AC: Exit strategies and tribal assassins

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Length: 11:12


JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": So, we can't set a deadline, but our commitment is not open-ended.

Basically, what he is saying is, we are definitely leaving Iraq some time between now and the end of time.


STEWART: Wait, wait, wait. Not the end of time. I don't want to give a date.



ANDERSON COOPER: Well, Jon Stewart can't do it, but Congress can.

The House passed it last week. And as we mentioned, earlier today Senate lawmakers joined in passing a war spending bill that includes a deadline, March 31 of next year. It was close, 51-47, with Republicans Gordon Smith and Chuck Hagel voting yes.

It is not a veto-proof majority, obviously. And President Bush promises to use the veto pen.

But it still raises serious questions about what a pullout would look like if and when the orders do come, and what it would mean to the mission and the war.

CNN's Tom Foreman takes a look.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Meeting a deadline for withdrawing from Iraq would be a monumental task. And the numbers tell the tale; 143,000 U.S. troops are there right now, soon to be 160,000. And they don't travel light.

The military has tens of thousands of airplanes, tanks, helicopters, Strykers, and other vehicles. There are an estimated 14,000 armored Humvees in Iraq alone.

(on camera): And all of these forces, all of this equipment are spread all over the country. True, there are concentrations -- for the Army, in Baghdad; for the Marines, out in Anbar Province -- but American troops, in some number, are still everywhere.

So, how would the military leave all this territory? Analysts say, in all likelihood, some of the troops would fly directly out of Baghdad's main airport. But most of them would come out the way they went in: traveling south to Kuwait, and then getting on to ships.

(voice-over): The American military, working with Iraqi troops, would establish heavily-guarded areas around the exit routes. But it would be perilous. Just as it happened in Vietnam, some military analysts say, even if withdrawal is desired, a publicly acknowledged date would permit the enemy to dog the departure and stack up American casualties every step of the way.

MAJOR GENERAL DONALD SHEPPERD (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I have seen this movie before. I can't think of anything dumber than announcing ahead of time to the enemy what you're going to do. It provides them with the opportunity to basically control the situation.

FOREMAN: It is not clear what will happen to the bases or the endless tons of equipment that will certainly be left behind, too worn out to be brought back.

Even with the deadline, however, the Pentagon suggests, leaving Iraq would not take not days, or weeks, but months.

Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.


COOPER: Some perspective now on the repercussions of a pullout, or even the prospect of a pullout.

With us tonight, CNN military analyst retired Brigadier General James "Spider" Marks, along with Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations, and, in Baghdad, CNN's Michael Ware.

Good of all of you to join us.

Steven, you believe the U.S. should withdraw forces by the end of '08, beginning of '09. You think the Democrats' timetable is too quick.

Critics say, as you heard in that piece, that a deadline gives our enemy a blueprint, a timeline to work off and plan for. Doesn't -- does that not matter?

STEVEN SIMON, SENIOR FELLOW FOR MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Well, at some point, a deadline is going to be put forward.

And it only makes sense for the United States to plan towards a deadline, so that it approaches withdrawal in a systematic and orderly way and doesn't contribute to perceptions already reigning in the region that the U.S. has been defeated. You need to avoid the perception of a rout.

COOPER: General Marks, you're against any kind of a deadline. Why?

MARKS: Well, I don't think a timeline does much good. Look, let's be frank with each other here. If we acknowledge that there's a timeline for departure -- I spent my life as an intelligence officer and as a professional officer, trying to get into the shoes of the bad guy and try to look at us the way that we do business.

If I set a timeline and I'm the bad guy, I go to ground. I start giving you all the indicators that things are really pretty calm. I reinforce the decision that it's time to pull out; things are looking good. And at the exact moment, I choose the time to engage, as we start -- as the United States starts to pull out of the theater. It's just a bad scenario.

COOPER: Michael, there are some who say that President Bush can use the very threat of a deadline to try to pressure Prime Minister al-Maliki and motivate the Iraqi government to get their act together, not to depend on, you know, a definite U.S. presence. Could that work?

WARE: Well, that's one of the falsehoods, I think, of the deadline thinking, Anderson. I mean, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is already under enormous pressures from all sorts of areas. He knows he's already virtually on borrowed time, as it is.

Plus, he's also realistic enough to know that these deadlines aren't real, even if they are set. So, they really don't become a stick to beat him with anyway.

COOPER: General Marks, one of the key military strategies is clear and hold, try to get rid of the insurgents in a city, keep them out.

Critics say, look, you look at Tal Afar, a city in northern Iraq. That was cleared in the past, to once again get rocked by violence. Why didn't it work there?

MARKS: We didn't hold. In Tal Afar, we didn't hold. It's clear, hold and build. And the build process requires preconditions of hold. You've got to have forces on the ground. They have to be there routinely setting the conditions.

