A Sheik's Advice
By David Ignatius
Friday, October 3, 2003; Page A23
FALLUJAH, Iraq -- American soldiers have been attacked again here the day I visit this smoldering core of revolt in Iraq's Sunni Triangle. But what is worrying Sheik Khamis Hassnawi, the leader of one of the region's largest tribes, isn't the possibility that the U.S. occupiers might stay, but that they might leave.
"It would be a disaster," says Hassnawi of a quick American pullout. "If coalition forces withdraw now, the strong will eat the weak and people will start killing each other in the streets."
Fallujah is the last place I thought I would hear Iraqis plead for the United States to stay the course. But the tribal leader's comments are an illustration that things in postwar Iraq aren't always what they appear from a distance. What angers most Iraqis isn't the U.S. invasion -- which nearly everyone I met still describes as liberation from a hated regime -- but America's surprisingly poor performance in delivering services and security.
Hassnawi illustrates the timeless rituals of Iraqi tribal life that the American occupiers are struggling to understand. He is a hawk-eyed old man who is at once welcoming and wary. As leader of the Bu Issa tribe, he explains, "I cannot accept an insult to my people from anyone."
Fallujah illustrates how hard it has been for U.S. forces to contain the relatively few Iraqis who are bent on armed resistance. It has a reputation as a roughneck town and a center for smugglers. Urban Iraqis even tell jokes about what they see as the backward ways of the rural Fallujans.
The Americans have tried to play the tribal card in the Sunni Triangle, but sometimes ineptly. And by failing to deliver on their promises, they have made a cardinal mistake in dealing with tribal leaders. Hassnawi, for example, says he was offered a generous contract to rebuild a local school. Months later no money has arrived.
Things got off to a bad start with local tribes on April 10, the day Saddam Hussein's statue toppled in Baghdad. U.S. jets dropped six precision-guided bombs on the house of a tribal leader named Malik Kharbit in the nearby town of Ramadi. The Americans apparently had a tip that Saddam Hussein's half brother, Barzan Tikriti, was there.
But the intelligence was bad, and the bombs are said to have killed Kharbit and members of his family. It was a costly blunder: Kharbit was the son of the influential sheik of the Jarba tribe and a secret ally of Jordan; he had quietly backed a 1996 CIA coup plot against Saddam Hussein.
When Fallujah emerged as a center of armed resistance in June, local U.S. military commanders met regularly with tribal leaders. They handed out VIP cards to Hassnawi and other key sheiks and even agreed to the tribal practice of paying "blood money" to families whose members had accidentally been killed by American soldiers.
Hassnawi invited American officers to a big lunch at his house, for which he slaughtered eight sheep. The next day, he said, there were posters around town denouncing him as a spy. But Hassnawi says he ignored the threats.
Despite their efforts to cultivate the traditional leadership, the Americans became ensnared in a cycle of violence here -- just as the rebels hoped. U.S. forces made some deadly blunders, as when they recently killed eight members of the local police. And they have continued shooting members of the families of the very tribal leaders they were trying to cultivate.
A small example of this cycle came the day we visited Fallujah. We were passing an area near the Euphrates that has been the scene of many ambushes when we noticed a U.S. military patrol about 50 yards behind us. We speeded up. A few seconds later there was a loud explosion from a roadside bomb; one of the Humvees was damaged.
Fortunately, the violence ended there, but U.S. soldiers closed the main bridge over the Euphrates, causing a nightmarish traffic jam that had local residents fuming.
Hassnawi says he counsels patience to his tribe. The shootings aren't the American soldiers' fault, he explains; the troops are only trying to defend themselves. But he says the Americans must provide economic benefits quickly to show people that American occupation is making their lives better. "The magic word is 'jobs,' " he says.
"If the coalition forces will leave us now, people will say that Saddam was right. The Americans came and destroyed the country, and then left the country and went home without any solution," Hassnawi warns.
America's job now in Iraq is to find more Hassnawis -- and listen to what they say.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company