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A Potentially Winning Tactic, With a Warning

By Walter Pincus
Monday, August 27, 2007

Fourteen months ago, a 300-page Defense Department-sponsored research paper titled "Iraq Tribal Study: Al-Anbar Governorate" was completed and delivered to the Pentagon. That report -- put together by a distinguished group of retired military counterinsurgency specialists and academics, each with Iraq experience -- was circulated in the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., at the time led by then-Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, now the top U.S. commander in Iraq. The study proposed changing how the United States interacts with Sunni tribal leaders, eventually contributing to winning their support in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq forces.

In early 2006, U.S. government experts disagreed over whether to seek cooperation from the Iraqi tribes in what was then termed the Sunni Triangle. Some wanted to gain military control over the area and wipe out resistance. Others proposed arming selected Sunni sheiks who were showing opposition to al-Qaeda in Iraq's own foreign forces, knowing this could harm the longer-term effort to create a unified Iraqi identity.

Today, the support of Sunni tribal leaders against al-Qaeda in Iraq is hailed as one of the few successes from the U.S. troop increase this year.

The Iraq Tribal Study provided a handbook on how to gain that support by covering the basics. One section, titled "How to Work With Tribesmen," explains that "RESPECT ( Ihtiram in Arabic) is the key," and also warns: "Do not assume that they want to be like you."

The study summed up how the Sunni tribes viewed the conditions that Washington established in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. "Throughout the modern history of Iraq, the Sunni tribes have occupied a privileged position in Iraq society and enjoyed wealth, autonomy and political clout," the report said. "To lose those advantages in a system of proportional representation that empowered the Shia, or in a truncated Iraq with a Kurdish autonomous province, would bring shame to a long and prosperous Sunni history."

It also cautioned that the main themes of the U.S. message in Iraq -- "freedom and democracy" -- do not resonate well with the population "because freedom is associated with chaos in Iraq." In addition, the Sunnis "are deathly afraid of being ruled by a Shia government, which they believe will be little more than a puppet of the Shia religious extremists in Iran."

The study identified three tribes in al-Anbar province, all of which initially fought as insurgents against U.S. forces. But more recently, all three tribes -- or "significant parts of them" -- joined the movement against al-Qaeda in Iraq. "This presents a window of opportunity for engagement and influence of the tribes by the coalition," the study stated.

However, the study warned that with two of the tribes, such cooperation "should not be considered as support for, or even acceptance of, coalition activities." Instead, it occurs "for no other purpose but to rid the area of a common enemy, al-Qaeda and its allies." With the third, it cautioned, "the recognized leadership plays both ends of the insurgency, coalition versus the insurgents, against the middle while maintaining a single motive, to force the coalition to leave Iraq."

In short, the study's experts pointed toward what has become a short-term U.S. success, while warning more than a year ago -- as the intelligence community did last week -- that it is all temporary.

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them tofineprint@washpost.com.

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