By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 27, 2007
RAMADI, Iraq -- Before tribal sheiks aligned themselves with U.S. forces in the violent deserts of western Iraq, the number of people willing to become police officers in the city of Ramadi -- the epicenter of the fight against the insurgent group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq -- might not have filled a single police pickup.
"Last March was zero," said Maj. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer, the Marine commander in western Iraq, referring to the number of men recruited that month.
With the help of a confederation of about 50 Sunni Muslim tribal sheiks, the U.S. military recruited more than 800 police officers in December and is on track to do the same this month. Officers credit the sheiks' cooperation for the diminishing violence in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
"I don't want to paint too rosy a picture, but if you compare this to what it was seven or eight months ago, there is not a place in this city that al-Qaeda controls," said Lt. Col. James Lechner, deputy commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, in Ramadi.
But some Iraqi politicians and Anbar residents who oppose the U.S. presence describe the confederation, known as the Awakening, as a divisive group that pits tribes against each other, uses police officers as armed guards to protect tribal territory, and harnesses American support to consolidate its power.
Fasal al-Gaood, a tribal sheik and former Anbar governor who was seen as an ally of the Americans during his term in office, said the group has been given more authority than it deserves. Gaood, who has survived several assassination attempts, said he was worried that insurgent infiltrators might lurk inside the rapidly growing police force.
"Many of those sheiks are actually following two tracks," he said, speaking from his current home in Jordan. "On the one hand, they say, 'We support the council.' But they're not playing a direct role in it, because at the same time they also have connections with other organizations that are outside the law."
Lechner conceded that "insurgent infiltration is undoubtedly an issue" but said in an e-mail that the U.S. military relies on a computer database to check whether recruits have a history of known insurgent activity. They are also "vetted and vouched for by family members and tribal leaders," he said.
Saleh al-Mutlak, parliamentary leader of the secular Sunni party known as the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, described the confederation of Sunni sheiks as a "very dangerous movement" that is assuming official powers in the absence of a functioning government. "They wanted political cover from our front, but we said no," he said. "We don't mind that they fight al-Qaeda, but any movement should be official, and not tribal, because it will only divide the tribes."
To some degree, the U.S. cooperation with the tribal sheiks is a relationship of last resort. The fighting in Anbar has been among the fiercest in the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Of the more than 3,000 U.S. service members killed in Iraq, 875 died in the province, roughly the size of North Carolina. Dozens of schools and hospitals are closed, and basic services such as electricity and telephones are woefully inadequate. The Americans live at Camp Ramadi amid a desolate expanse of mud: Smoke rises from the burn pit, and crows perch on trash and twisted metal along dirt roads.
This month, the confederation and U.S. officials held what they called the first Ramadi reconstruction conference in the compound of the leader of the Awakening, Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi. The American soldiers parked their Humvees in a gravel lot near some camels and a flock of sheep and left their combat boots on the porch as a sign of respect for the sheiks.
Inside a marble-clad conference hall, Zilmer, the Marine commander, surveyed a carpeted room filled with dozens of men in black-and-gold robes, checkered headdresses and pinstriped suits and pronounced them a "very, very impressive collection of the leadership of Ramadi and al-Anbar province." As if to underscore the local antagonism toward the sheiks, a missile crashed outside the wall of the compound, briefly interrupting Sattar's speech.
The military says it has found a welcome ally in the tribal sheiks. U.S. commanders trace the formation of the Awakening to Aug. 21 last year, when Abu Ali Jassim, a sheik who had encouraged his kinsmen to join the provincial security forces, was killed by members of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Instead of turning over the body to be buried, al-Qaeda hid it in a field, violating Islamic tenets calling for a swift burial, said Maj. Thomas A. Shoffner, operations officer for the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division.
"As soon as they did that, the local tribesmen absolutely turned on al-Qaeda," he said.
Military commanders say the newly determined sheiks encouraged kinsmen to join the police force in part because of a U.S. decision to allow the recruits to patrol their home territories.
Between July and December, the number of roadside bombings and incidents involving indirect fire, such as mortar attacks, dropped by about 50 percent in Ramadi, according to the U.S. military. Many al-Qaeda fighters lived in the suburbs of Ramadi and attacked in the city. But "the sheiks have sent their men out there and secured that," Lechner said.
In some ways, the confederation is also a last resort for the sheiks, some of whom say they have not received adequate protection or services from the Shiite Muslim-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad.
"Since the occupation in 2003 and up until now, we have received no help from the government to save Ramadi from the insurgents," said Mahmood al-Jarbou, whose tribe is part of the confederation. "Many of our tribesmen were killed, especially those who were willing to volunteer for army or police service. Because of that, we found it was necessary to form this council."
Maliki's aides say he supports the tribal organization, meets with its leaders and supports efforts to form a similar organization in Diyala province, another insurgent stronghold. An official in Maliki's government played down concerns about the confederation. "Obviously some people see this as a threat, but when compared to other threats, this is a rather benign one," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of government protocol.
Mahmood Farhan, sheik of Ramadi's large Albu Chlaib tribe, opposes the confederation. Its members "are creating their own militias to control the province," he said, adding: "Up until now, they have not created anything good for the city. They are only protecting their own areas and protecting the occupiers." Farhan supports attacks against American troops.
More than one observer questioned the motives of the Awakening's leader, Sattar of the Albu Risha tribe, a man reputed to have amassed a fortune as part of a criminal network that robbed travelers on the desert highways of Anbar. The Awakening's members "are a group of gangsters," said Hussein al-Maadhidi, a journalist who lives in Haditha.
An adviser to Sattar, Hikmet Sulaiman, denied that Sattar had been a highway bandit, saying, "He comes from a rich family, and he made himself . . . a quite good business in Iraq, Jordan and Dubai." Sulaiman did not answer an e-mail asking what the business was, but he said that Sattar has paid about $600,000 of his own money into the Awakening and that "thousands are now following him with their lives" because of his strong reputation.
The U.S. military's reliance on the tribal sheiks recalls the British occupation of Iraq in the early 20th century. The British courted the sheiks with funding and made them responsible for ensuring order and collecting revenue, historian Phebe Marr wrote in "The Modern History of Iraq."
"The policy was efficient and economical, reducing the need for highly paid British staff in the countryside, but ultimately it strengthened the hold of the sheiks over their tribesmen and their land," Marr wrote. The policy came to be regarded as "certainly one of the most lasting and problematic legacies" of British rule.
Gaood, once involved with the Awakening, said the movement is not the solution to Ramadi's problems. "If we try to rely on strictly tribal forces and tribal figures, this would be like taking Iraq back to the days of the Middle Ages," he said.
One Iraqi political scientist in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he saw the confederation as an example of the widespread push in Iraq for greater regional control in areas such as the Shiite south and the Kurdish north, catalyzed by a weakened central government.
But aligning with the Americans can be dangerous in the heartland of the Sunni insurgency. As Lechner put it: "They've come out of the closet, so to speak. There's no going back now."
Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.