By Joshua Partlow and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 11, 2007
BAGHDAD, June 10 -- A tribal coalition formed to oppose the extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq, a development that U.S. officials say has reduced violence in Iraq's troubled Anbar province, is beginning to splinter, according to an Anbar tribal leader and a U.S. military official familiar with tribal politics.
In an interview in his Baghdad office, Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, 35, a leader of the Dulaim confederation, the largest tribal organization in Anbar, said that the Anbar Salvation Council would be dissolved because of growing internal dissatisfaction over its cooperation with U.S. soldiers and the behavior of the council's most prominent member, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha. Suleiman called Abu Risha a "traitor" who "sells his beliefs, his religion and his people for money."
Abu Risha, who enjoys the support of U.S. military commanders, denied the allegations and said the council is not at risk of breaking apart. "There is no such thing going on," he said in a telephone interview from Jordan.
Lt. Col. Richard D. Welch, a U.S. military official who works closely with the tribal leaders in Iraq, said that relations inside the group were strained and that he expected a complete overhaul of the coalition in coming days.
U.S. military leaders hailed the creation of the nearly nine-month-old Anbar Salvation Council, first known as the Awakening, as one of the most important developments in the four-year war, signaling that insurgents and the local population in Anbar, which is overwhelmingly Sunni, have begun to see al-Qaeda in Iraq as their worst enemy, rather than the United States and its allies.
Since the tribes began working with U.S. forces to resist al-Qaeda in Iraq -- and since they began receiving significant amounts of weapons and vehicles -- violence in the province and deaths of U.S. soldiers there have fallen dramatically.
But the divisions within the coalition underscore what many see as a central dilemma: Should the United States be sponsoring profit-oriented tribal groups that involve themselves in sometimes fragile alliances and that could turn against U.S. troops?
"The question with a group like this always is, does it stay bought?" said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, referring to suggestions that the United States is paying for loyalty from the tribes.
Although backing the tribal coalition looks like "the least bad option" under the current circumstances, he said, "The key is, what can the Iraqi government offer them over time, and is it enough for them to stay with the bargain?"
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, has disputed the notion that U.S. forces were buying the loyalty of the tribes, saying that they opposed al-Qaeda in Iraq on ideological grounds and noting that many tribal leaders had been killed by the extremist group.
"I think they've done this for their lives," Petraeus said during a recent briefing on Anbar. "This is not just a business deal they've struck. When you oppose al-Qaeda, you are putting it all on the line. This is not an economic issue."
Tribal relations are notoriously fickle and fluid, and recent tensions within the Anbar Salvation Council bear some hallmarks of a power struggle that could signal either its evolution or its collapse.
Welch, a U.S. Army Reserve officer in Baghdad who specializes in tribal and religious affairs, said that "you will see, I think, in the next few days a complete severing" of relations between Abu Risha and other members of the council, and the formation of a new group.
Suleiman said 12 Anbar tribal leaders have signed an agreement to form a new coalition that would result in the dissolution of the Anbar Salvation Council and the purging of Abu Risha. "Those people have thrown themselves in the arms of the U.S. forces for their own benefit," he said.
Suleiman and Welch alleged that Abu Risha runs an oil smuggling ring and that his followers have worked as highway bandits on Anbar's roads, activities in which many tribal groups engage.
Abu Risha "made his living running a band of thieves who kidnapped and stopped and robbed people on the road between Baghdad and Jordan. That's how he made his fortune," Welch said. Tribesmen accuse Abu Risha of passing false information to U.S. forces about other tribal leaders in order to eliminate business rivals, Welch said.
Abu Risha denied these allegations and said Suleiman's work in Baghdad left him out of touch with day-to-day affairs in the province.
"I am in Anbar and I am the first fighter in Anbar. And what they are saying about it is jealousy and no more than jealousy. They are the enemies of success," he said.
Another member of the council, Raad Sabah al-Alwani, said he had not heard about Suleiman's complaints about the council or plans to dissolve it. "Impossible -- I am the head of the council for Ramadi," he said, referring to Anbar's provincial capital. "The Salvation is like one family. There are no problems between us and the members."
A U.S. Marine spokesman in Anbar, Maj. Jeffrey Pool, said that "we are not detecting any of the indicators of a major restructuring in Sahawa al-Iraq," using another name for the group. "The view from Baghdad will differ from the view from Ramadi."
The dangers of embracing tribal groups are perhaps most vividly illustrated by the U.S. experience in Afghanistan. There, the United States and its allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, armed Afghan mujaheddin groups, often organized along tribal lines, in their fight against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, those weapons helped fuel a civil war and subsequently became part of the arsenal used by the Taliban, Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda and other groups in the current fight against U.S. forces and their allies in Afghanistan.
Eight policemen loyal to tribal leaders in the Anbar Salvation Council said in interviews that the U.S. military was giving them weapons, money and other materials such as uniforms, body armor, helmets and pickup trucks. In addition, the United States was paying salaries of up to $900 a month to tribal fighters, they said.
Col. Steve Boylan, a spokesman for Petraeus, said that supplies and funding for the police force came from the Iraqi government's Interior Ministry. "They may think they're getting paid by us because we're working with them so heavily," he said.
Abu Risha said that the U.S. military has given the police pickup trucks, Russian-made machine guns and pistols, and that salaries were paid by the Interior Ministry.
But police officials in Ramadi said they were getting very little from the central government.
"The Iraqi government has abandoned us, and we have received nothing from them except promises," said Col. Abdul Salam al-Reeshawi, head of a neighborhood police center. "More than 90 percent of the weapons and supplies come from the American forces, beginning with personal pistols and ending with medium machine guns and rocket launchers."
"When the Americans were sure of our intentions in exterminating al-Qaeda terrorists, they backed us up with weapons, cars and money," said Col. Ahmad Hamad al-Dulaimi, another top police officer in Ramadi. "Without the American forces, we couldn't do anything worth mentioning."
U.S. military officials said that virtually everyone in Anbar belongs to a tribe and that rather than ignore that fact, they were trying to exploit it. "There is an overlay of governmental structure and tribal structure, and the two, when they work well, mesh and, in a sense, complement each other in Anbar," Petraeus said.
But while the provincial police force is technically under Interior Ministry command, it is less certain whose orders police officers follow when they are out on operations.
"We take our current orders from the American Army, and we are connected to them by a center well known as the JCC," said Dulaimi, the senior police official in Ramadi. He was referring to joint coordination centers, which are U.S.-Iraqi military groups set up at the local level to monitor Iraqi security forces.
But lower-ranking members said they took their orders from tribal leaders, saying that was where their loyalties lie.
"We hate al-Qaeda, but at the same time we don't like the Americans," said Emad Jasem, 23, from the Soufiya district, north of Ramadi. Although they were cooperating with U.S. troops because of "overlapping interests," he said, "no one should jump to the conclusion that we are on the side of the Americans and support them. Our loyalty is to our community and our city."
Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.