Lessons From an Anbar Sheik

By Sterling Jensen
Saturday, September 29, 2007

From May 2006 until May 2007, I was an interpreter for most of the meetings between U.S. government officials and Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the Sunni sheik killed by a car bomb Sept. 13 in Ramadi. I watched as Abu Risha changed over time from an unknown local tribal leader to arguably the United States' best hope in Iraq. His death was a shock to me, but it was not unexpected, given the dangers surrounding him. Unfortunately, though, Abu Risha's life and efforts are being misinterpreted by some in Washington.

Abu Risha was no ordinary sheik or ordinary man -- he was fearless, even if it meant being branded pro-American in an area that not long before had been crawling with al-Qaeda forces.

I have many memories of Abu Risha, and I vividly recall him standing up in September last year in front of his fellow Sunni sheiks in Ramadi -- then the most dangerous place for U.S. troops in all of Iraq -- and declaring: "The coalition forces are friendly forces, not occupying forces!" The other sheiks looked on nervously. Yet six months later, those same sheiks were following Abu Risha's lead and forging their own relationships with the United States.

I also recall the look on Abu Risha's face when I translated a U.S. commanding general's statement that Anbar would receive additional American troops from the surge. The general watched us and seemed to expect Abu Risha to appear grateful for this act of magnanimity. Instead, Abu Risha looked back at him in bewilderment. He asked the general sternly: Why bring them all the way over here to put them in harm's way when we are making so much headway with the Iraqi police and army? We don't need more American troops here. Why not focus your efforts on getting Baghdad to support the Iraqi police in Anbar?

Abu Risha had hit on how we are going to win the war in Iraq. It's not about having more American troops on the ground. Success will come from supporting local leaders and their security forces.

Abu Risha would frequently say that if the United States would support the local Iraqi police and army, he would help us "fight al-Qaeda all the way to Afghanistan."

Abu Risha advocated a continuing U.S. presence in Iraq. He supported the long-term outlook that President Bush articulated in a speech this month -- and he saw Anbar as key to this effort.

Yet Abu Risha also firmly believed that empowering the Iraqi people to expunge anti-democratic forces such as al-Qaeda would be the only way to win this war. He did not believe victory would come through American initiatives such as the surge.

We need to trust Iraqi leaders and their evolving democratic system more than we do now. While this will be difficult at times, in the end this is the only way for Iraq to heal itself.

Many Iraqis believe that we keep our troops in their country, leading combat operations, because we want to control their destiny. In August 2006, after a major suicide attack on a critical police station in Ramadi, U.S. soldiers showed up to take control of the situation. I was repeatedly asked by the top U.S. military officer present to keep the Iraqi police away because of the hazards associated with the burning building. The police chief, who waited impatiently for the Americans to leave, grew defiant when he realized that the American soldiers would take much longer to put out the fires than he had expected. Against the U.S. military officer's wishes, the police chief marched with his policemen back into the station, where they extinguished the fires. With the help of U.S. soldiers, they cleaned up and rebuilt their station. It wasn't how the American officer would have handled the situation, but the job was done.

If we are to beat al-Qaeda in Iraq, we will have to learn to trust the Iraqis, even though they might not do things the way we would. The bottom line is that Iraqis want to take charge in Iraq, and we need to let them.

The writer, a student at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, was a U.S. contract interpreter in Iraq from March 2006 to June 2007. He worked with the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division and the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.


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