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.

"You are here as a guest and I will honor that," Cook reassured him.

As the two men got to know each other better in subsequent meetings, their discussions would meander, as Cook sought to understand his onetime and perhaps future adversary. Hedging his bets, he used his company sniper team as his bodyguards during some meetings so they would get a good look at Sarhan in case they needed to shoot him in the future. The two men talked about Sarhan's children, who were playing "Mujahadeen and Americans," instead of the traditional "Cowboys and Indians." Cook knew that Iraqis of all stripes loved American movies, particularly the 1997 epic Titanic. Sarhan told him that he didn't watch any American movies, that they were products of the devil. Cook jokingly asked him if he liked Titanic, knowing it was enormously popular in Iraq. Why, yes, the insurgent confessed. He recounted watching it seven times and crying every time at the ending, as Kate Winslet lets the dead Leonardo DiCaprio slip into the freezing North Atlantic.

When Cook asked about another local insurgent cell, and whether they were responsible for the kidnapping and murder of five Iraqi soldiers four months earlier, Sarhan was contemptuous. "No, they couldn't kill a chicken," he sneered. The exchange that struck Cook most was one in which he didn't speak, but instead listened to a conversation between two Iraqis. In mid- January he brought Col. Ismael, a local Iraqi police commander he respected enormously, to sit down with Sarhan. Both were Sunnis, and in fact from related tribes, but had never met. "They are tribal cousins, and both chose very different paths to deal with the crushing loss they felt after the invasion," Cook said. Their dialogue, which Cook recorded, does indeed read like a David Mamet version of recent Sunni history, as they jab and parry about the dilemma of feeling squeezed between two enemies, the United States and Iran.

"You know that your jihad is all bullshit," Ismael asserted. "You cooperate with Iran" a cardinal sin for a Sunni. "You know Iran is our number one enemy." Sarhan hit back: How could you call yourself an Iraqi yet cooperate with the American occupiers? "You are sworn to defend your country, is that right?"

"Yes, I defend my country," said Ismael, who had been a colonel in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein and was wounded in Iraq's war with Iran. "But you know the result of that. It is Saddam Hussein." He pushed Sarhan to consider the consequences of an American departure. "You know if U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq, Iran will come. Their occupation will be intolerable."

Sarhan was ready to take them on. "Then we will fight Iran and force them to withdraw from Iraq as well."

"You are not thinking!" chided Ismael. "They will destroy this country!" Ismael repeatedly attacked Sarhan on the issues of dignity and respect, the core values of Iraqi culture. "A lot of people are talking shit about you." People in town were saying things behind his back, he said. "They say to you, 'Hi, you are doing a good job of fighting the Americans,' but when you leave, they say, 'Let him go to Hell.' . . . They make fun of you and talk about how you ------ up Iraq."

Ismael knew his man. "Sarhan is a cold- blooded man, but I could see his eyes tearing up while Ismael lectured him," Cook wrote in a patrol report. His interpreter told him after the meeting that as he had listened, he had "relived all the pain of the last five years."

But Sarhan still wasn't quite persuaded to give up. The Iraqi policeman who had arranged the first meeting with Sarhan informed Cook that the situation in the town was growing more dangerous. In late January, Iraqi police found a propane tank that had been rigged to explode and was being taken to Cook's outpost. Also, a former coworker of Sarhan's from the fertilizer factory was caught looking for a photograph of Cook, apparently to help in planning a sniper attack on the meddlesome American commander. More reports came to Cook that the insurgency might be preparing a new round of attacks this time under Sarhan's leadership. Cook had Sarhan brought in and tried to persuade him to give up. The insurgent agreed, but as a matter of pride, insisted that he be arrested not by the Americans but by the Iraqi police. On February 4, after a few more meetings, Sarhan finally turned himself in.

The effect of the turning of the insurgent groups was extraordinary, "the game changer," Cook concluded. "The mufti for al Qaeda who had been so potent in his rhetoric against us gave the opening remarks at the reconciliation conference in mid-February in front of over a thousand people. He was now telling most of his erstwhile colleagues in the insurgency why it was time to lay down their weapons." In the following days, 184 people came in to "reconcile" and be given parole. "It was a mass surrender in effect," and it later spread to the rest of Salahuddin Province, Cook said. In order to be deemed "reconciled," insurgents were required to:

- state publicly their commitment to lay down their arms,

- turn in all weapons,

- promise to help provide security,

- come in with a guarantor, who becomes subject to arrest if the insurgent

can't be found, and

- be ready to come in any time they are summoned.

