Excerpt: The Gamble | The Insurgent Who Loved 'Titanic'

Thomas E. Ricks
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 7, 2009; 3:13 PM

This excerpt was taken from "The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008" by Thomas E. Ricks, Penguin Group ©2009.

Capt. Samuel Cook, who was commanding the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's C troop in the northern Tigris Valley in Salahuddin Province had been pursuing the local leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, whom he considered a "very passionate, eloquent speaker, well educated." The terrorist leader offered to talk, and Cook took him up on it. "He was tired of being on the run, and he no longer believed in what he had once been preaching," Cook said. He provided information on the whereabouts of a higher al Qaeda leader for the province, who was killed in a firefight two weeks later. He also told them that al Qaeda in Iraq had three major sources of funding: crime, the Kurds, and the Iranians. Cook would use this information adroitly, asking local Sunni insurgents why they thought al Qaeda was their friend, if it was on the payroll of the dreaded Persian power. The insurgents, who had affiliated with al Qaeda as the surge began to hit them, also were growing tired, Cook recalled.

Cook had a light touch. In December 2007, he sent a letter to the community wishing them a happy Eid al- Fitr, a festival that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and one of the most significant Muslim holidays. At the beginning of the Eid feast, he met with the al Qaeda man, telling him that he had enough evidence to detain him. The man responded that Cook was wading into a fight between tribes, implying that he didn't understand the situation. Cook countered, "We have far too many reports from people in your own tribe to make this a tribal affair." Cook then told the man and some sheikhs who had waited outside that the reconciliation process is not easy and that the al Qaeda man and he disagreed on his guilt, but that out of respect for the Eid holiday, he wouldn't detain him at this time. As Cook hoped, those three actions¿the letter, the meeting, and the show of respect persuaded other insurgents to come see the thoughtful American.

One man who came in to talk was Sarhan Hassan Wisme, a local legend, described by Cook as "the Robin Hood figure at the height of the insurgency in 2006." Sarhan boasted of having planted more than 200 bombs for attacks on U.S. troops, a claim he later happily repeated to Cook. His other specialty was killing locals who cooperated with the Americans. "The thing that intrigued me about him is that he was not afraid to tell us exactly what he had done to U.S. forces proud of it almost." The Americans had raided his house six times but never caught him.

Cook, an inquisitive man who grew up partly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where his father was a professor of religion, had several extensive conservations with Sarhan, beginning on the first day of 2008. These meetings weren't deemed official interrogations because Sarhan wasn't in custody and was told he was free to leave at any time. Cook didn't want to capture one man; he wanted to turn his entire organization, or destroy it, if that became necessary. To ensure his knowledge was accurate, Cook had a soldier sit quietly in the room and take verbatim notes.

"Captain, you just make me out to be a very bad man, saying I have murdered, raped, and stolen," Sarhan protested, according to those notes. "I fight only the Americans, and all of Sharqat is my witness."

"What about car bombs?" Cook asked.

"If you have witnesses that I was part of a car bombing, then you can kill me right now," the insurgent responded indignantly.

"You are part of a group and ideology that is destroying Iraq," Cook said, not willing to cede any moral ground. "We have enough evidence to shoot you on sight. . . . When you leave, unless this meeting goes very well, I will still try to kill you."

During several more meetings in January, Sarhan told Cook his life story. He worked at a fertilizer factory in nearby Bayji, home of a major oil refinery, and obtained some of his bombmaking materials there. He had started attacking the Americans in the spring of 2004, motivated by news of the American abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad. He insisted that he attacked only Americans, not the Iraqi army or police. That wasn't just a matter of ideology. His organization, the Islamic Army, had thoroughly infiltrated the police, who actually became quite helpful, warning him by cell phone when there was an American patrol coming to the town, one reason he was never

found at home. Indeed, he said, one police major had donated his sniper rifle to the insurgents. He explained that the local police colonel had an agreement: "As long as JAI [the Islamic Army] does not attack Iraqi police or the Iraqi army, they are free to attack coalition forces." Also, he said, the city council chief had an understanding under which contracts given by the Iraqi government and the U.S. military for local projects were steered to members of the insurgency, or at the very least made sure it employed them.

In January 2007, he had affiliated with al Qaeda after hearing its local mufti speak about the need to unify because the Americans were retreating from Iraq, and the insurgency had to stand as one to oppose the inevitable Persian attempt at domination. Here he hesitated. "There are things I don't want to talk about because if we do talk about them, you may kill me," Sarhan said.

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