That's why things like the conditions in Tal Afar went south. It's because of the numbers and it's the presence.

You try to establish -- and Michael's living this right now. He understands what a new normalcy can look like. He understands how things can get rocked very easily. You've got to establish a normalcy, where the normal family in Iraq feels like a certain element of security exists and they can get about business on a daily basis. You don't do that, the bad guys pour back in.

COOPER: Steven, since the U.S. increased security in Baghdad, violence and casualties are down. I guess bombings around the capital are up. Is there real progress? Or are militias, you think, simply laying low?

SIMON: Well, violence in Diyala province has gone way up. And attacks against the United States troops there are still at an all- time high.

So, I really don't think, you know, we can judge anything about the long term from what is now going on in the very, very small areas within Baghdad, where the U.S. troop level has been significantly augmented. And the Shiite militias, to some extent, have gone to ground. At the same time, Sunni attacks are up.

So, look. Let's be frank. This increase in forces is not sustainable. The president himself has said so. And the situation in Tal Afar, which we have just been discussing, is a great example of what happens when, A, the United States can't sustain the necessary troop levels. And, B, the Iraqi government will not go in and actually do the build phase that was referred to.

The Iraqi government did nothing. The United States could not convince it to expend any funds in Tal Afar to back up the work that brave U.S. soldiers had done there.

COOPER: So, in terms of solutions, Steven, you say set a deadline and just stick to that deadline, no matter what happens on the ground?

SIMON: Well, you know, you can never say no matter what happens. But you need to have a goal. You need to have a plan.

The elections here in the United States last November indicated that as far as the U.S. public was concerned, the kitchen was closed on Iraq. That the U.S. public wants the U.S. to be out of there.

So, it only makes sense to plan for an orderly withdrawal before it is forced by a complete collapse of public support for the war or sudden reverses on the ground.

COOPER: General Marks, he raises an interesting point, which is that the timetable that General Petraeus is talking about, and it makes sense in terms of letting this thing play out and really seeing whether or not it's working, but the timetable that he's been talking about from the get-go, is very different and is very much at odds with the political timetable that seems to be being bandied about by Republicans and Democrats in the United States. At some point, those timetables have to mesh.

MARKS: Well, you know, the timetables may not mesh. The U.S. election cycle, moving toward '08, and the cycle that Dave Petraeus and the great folks on the ground are trying to achieve in Iraq, and specifically right now focused on Baghdad, are not necessarily coincident.

And the issue is, with the bad guys in Iraq, and the way we have to try to channel our forces and make a difference there, won't necessarily be affected. There isn't necessarily a causal link between what's happening there and preset desires on our Congress, at this point, or by our Congress.

And I tell you, at the very point that we need Congress to be quiet, they need to be quiet. And that's right now. We need to let this plan run its course.

Two of the five brigades have made it in. The remaining three won't get there until probably some time in June. And this is a sense of feel. It's very tough to measure it and have a scientific assessment. You've got to have a sense of feel on a counterinsurgency.

COOPER: Michael Ware, how does it feel on the ground?

WARE: Well, it feels like, here in Baghdad, as we've seen time and time again, and as we've already pointed out, that certainly the Shia militias are simply holding their breath.

With all these extra American troops, and, yes, more is coming, al Qaeda's suicide bombers are still getting through. The Shia militias, in terms of their infrastructure, remain intact.

The Shia militias and their Iranian backers that our western intelligence points to, still have this stranglehold on power, here under the democratic system that America set out.

So, fundamentally, the dynamics that are really driving this war aren't being addressed. That's why we're starting to see America cut deals. We're seeing Maliki cut a deal with Muqtada al-Sadr. And we're seeing America cutting deals with the Ba'athists out in the west, to take on the fight for al Qaeda, that America itself has said it can't win out there.

COOPER: And we're going to -- we're going to talk with Michael Ware a little bit more about that particular subject coming up.

And James "Spider" Marks, appreciate it.

Steve Simon, as well.

And Michael, we'll talk to you again. Thanks.

A bit later tonight, some may call it a strange alliance. Michael was referring to it. A Sunni tribesman who used to try to kill Americans, now working with the Americans. It sounds good. But there's a deadly dark side, as well.


COOPER (voice-over): From insurgents to allies. They fight al Qaeda. But some say they've also become America's unaccountable assassins, given free reign to break any rule, as long as they get results. Michael Ware has an exclusive inside look.

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ANDERSON COOPER: In Iraq today, bloody chaos. Bombs killed at least 76 people in Baghdad; 43 in Diyala Province; 25 bodies were found, all of them riddled with bullets; some showing signs of torture.

