In Anbar, U.S.-Allied Tribal Chiefs Feel Deep Sense of Abandonment

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 3, 2009

RAMADI, Iraq -- There was once a swagger to the scotch-swilling, insurgent-fighting Raed Sabah. He was known as Sheik Raed to his sycophants. Tribesmen who relied on his largess called him the same. So did his fighters, who joined the Americans and helped crush the insurgency in Anbar province.

Sabah still likes his scotch -- Johnnie Walker Black, with Red Bull on the rocks -- but these days, as the Americans withdraw from western Iraq, he has lost his swagger. His neighbors now deride him as an American stooge; they have nicknamed his alley "The Street of the Lackeys."

"The Americans left without even saying goodbye. Not one of them," Sabah said in his villa in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, once the cradle of Iraq's insurgency. "Even when we called them, we got a message that the line had been disconnected."

Nowhere is the U.S. departure from Iraq more visible than in Anbar, where the 27 bases and outposts less than a year ago have dwindled to three today. Far less money is being spent. Since November, more than two-thirds of combat troops have departed. In their wake is a blend of cynicism and bitterness, frustration and fear among many of the tribal leaders who fought with the troops against the insurgents, a tableau of emotion that may color the American legacy in a region that has stood as the U.S. military's single greatest success in the war. Pragmatism, the Americans call their departure. Desertion, their erstwhile allies answer.

As the United States leaves the province, acknowledged Col. Matthew Lopez, the Marine commander here, "you're going to have individuals who are unhappy."

Sabah freely admits he is one of them.

"We stood by them, we carried out their requests, we let no one hurt them," he said in a rushed clump of words, near certificates of appreciation from the Marines and the U.S. Army that gather dust in a mother-of-pearl cabinet. "They weren't supposed to abandon us."

As he sat with other tribal leaders who joined the American-led fight in 2006 and 2007, his reticence seemed to rival his fatalism, the sense that foes outnumber friends. "I expect I'll die at any time," he worried. "Today, tomorrow, maybe the day after."

'The British Had Foresight'

Steeped in desert traditions of pride, dignity and honor, no one in Anbar, perhaps the most Arab of Iraq's Arab regions, would contend that any foreign occupation was good, and the Americans remain deeply unpopular in some quarters here. But true or not, there is a prevailing sense in this vast, arid region bisected by the Euphrates that, as far as occupations go, the British were better at it than the Americans.

There are bridges still nicknamed "British bridges," built after the British defeated the Ottoman Empire and occupied Iraq at the end of World War I. One spans the Euphrates in Ramadi. The descendants of some sheiks jealously guard pictures of their forefathers posing with British potentates. One of them bragged that Gertrude Bell, the British diplomat and adventurer, wrote about his ancestor, the powerful sheik Ali Sulaiman.

"One of the most remarkable men in Iraq," she declared in a letter to her father.

"The British had foresight and, we can't say credibility, but they had more patience than the Americans. They understood how to take time to win someone to their side," said his great-grandson, Ali Hatem Sulaiman. "The Americans, no. With them, it's either shoot you or give you money, it's either hire you or beat you up."


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