Shaky Allies in Anbar

By David Ignatius
Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Bush administration has been so enthusiastic in touting its new alliance with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province that it's easy to overlook two basic questions: Why did it take so long to reach an accommodation with the Sunnis? And is Anbar really a good model for stabilizing the rest of Iraq?

First, the what-took-so-long issue: The fact is, Sunni tribal leaders have been queuing up for four years to try to make the kind of alliances that have finally taken root in Anbar. For most of that time, these overtures were rebuffed by U.S. officials who, not inaccurately, regarded the Sunni sheiks as local warlords.

This disdain for potential allies was a mistake, but so is the recent sugarcoating of the tribal leaders. They are tough Bedouin chiefs, sometimes little more than smugglers and gangsters. The United States should make tactical alliances with them, but we shouldn't have stars in our eyes. The tendency to overidealize our allies has been a consistent mistake.

Like other journalists who follow Iraq, I began talking with Sunni tribal leaders in 2003. Most of the meetings were in Amman, Jordan, arranged with help from former Jordanian government officials who had perfected the art of paying the sheiks. One contact was a member of the Kharbit clan, which had long maintained friendly (albeit secret) relations with the Jordanians and the Americans. The Kharbits were eager for an alliance, even after a U.S. bombing raid killed one of their leaders, Malik Kharbit, in April 2003. But U.S. officials were disdainful.

During a visit to Fallujah in September 2003, I met an aging leader of the Bu Issa tribe named Sheik Khamis. He didn't want secret American payoffs -- they would get him killed, he said. He wanted money to rebuild schools and roads and to provide jobs for members of his tribe. U.S. officials made fitful efforts to help but nothing serious enough to check the insurgency in Fallujah. Back then, you recall, the Bush administration was playing down any talk of an insurgency.

A Sunni tribal leader who pushed bravely for an alliance with the Americans was Talal al-Gaaod, a leader of one of the branches of the Dulaim tribe. Looking back through my notes, I can reconstruct a series of his efforts that were mishandled by senior U.S. officials: In August 2004, he helped arrange a meeting in Amman between Marine commanders from Anbar and tribal leaders there who wanted to assemble a local militia. Senior U.S. officials learned of the unauthorized dialogue and shut it down.

Gaaod tried again in November 2004, organizing a tribal summit in Amman with the blessing of the Jordanian government. Again, the official U.S. response was chilly; the U.S. military launched its second assault on Fallujah that month, and the summit had to be canceled. In the spring of 2005, the tireless Gaaod began framing plans for what he called a "Desert Protection Force," a kind of tribal militia that would fight al-Qaeda in Anbar. The proposal was gutted by U.S. officials in Baghdad who derided it as "warlordism."

A despondent Gaaod e-mailed me in July 2005: "Believe me, there is no need to waste anymore one penny of the American taxpayers' money and no more one drop of blood of the American boys." His despair roused the new American ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, who began meeting with Gaaod and other Iraqi Sunnis in Amman in hopes of brokering a deal with the insurgents. Gaaod died of heart failure in March 2006.

What finally happened in Anbar was that Sunni tribal leaders -- tough guys who have guns and know how to use them -- began standing up to the al-Qaeda thugs who were marrying their women and blocking their smuggling routes. The initial American response in mid-2006, I'm told, was ho-hum. More warlords. But Green Zone officials began to realize this was the real deal, and a virtuous cycle began. The tragedy is that it could have happened much earlier.

The American plan now, apparently, is to extend the Anbar model and create "bottom-up" solutions throughout Iraq. For example, I'm told that U.S. commanders met recently with the Shiite political organization known as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and gave a green light for its Badr Organization militia to control security in Nasiriyah and some other areas in southern Iraq and thereby check the power of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. We're interposing ourselves here in an intra-Shiite battle we barely understand.

These local deals may make sense as short-term methods for stabilizing the country. But we shouldn't confuse these tactical alliances with nation-building. Over time, they will break Iraq apart rather than pull it together. Work with tribal and militia leaders, but don't forget who they are.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company