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

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 3, 2009; A01

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."

The Americans, he said, used a jackhammer to shape a diamond.

Deliberate Disengagement

To be fair, Lopez, the colonel in Ramadi, is no jackhammer.

His tenure in Iraq started in 2003 in Karbala, part of the Shiite Muslim heartland. He ends his latest tour, this one in Iraq's Sunni hub, next month. He dismissed the idea that allies were somehow abandoned or friends shown any disrespect.

The day after he took command, Lopez ordered the construction of a diwan, a kind of reception hall requisite in any sheik's house. Forty-eight hours later, it was done, complete with eight Persian carpets, overstuffed furniture, ample ashtrays and even pink plastic flowers in the corner. On the wall is a clock with the 99 names of Allah in Arabic.

"All the nuances," Lopez described it, "all the cultural sensitivities."

His Marines train their Army successors in the etiquette of brewing Turkish coffee, or as one soldier put it, "espresso times 10." Well-sugared tea should be served as soon as the sheiks sit down in Lopez's diwan. "You want to be Johnny on the spot every time," Cpl. Jared Jones insisted. In serving meals, put lamb in the middle, he said, chicken to the side. Take plastic silverware out of the wrapper; doing otherwise is considered tacky.

"We can't stress how much this matters," Jones lectured the impromptu class of a half-dozen soldiers. "We mess it up, we pay the price. Now, are there any questions about chow?"

But even Lopez's efforts can't rewrite the arithmetic of postwar Iraq. He acknowledged that "the sheer mathematics" of the withdrawal mean U.S. officers are simply less engaged with some of the sheiks who joined them in the fight against insurgents, a battle widely viewed as one of the crucial pivots in the American experience in Iraq. As he describes it, the military has also disciplined itself to better target which sheiks it wants to court -- the 20 or so whom they have deemed most prominent here.

"I think that's one of our institutional lessons learned," Lopez said.

The goal of what he called a responsible drawdown was "a return to normalcy."

"It's not normal for a coalition presence to be injected into the Iraqi cultural system and the sheiks' system," Lopez said, sitting in his office at Camp Ramadi. "Without extricating ourselves from the equation," he added, "it can't return to normal."

A Sheik Speaks His Mind

Postwar Anbar is anything but normal, whatever normal might mean here. By virtue of its money, arms and prestige, the U.S. military -- like its British predecessors -- has indelibly remade the province's landscape. One ally, Ahmed Abu Risha, whose clan was little known before the occupation, is on a trajectory to become Anbar's most powerful man. Other allies have gathered fabulous wealth. Yet others deem themselves dead men walking, having courted too few friends while they occupied the U.S. limelight.

The one constant is the degree to which the sheiks dislike one another. Any pledge not to speak ill about one's peers is almost always a preamble to a string of expletives. In one rant that ended only when the sheik ran out of breath, a rival was called a pimp, a prostitute, the son of a dog and, finally, "a circumciser."

Perhaps another constant is the suspicion that many of America's allies direct at their patron.

"They did the same thing in Vietnam," said the pragmatic Affan al-Issawi, a U.S.-allied militia leader near Fallujah whom Lopez called "a very dear friend of mine."

"I know their history. Just in one night, they left. They left all their agents and friends behind. I knew they would leave one day," Issawi said.

Issawi has decorated his villa with portraits of himself with then-President George W. Bush, former American military commanders and President Obama. He acknowledges the help the U.S. military gave him in the counterinsurgency, including rifles, heavy machine guns and ammunition it seized from "bad people," as well as $1.5 million in contracts to build schools and a water station. On one $450,000 school contract, he boasted, flashing a $25,000, diamond-encrusted Rolex watch, he managed to clear $300,000.

Indeed, Issawi may come out on top. He is an ally of Abu Risha, who some speculate might become the president of Iraq after next year's elections. Issawi has a seat on the provincial council, guaranteeing police protection. He carries his wealth naturally, like a rich Persian Gulf Arab, at ease with privilege to which he has grown accustomed.

"I didn't build my life with American bricks," said Issawi, who will turn 35 in November. "I knew one day they would leave, and that they would leave quickly."

A Bitter Aftertaste

In 1922, Ali Sulaiman, the sheik praised by Gertrude Bell in her letter, worried what would happen to his reputation if it looked like the British had abandoned him.

Nearly a century later, Raed Sabah and a coterie of other sheiks are the modern equivalent. At the peak of the fight against the insurgency, the United States supplied Sabah with 50 AK-47 rifles. Jassem Swaidawi, another ally, ran up a $30,000 bill one month on a U.S.-supplied phone he used to contact the military; he was reimbursed. Hamid al-Hais shows off a partial right finger and two wounds in his right leg, suffered in a fight with insurgents in 2007. They all met Obama when he was still a presidential candidate.

Some of them said they expected American citizenship. Fearful for their lives amid charges of treason, others hoped for help finding residency in neighboring Jordan or Syria. Some are clearly motivated by money, which was once abundant: They want funds to keep flowing in a region that, more than any other part of Iraq, appears wedded to kleptocracy. "The simplest thing they could have done was to keep in touch," said Sabah, who last saw representatives of the U.S. military before the provincial elections in January.

"The Americans never understood Iraqi society," added Hais, sitting in his diwan with a plaque from the U.S. military that reads, "Allies in battle, friends in peace."

"All they did was write down in their notebooks what they were supposed to have learned," he said.

The American project here was always infused with contradictions. Iraq was never as sovereign as U.S. officials insisted, never as secure as the military proclaimed. The United States called itself a partner, even as it presided over the destruction of the country's fabric. In Anbar, it proclaims a return to normalcy, amid a withdrawal it deems responsible, in a land that will long bear its mark.

Sabah and other U.S.-allied sheiks joke darkly about the accusations leveled against them: that they have served as spies and stooges for the Americans. Some call them "the sheiks of dolma," a reference to the stuffed grape leaves the allies would serve U.S. military officers for lunch. You served the Americans, some tell the sheiks, and they never served you.

"The Americans took what they wanted from them and left them behind. You can't do that in Iraq," said Col. Mahmoud al-Issawi, Fallujah's police chief. "It's shameful to the worst degree. It's not just shameful, it's actually a huge scandal."

"An easy target to be killed," he termed the sheiks.

In the interview, Lopez, the Marine commander, said he was sure that the United States would still boast of friends in Anbar in five years. Sabah, not called a sheik as often these days, was doubtful.

"They may have to come back one day, and their friends won't be here anymore," he said. "Who would stand with them again? After this? No one would accept it."

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