Tribal Members Join in Effort To Assist U.S., Iraqi Forces

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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007

More than 30,000 tribal members in Iraq have come forward to work with U.S. and Iraqi forces over the past six months, a phenomenon that is spreading beyond Anbar province to Baghdad and other regions of the country, according to U.S. commanders.

The Iraqi government, at the urging of U.S. authorities, this month ordered Iraqi army and police units to integrate the volunteers into their operations. "That is huge. This gives them the approval that we are looking for," said Brig. Gen. John F. Campbell, deputy commander of the U.S. military in Baghdad.

However, questions remain over whether alliances with fractious tribal sheiks will hold, whether they can improve security in mixed-sectarian areas such as Diyala province and Baghdad, and whether they will promote stability and national reconciliation or spur Iraq's fragmentation by proliferating armed groups.

Al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni insurgents in Iraq have launched a campaign to assassinate tribal leaders cooperating with U.S. forces, most recently using a suicide bomber on Monday to kill sheiks and officials at a reconciliation gathering of Shiite and Sunni tribal elders in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province.

Earlier U.S. military efforts to engage Iraqi tribes have been hampered by limited knowledge of the tribal leadership, territory and degree of influence, military experts said.

"This is certainly something we should ride for all it's worth but recognize that, eventually, centrifugal tendencies will reassert themselves," said Army Reserve Lt. Col. Michael Eisenstadt, who has researched Iraqi tribes. "In the long run, it will be very labor-intensive to keep them together," he said, adding that the tribes could turn against U.S. forces.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has hailed the move by tribes to join with U.S. forces to protect their neighborhoods. He acknowledged that the tribal "awakening" that began a year ago in Anbar -- a western province that is 95 percent Sunni -- was politically driven and cannot happen everywhere but said the shift in allegiances is spreading.

In Baghdad, more than 8,000 primarily Sunni tribe members have volunteered so far in districts such as Mansour and Abu Ghraib and are undergoing the vetting process to become Iraqi police, Campbell said. About 1,500 hired as police in Abu Ghraib completed training in the past two weeks, said Maj. Gen Joseph F. Fil Jr., the commander for Baghdad.

South of Baghdad in central Iraq, more than 14,000 have come forward in recent months to provide local security, including about 12,000 Sunni and 2,000 Shiite residents, said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the U.S. commander for the area. That marks an increase over the nearly 10,000 who had volunteered as of August, Lynch said.

The U.S. military effort to enlist tribes is driven in part by a need for more manpower to help secure areas cleared by U.S. and Iraqi troops so that they do not revert to insurgent or militia control. In Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces are working to disrupt or expel insurgents from 46 percent of 474 neighborhoods, Fil said he hopes grass-roots security forces will be "a catalyst" for change.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, the U.S. commander for northern Iraq, said the tribes offer leverage that cannot be ignored. "We don't have enough forces to secure every single little village," Mixon said in an interview. "If we can get a good majority of the sheiks to work with us . . . this shrinks the area where the enemy can operate."

Yet Iraq's Shiite-led government has looked warily at the predominantly Sunni tribal forces, particularly as they emerge in mixed-sectarian areas near Baghdad. "The government has this fear that this will be an armed uprising," said Campbell, who said he spent weeks escorting the Iraqi commander for Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Aboud Qanbar, to areas where tribal forces are volunteering.

"Initially, he was skittish . . . but he was courageous and visionary enough to support it," Campbell said. The result was the Iraqi government order, issued the first week of September by the National Reconciliation Committee to the ministries of Defense and Interior and other entities directing commanders to work with volunteers.

U.S. commanders hope that placing predominantly Sunni tribal forces on government payrolls as police or soldiers will also foster long-run reconciliation by providing Sunnis with jobs and tying them to the central government.

A test will be the extent to which tribes and other volunteers can help pacify mixed-sect areas such as Diyala, where fighting escalated over the past year. Diyala, which lies between Baghdad and Iran, has about 25 major tribes, including six that are a mix of Sunni and Shiite.

U.S. and Iraqi military operations have cut violence in Diyala in recent weeks, military data show. About 3,500 residents from tribes and other groups have volunteered for local security forces, and a recent agreement among 68 tribal leaders has helped quell fighting among Sunni and Shiite villages, according to Col. David W. Sutherland, a U.S. brigade commander in Diyala. But suspicions run deep, he said, and a peace agreement struck last year between two of those rival towns unraveled into months of "civil war," he said.

Some analysts view tribal cooperation as fleeting. "The natural tendency among tribes is for fragmentation," Eisenstadt said. He said today's tribal actions are driven by the threat of Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq. Anbar sheiks in Ramadi pledged to carry on after their leader Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, was killed Sept. 13. An al-Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility.

"It remains to be seen . . . whether the Anbar awakening can hold together . . . whether successes in Anbar can be replicated elsewhere, or whether coalition efforts to work with the tribes and arm tribal militias are in fact paving the way for an even more violent civil war," Eisenstadt wrote recently in Military Review.


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