In all today, upwards of 160 men, women and children lost their lives. That kind of carnage is making some Iraqis reconsider who their friends are.

In al-Anbar province, for instance, a number of Sunni tribes have actually started aligning themselves with American forces. That's the good news.

It's not quite all, though. There's also another side to the story, as CNN's Michael Ware found out when he spent time with fighters that some are now calling America's assassins.


MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He looks like an insurgent. He's actually a U.S. ally. The new face of America's fight against al Qaeda.

"Al Qaeda slaughtered our sheikhs, our children," he says, "and we will terminate them." By "we," he means men like these in Iraq's western Anbar Province manning this checkpoint which, though unofficial, is supported by the U.S. military.

The men drawn from tribes or their umbrella network, the Anbar Salvation Council. The tribes have split their forces. Some to the police, who intone tribal chants before operations, while others are kept as private paramilitaries, hit squads, assault teams, sanctioned by the Iraqi government. Their loyalty remaining with their sheikhs, all of which suits an America desperate to crush al Qaeda.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, COMMANDER, MULTINATIONAL FORCES IN IRAQ: Beyond Baghdad, moreover, a number of tribes in Anbar Province have in recent months finally said enough and begun to link arms against extremist operatives who have kill their sheikhs and sought to poison their young people's minds.

WARE: Here in Anbar Province, America cannot defeat al Qaeda with the troops it has. So it's turned to the tribes, Baathist and nationalist insurgents of the Salvation Council, virtually contracting out parts of the battle against al Qaeda to tribal fighters. The deal is simple: America gives local leaders free reign as long as they root out and kill al Qaeda.

Iraqis like villager Abu Miriam (ph) have tired of al Qaeda. He says his people began fighting U.S. forces, but foreigners infiltrated their ranks.

"If you talk against them, they let you go at first. Then come back and behead you later," he says.

These tensions provoked the tribe's Salvation Council to work alongside U.S. Marines and soldiers.

Its members carry weapons, launch operations against targets they select, make arrests and conduct interrogations. All with American acquiescence.

In a September 2006 U.S. intelligence briefing, it appeared the tribes had been given a license to kill.

"(The tribes) effectively sought out and killed, on a repeated basis, elements infiltrating from Syria as well as local elements trying to re-establish." A U.S. official said. Asked if this was really an assassination program backed by U.S. forces, Zalmay Khalilzad answered...

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ: We lose no sleep over the struggle against al Qaeda and the killing of al Qaeda people.

WARE: The Salvation Council says the U.S. has given them rifle ammunition -- a claim the U.S. military does not dispute -- and the Iraqi government given them 30 vehicles.

The Salvation Council doesn't hide its insurgent past.

"Most of us carried weapons against the occupiers at the beginning," says this sheikh. "Then we dropped them and started a dialogue. But that doesn't mean we accept the occupation."

Al Qaeda has hit back at the tribes, hard, sending chlorine bombs, car bombs and suicide bombers in explosive chest vests against their leaders.

Asked what would become of him if al Qaeda knew he was talking, Abu Miriam (ph) replied, "I will be killed. In fact, slaughtered. Slaughtered with a knife."


COOPER: Michael, this seems to be just the kind of thing that I remember you talking about years ago that the U.S. wanted to be able to achieve. What kind of numbers are we talking about? Do we know? I mean, how successful is this?

WARE (on camera): It's very hard to tell, to give a sense of numbers. I mean, this is obviously a closely guarded secret. The tribes, it's in their interest to inflate their numbers. It's also in the U.S. military's interest for the tribes to be seen as more powerful than they really are.

Don't forget, U.S. Marines intelligence only last year said that al Qaeda in fact dominated the social fabric of that entire province. So it's going to take something to wrest that back. And it's far too early to tell if it's working. But at the end of the day, this is how America is going to get its troops out of this country. America cannot win. So this part of the political solution we hear the generals talking about, cutting deals with people like these Baathist insurgents and ultimately people like Iran and the groups that Iran supports.

COOPER: And just so everyone's clear, what these Baathists insurgents have against al Qaeda is what? That they don't like the tactics, they feel too many of their sheikhs were getting killed?

WARE: Well, these Baathist insurgents were saying back in 2003, before they even began working with al Qaeda, they said, "why are we on opposite sides of this fight? We were allies in the 1980s against Iran. We both continued to still oppose Iran. Under Saddam, we never let al Qaeda in. We don't share their Islamic agenda. And for us, this is a global fight. We have more in common than we have that divides us."

Indeed, the Baathists were saying back then, they were prepared to host U.S. bases. Yet back then the ideology from the Bush administration was that these fellows have no place in a new Democratic Iraq. Well, we still don't have a Democratic Iraq, and these fellows are still out there.

COOPER: Michael Ware, appreciate the reporting. Thanks Michael.