During the year that General Petraeus and his counterinsurgency force have been on the ground in Iraq, the Concerned Local Citizens program, until recently a tiny, localized “neighborhood watch” equivalent, has grown into a nationwide phenomenon.
Called “basically a thumb in the eye of the Maliki government that won’t get its [act] together” by one American officer, the Concerned Local Citizens program puts ground-level security in the hands of the individual tribes and groups who need it most. Under the program’s coalition-crafted guidelines, members of individual tribes are allowed to arm themselves and to conduct their own security operations and patrols, provided that, among other requirements, they submit to the authority of Coalition and Iraqi Security forces.
The main premise behind the Concerned Local Citizens program is simply the belief that Iraqis as a whole oppose the militias and terrorist groups that have plagued Iraq for the last several years — and that citizen empowerment, backed by the coalition, will lead to a rejection of the forces that terrorize the civilian population in a given area. The idea was borne out of the ‘Anbar Awakening,’ which saw tribal leaders and citizens rise up and band together to fight against al Qaeda in Iraq.
Fed up with those who offered, in the words of one tribal sheik, “only death,” the leaders of Anbar’s tribes — despite historical enmities — joined forces with the coalition and with each other to drive al Qaeda from their territory. Following this uprising, the Awakening blossomed into a grassroots movement to rebuild and reunite Anbar province around a free and independent network of tribes and clans.
When General Petraeus returned to Iraq as commander of Multinational Force-Iraq, one of his goals was to replicate the success of the Anbar Awakening throughout the country. Using the Awakening as an example, coalition units began to meet with tribal leaders in different areas of Iraq, encouraging them to augment the Iraqi security forces and to stand up to the militias and terrorist groups threatening them.
It was expected that there would be some interest in the program, especially among tribes sitting on the wrong side of their areas’ sectarian divides. What was not expected was the phenomenon the CLC program would become — nor how rapidly it would become so.
In the last six months, what began as a localized occurrence has spread across the entire nation, and CLC groups are established or forming in every one of Iraq’s 18 provinces except for the northernmost and southernmost three. Due to effective Provincial security forces, these six do not currently need such citizen’s groups. Over 72,000 Iraqis are now members of Concerned Local Citizens groups nationwide at this time — a remarkable development.
When in the small Sunni village of Ja’ara (between Baghdad and Salman Pak) this summer, I had the privilege of sitting in on the very first meeting between an American officer and a tribal leader at which the prospect of establishing a prototype Concerned Citizens group — the first ever in the region — was discussed.
“If we can get them going with their own security, and the other tribes around them can see what a good thing they have and decide that they want it too, then we could see a serious improvement in this area,” Captain Rich Thompson, commander of Baker Company 1-15 Infantry, told me just before we departed Combat Outpost Cahill to meet the tribal sheik. “I don’t want [insurgents and terrorists] in my AO (area of operations),” Thompson explained. “I don’t care where they go, as long as they’re not here – and, if everybody takes that attitude, Iraqis and soldiers alike, and works for that goal, then sooner or later there won’t be any place for [the insurgents] to go.”
That was at the end of August. What began then has, in the three months since, grown with greater rapidity that I or anyone else could ever have imagined. As of the beginning of this month, there were over 35,000 Concerned Local Citizens just in Baghdad province. Further, almost half of the 43 CLC groups there are combined Sunni and Shi’a — a remarkable fact that speaks to the unity that is made possible by a common enemy, which has slowly but surely been driven out of the area.
The most common argument made against the Concerned Local Citizen program is that it encourages vigilante justice and undercuts the Iraqi government and its official security forces. However, despite its initial lack of support for the program, the Iraqi government has grown to embrace the assistance given to its security forces by these volunteers.
According to a spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior, all of these “tribal fighters in the different Iraqi provinces will be merged into the police forces” at some point in the future. 10,000 of the original Anbar-based citizen soldiers have been added to the rolls of the Iraqi Security Forces in the last year, and in the past six months 1,800 more from elsewhere in the country have completed police or army training and are now serving their homeland as official representatives of the armed forces.
What began in Anbar a year ago has now spread to the whole of Iraq. I witnessed its beginning in Baghdad Province only months ago; since then, tribe after tribe in that area, and in others around the country, have seen what their neighboring tribes are able to accomplish with their own coalition-sanctioned, self-conducted security forces, and have decided to participate in the effort themselves.
Sometimes it only takes a small event to get the ball rolling. If this continues at a rate near that with which it began this year, it may be possible at some point in the not-too-distant future to see an Iraq in which, to paraphrase Captain Thompson, there simply “isn’t anywhere for the insurgents to go.”