Sunni Sheiks Join Fight Vs. Insurgency
Sunday, March 25, 2007; 3:39 PM
RAMADI, Iraq -- Not long ago it would have been unthinkable: a Sunni sheik allying himself publicly with American forces in a xenophobic city at the epicenter of Iraq's Sunni insurgency.
Today, there is no mistaking whose side Sheik Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi is on. Outside his walled home, a U.S. tank is on permanent guard beside a clutch of towering date palms and a protective dirt berm.
The 36-year-old sheik is leading a growing movement of Sunni tribesmen who have turned against al-Qaida-linked insurgents in Anbar province. The dramatic shift in alliances may have done more in a few months to ease daily street battles and undercut the insurgency here than American forces have achieved in years with arms.
The American commander responsible for Ramadi, Col. John W. Charlton, said the newly friendly sheiks, combined with an aggressive counterinsurgency strategy and the presence of thousands of new Sunni police on the streets, have helped cut attacks in the city by half in recent months.
In November 2005, American commanders held a breakthrough meeting with top Sunni chiefs in Ramadi, hoping to lure them away from the insurgents' fold. The sheiks responded positively, promising cooperation and men for a police force that was then virtually nonexistent.
But in January 2006 a suicide bomber attacked a police recruiting drive, killing 70 people. Insurgents killed at least four sheiks for cooperating with the Americans, and many others fled.
The killings left the effort in limbo, until a turning point; insurgents killed a prominent sheik last year and refused to let family members bury the body for four days, enraging Sunni tribesmen, said U.S. Lt. Col. Miciotto Johnson, who heads the 1st Battalion, 77th Armored Regiment and visits al-Rishawi frequently in western Ramadi.
Al-Rishawi, whose father and three brothers were killed by al-Qaida assassins, said insurgents were "killing innocent people, anyone suspected of opposing them. They brought us nothing but destruction and we finally said, enough is enough."
Al-Rishawi founded the Anbar Salvation Council in September with dozens of Sunni tribes. Many of the new newly friendly leaders are believed to have at least tacitly supported the insurgency in the past, though al-Rishawi said he never did.
"I was always against these terrorists," al-Rishawi said in an interview inside his American-guarded compound, adjusting a pistol holstered around his waist. "They brainwashed people into thinking Americans were against them. They said foreigners wanted to occupy our land and destroy our mosques. They told us, 'We'll wage a jihad. We'll help you defeat them.'"
The difficult part was convincing others it wasn't true, and that "building an alliance with the Americans was the only solution," al-Rishawi said.
His movement, also known as the Anbar Awakening, now counts 41 tribes or sub-tribes from Anbar, though al-Rishawi acknowledges that some groups in the province have yet to join. It's unclear how many that is, or much support the movement really has.