. Tribal leaders in the area said they felt that rising tension and the efforts by incoming militants to stir dormant prejudice.

“Hawija is the gateway through which all our communities — Kurdish, Turkomen and Arab alike — can become unsafe,” said Abu Saif al-Jabouri, mayor of al-Multaqa village, north of Kirkuk. “Do I love my neighbor in Hawija? That question no longer matters. I must work to help him, because his safety helps me.”