In a Volatile Region of Iraq, U.S. Military Takes Two Paths
Friday, September 15, 2006
AL-FURAT, Iraq -- With a biker's bandanna tied under his helmet, the Special Forces team sergeant gunned a Humvee down a desert road in Iraq's volatile Anbar province. Skirting the restive town of Hit, the team of a dozen soldiers crossed the Euphrates River into an oasis of relative calm: the rural heartland of the powerful Albu Nimr tribe.
Green Berets skilled in working closely with indigenous forces have enlisted one of the largest and most influential tribes in Iraq to launch a regional police force -- a rarity in this Sunni insurgent stronghold. Working deals and favors over endless cups of spiced tea, they built up their wasta -- or pull -- with the ancient tribe, which boasts more than 300,000 members. They then began empowering the tribe to safeguard its territory and help interdict desert routes for insurgents and weapons. The goal, they say, is to spread security outward to envelop urban trouble spots such as Hit.
But the initial progress has been tempered by friction between the team of elite troops and the U.S. Army's battalion that oversees the region. At one point this year, the battalion's commander, uncomfortable with his lack of control over a team he saw as dangerously undisciplined, sought to expel it from his turf, officers on both sides acknowledged.
The conflict in the Anbar camp, while extreme, is not an isolated phenomenon in Iraq, U.S. officers say. It highlights two clashing approaches to the war: the heavy focus of many regular U.S. military units on sweeping combat operations; and the more fine-grained, patient work Special Forces teams put into building rapport with local leaders, security forces and the people -- work that experts consider vital in a counterinsurgency.
"This war was fought with a conventional mind-set. The conventional units are bogged down in cities doing the same old thing," said the Special Forces team's 44-year-old sergeant, who like all the Green Berets interviewed was not allowed to be quoted by name for security reasons. "It's not about bulldozing Hit, driving through with a tank, with all the kids running away. . . . These insurgencies are defeated by personal relationships."
The real battles, he said, are unfolding "in a sheik's house, squatting in the desert eating with my right hand and smoking Turkish cigarettes and trying to influence tribes to rise up against an insurgency."
Under the glittering chandeliers of his newly remodeled salon, Sheik Jubair adjusted his fine, white cotton dishdasha , or traditional robe, and lit a cigarette.
As if on cue, the American team sergeant leaned over and handed him an ashtray.
The 63-year-old sheik is the de facto ruler of the Albu Nimr, a wealthy tribe whose influence stretches from Anbar's violent capital of Ramadi up the Euphrates to Haditha. Jubair knows the U.S. military needs his tribe as much as it needs the military. Shunned in the 1990s for plotting against Saddam Hussein, the tribe backed the U.S.-led overthrow of Hussein in 2003. But Jubair now faces threats from Anbar's entrenched Sunni Arab insurgency, which he said put a $5 million bounty on his head.
Week after week, the team has spent long hours cultivating Jubair -- funding his projects, buying his son a PlayStation, even holding his hand during treatment at a U.S. military hospital for an infected toe. In return, Jubair has supplied hundreds of police and army recruits, as well as intelligence targeting insurgents in the region.
During a recent visit at his home in al-Furat, Jubair pressed the team sergeant for a hospital, a gas station, a school, payment for a damaged car and a mosque. "We don't do mosques," the sergeant replied.
One minute the tough and temperamental Jubair was unbuttoning his shirt to show off a wound acquired in the Iran-Iraq war. The next, he was pouting because the American team dared visit his nephew and rival, Sheik Hatem, a.k.a. the "boy king," who officially heads the tribe and lives in the same compound.