They had seven days to consider those terms, after which they would be targeted. Most obeyed these rather strict rules of parole, Cook noted, and those who didn't were arrested.

The rounds of conversations that followed "flipped the light switch on and allowed us to see the insurgency, the leaders, the structure, their tactics, everything," said an amazed Cook. American tactics and practices immediately improved in myriad ways. For example, the new commander of the turned insurgents, now working with the Americans, strongly recommended that Iraqi police not be permitted to keep cell phones at checkpoints. He also named the Iraqi police officer who was responsible for keeping top insurgent leaders informed about the whereabouts of planned American raids. One such leader would tell Cook later about being warned and so hiding in a prepared hole next to his sister's house, where a cow conveniently sat while the Americans looked for him. Cook's bottom line was that many low- level fighters had joined the insurgency for the money. By taking them away from al Qaeda and putting them on the American payroll, he said, the huge economic advantage of the United States was finally brought to bear in Iraq. "They could not compete with the sheer volume of cash we were able to put in people's hands," he said. Payments of $300 a month each to 1,500 local security guards amounted to nearly a half million dollars a month, he noted. "Instead of devoting twenty- five to fifty percent of my combat power to route security patrols, sniper outposts, et cetera, I have been able to spend my time hunting intelligence gathering, raids, overwatching enemy houses with snipers."

Having former insurgents as guides also meant there was suddenly much more information on which to act, both because the insurgents were talking but also because they were no longer violently preventing civilians from doing so. Indeed, there were so many new informants that it made it difficult for the remaining insurgents to pinpoint the origins of the new American intelligence. They "knew where the [arms] caches were, they knew all the names of the al Qaeda leaders," said Capt. Zane Galvach, a platoon leader in the 2nd Infantry Division's 3rd Stryker Brigade.

All told, the Americans arrived at local cease- fires with 779 local militias, some as small as 10 men in a neighborhood, some as large as 800 armed fighters, said Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kulmayer, who oversaw the U.S. military's relationship with the groups in 2008. Permitting the Sunnis to field militias, commented Carter Malkasian, the counterinsurgency adviser to the Marines, was probably "one more step toward the fragmentation of Iraq." Despite that concern, he endorsed the idea. It was time to select "least bad" choices. "Optimal is no longer a luxury the United States can afford," he wrote. "Right now, we must focus on avoiding the worst possible outcome."

A little noticed aspect of this embrace of former enemies was that it was a second major instance of the leaders of the U.S. effort quietly imitating Saddam Hussein. The first was Gen. Odierno's decision that in order to secure Baghdad he had to focus on the surrounding Baghdad belts. After being weakened by his partial defeat in the 1991 war, Saddam also had reached out to Sunni tribal leaders. Just as Petraeus would allow former insurgents to keep their arms and patrol their neighborhoods, after the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam had "embraced auxiliary tribalism by allowing sheikhs to create their own private armies equipped with small arms, rocket- propelled grenades, mortars, and allegedly even howitzers," noted Austin Long, a RAND Corporation expert on counterinsurgency.

But, Long noted, the U.S. policy faced an additional difficulty: It was opposed by the Baghdad government, while Saddam's earlier move had been implemented by Baghdad.

Making peace with some of one's foes made sense when one's allies were sometimes secret enemies. In January 2007, for example, insurgents assaulted a police station in Karbala where U.S. advisers were based. One of the Americans was killed, three were wounded, and four were kidnapped, only to be shot and killed later. A subsequent investigation found strong evidence that some of the Iraqi police colluded with the attackers. Some left the compound before the assault began, and a back gate had been left unlocked. Also, the attackers somehow had obtained the uniforms worn by U.S. bodyguards. Later that year, the head of police intelligence in Karbala Province was detained after roadside bombs and other weapons were found in his house. In Baghdad, U.S. troops detained an Iraqi police lieutenant suspected of being a Shiite militia leader, only to have other policemen open fire on them from a checkpoint and from nearby rooftops. Six of the police were killed.

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