In a Volatile Region of Iraq, U.S. Military Takes Two Paths

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

Cutting Deals

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.

"He's young and doesn't know anything," Jubair scolded the team sergeant. "If you give him projects, I will close the city council and come here!"

For the Americans, such engagement is as vital as it can be maddening. "Sometimes I feel like I'm dealing with teenagers," the sergeant said. "They even do the 'mom' and 'dad' thing with me" and the team captain.

It's also work that involves keen judgment and knowing when to cut deals. After the team arrived in January, it captured a former police colonel accused of stealing cars and $60,000 in pay and killing another police officer. But when the colonel was detained and sent to Abu Ghraib prison, sheiks Jubair and Hatem pleaded for his release. "They said you will increase your wasta and all that," the team sergeant said, "so we secured his release, a controlled release."

The compromise helped win the tribe's backing for a local police force. But it also heightened frictions with the U.S. Army battalion, whose convoy transporting the detainee had hit a roadside bomb.

A Clash of Cultures

Every night like clockwork at the U.S. military camp -- known as a forward operating base, or FOB -- outside Hit, a loudspeaker atop the Special Forces team house blasts an alert that the Army battalion is about to shoot off flares.

"Attention on the FOB! Attention on the FOB!" a male voice boomed one recent night. "There will be an illumination mission in 10 minutes. Go Cowboys!"

"I've tried to figure out a way to cut that wire," the team sergeant muttered as he stood on the roof, bemoaning the battalion's predictable tactics.

The clash of military cultures was apparent from the start in late January, when the Special Forces team captain, scruffy after days in the desert, arrived at the Hit camp and introduced his team's mission to Lt. Col. Thomas Graves, commander of the 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment. Graves, a close-shaven West Point graduate from Texas, said nothing and walked away, according to team members.

"We grow our hair a little longer," the team sergeant said. "We wear mustaches, and the conventional Army doesn't want to deal with you because they look at you as undisciplined. We're the most disciplined force in the Army!"

To Graves, the problem boiled down to communication and his battalion's limited, or "tactical," control over the Special Forces. "It's not that they have long hair. I don't care if they're frickin' from Mars," said Graves in the camp's chow hall. "They have a responsibility to tell us what they were doing, but they refuse to do it."

Graves said the Green Berets and their Iraqi army scout platoon once shot at his tanks; he said he never investigated the incident but declined to explain why. Concern over his troops' safety led him to initiate steps to remove the team, he said, adding, "I don't care if you're frickin' naked, just don't shoot at my tanks!"

Training Iraqi Forces

At a desert firing range outside Hit, a squad of Iraqi army scouts attacked a line of silhouetted targets, emptying their AK-47 assault rifles and then switching effortlessly to pistols. Next, they practiced sweeping a room, pivoting through the doorway and shouting bursts of Arabic.

Training foreign military forces is a core Special Forces mission -- and the top priority of the U.S. command in Iraq. The Iraqi scout platoon, recruited from the Albu Nimr tribe and coached by the team in Hit, displayed an agility and confidence unusual among Iraqi soldiers. And the Americans fostered loyalty in the platoon.

"We've been to their homes, we've treated their children. They are our partners," said the team captain, an energetic officer from Los Angeles.

"We walk with them as brothers," said Mokles Ali Muklif, the Iraqi platoon leader.

But last spring, when the scouts spotted a roadside bomb during a solo mission and warned U.S. forces about it, they were detained by Graves's battalion, blindfolded and forced to sit in bitter cold for seven hours before the team could secure their release. "I was livid," the team sergeant said.

Later, when the Special Forces team offered to give advanced training to the entire Iraqi army battalion, Graves rejected the idea. Morale continued to drop in the Iraqi battalion, its manpower down to 60 percent after hundreds of soldiers quit over lack of pay, poor food and duty far from home. "We could have had the battalion conducting unilateral ops, and 1-36 could be sitting back at the firm base," the team captain said.

Instead, the team threw all its energy into mobilizing the Albu Nimr tribe behind a police force -- first in its territory of al-Furat, then in the broader region including the contested town of Hit.

A Recruiting Drive

Col. Falah Salah Shimra, 41, a portly tribesman with an imposing demeanor, examined the charred shell of a police station destroyed by a bomb planted on the roof.

Chief of al-Furat's growing tribal police contingent of several hundred men, Shimra minimized the attack on his fledgling force. "Basically, within our area we have no threat at all," he said. "The threat is from outside."

Nearby, tribal police manned a checkpoint, wearing blue shirts as uniforms. None had body armor. Most used their own rifles and ammunition and patrolled in their own vehicles. Many had gone for months without wages until the Special Forces team helped cut through red tape and graft to secure their full pay in July.

Once they get more equipment, Shimra said, he plans "to extend our security all around Hit and get rid of the insurgents."

Indeed in July, backing from tribal leaders led to Hit's first successful police recruiting drive.

"We knew there would be no people in Hit, so to facilitate success we put out word in al-Furat," the team sergeant said.

But a dispute emerged when Graves decided to "lock down" Hit with tanks and hold the recruiting drive at a frequently mortared U.S. combat outpost inside the town rather than in a safer tribal area across the Euphrates. "It's the most dialed-in place!" said the team sergeant, whose men narrowly missed being struck by a mortar shell during the drive.

In the end, only three Hit residents volunteered. But about 150 tribesmen crossed the river to sign up. Graves said he considered the police recruitment to be one of the U.S. military's biggest achievements in his area, and he acknowledged the Special Forces team's help in enlisting the tribesmen. "They deserve credit for that," he said of the team, whose tour ended last month.

The Special Forces soldiers realize there are drawbacks to relying on the tribe, which is focused on protecting its own territory and interests and which imposes tribal law that can undercut civil authority. Every decision, from firing a policeman to averting revenge killings, requires the sanction of tribal leaders such as Jubair. But the reality in Anbar, the team captain said, is either to "engage the tribes . . . or leave them to the will of the insurgency."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company