Sunni lead­ers gain power by work­ing with Amer­i­cans

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspectives - By Sharon Behn

BAGH­DAD — Iraq’s Sunni tribal lead­ers, marginal­ized af­ter the fall of Sad­dam Hus­sein, are en­joy­ing a resur­gence of power and in­flu­ence, Iraqis and U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders say.

The process, fed by the in­ef­fec­tive­ness of the Shi’ite-led cen­tral gov­ern­ment, has taken hold as U.S. mil­i­tary lead­ers work with Sunni tribal sheiks to po­lice their ar­eas of in­flu­ence and root out al Qaeda ter­ror­ists.

The United States is re­ward­ing the tribal ef­forts by rec­og­niz­ing their se­cu­rity forces and award­ing them re­con­struc­tion con­tracts.

The next step, U.S. mil­i­tary lead­ers say, is to in­te­grate the Sunni vol­un­teer forces into the Iraqi se­cu­rity forces, thereby ful­fill­ing a key de­mand by the Sun­nis for mak­ing peace with the gov­ern­ment.

Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki’s Shi’ite-ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment is re­sist­ing the de­vel­op­ment, fear­ing it will lose its con­trol of Bagh­dad. But some Amer­i­can com­man­ders are frus­trated by the gov­ern­ment’s in­abil­ity to en­force laws in the coun­try and de­liver ba­sic ser­vices to its peo­ple.

Cor­rup­tion and sec­tar­ian bias are so wide­spread, even gov­ern- ment food ra­tions can­not be dis­trib­uted to the peo­ple with­out U.S. mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion, of­fi­cers said.

The gov­ern­ment “may be re­sis­tant to any­one else stand­ing up,” said Lt. Col. Ge­orge Glaze. But, he said, the Amer­i­cans are “forc­ing them to ac­knowl­edge it is be­ing done, that the Sun­nis are stand­ing up in ar­eas where there was no rule of law.”

Mr. al-Ma­liki last week de­clared a stronger al­liance with the Kurds, try­ing to shore up sup­port for his gov­ern­ment in par­lia­ment. But Iraqis think the move will not al­ter the po­lit­i­cal land­scape.

“The gov­ern­ment? They are crazy, they are id­iots, they are do­ing noth­ing,” said Has­san, a Shi’ite from Iraq’s rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing mid­dle class. He asked that his full name not be used.

Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion — of­ten de­scribed as the key to progress in Iraq — so far is oc­cur­ring mainly be­tween the Sunni lead­ers and the Amer­i­cans, and to a much lesser de­gree be­tween Shi’ite lead­ers and U.S. rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Be­tween the Sun­nis and Shi’ites, how­ever, the two sides have barely reached the stage of ac­knowl­edg­ing that the other may have some rights.

Col. Ricky Gibbs, brigade com­man­der for the 4th Brigade, 1st In­fantry Di­vi­sion, who is in charge of a large por­tion of south­ern Bagh­dad known as Rashid, meets with Sunni and Shi’ite lead­ers to try to es­tab­lish peace from the bot­tom up.

At the same time, his mil­i­tary units are killing and pur­su­ing el­e­ments of al Qaeda in Iraq that the Sun­nis once sup­ported. They are also killing and de­tain­ing the most ex­treme el­e­ments of the Shi’ite mili­tia known as the Mahdi Army, nom­i­nally headed by Sheik Muq­tada alSadr.

Col. Gibbs said moder­ates on both sides of the spec­trum are be­ing pres­sured, threat­ened, mis­in­formed and killed by the more ex­trem­ist forces, and Iraqis liv­ing in Bagh­dad agree.

“The Amer­i­can army do great things — they kill Mahdi Army lead­ers, but the prob­lem is that the Mahdi Army be­came big­ger,” said Ahmed, a Shi’ite who fears for his life and his fam­ily. “I don’t think Muq­tada wants bad things for his peo­ple, but the Mahdi Army are all crim­i­nals.

“Even the imam of the mosque, if they want to do some­thing bad to a Shi’ite fam­ily, for ex­am­ple if the son works for the Amer­i­cans, they will tar­get that fam­ily,” he said. “Bagh­dad is still in the same sit­u­a­tion.”

Iraqis in Bagh­dad and out­side the coun­try agree that em­pow­er­ing Iraq’s com­pli­cated net­work of tribal el­ders might be the only so­lu­tion to the sec­tar­ian street wars and ex­trem­ist vi­o­lence that have killed thou­sands of Amer­i­can sol­diers and tens of thou­sands of Iraqi civil­ians.

“The tribal leader’s word is like a mil­i­tary or­der,” said one Sunni who is a mem­ber of the large al Jabu­uri tribe. “He is like God.”

The power of the tribal lead­ers varies ac­cord­ing to the lo­ca­tion, tribe and per­sonal in­flu­ence, said Col. Steve Townsend, brigade com­man­der for the 3-2 Stryker Brigade Com­bat Team that was sent to help clear out in­sur­gents from the city of Baqouba, north­east of Bagh­dad.

In most Iraqi com­mu­ni­ties, a tribal leader’s de­ci­sion will trump any other, and top sheiks can be the most pow­er­ful so­cial force in Iraq. In the vac­uum cre­ated by the dis­so­lu­tion of the Iraqi se­cu­rity forces in 2004, tribal law has been the only ef­fec­tive law in Iraq.

Over time, U.S. of­fi­cers say, the Sunni in­sur­gents re­al­ized their short-term part­ner, al Qaeda, was de­stroy­ing them. At that point, the tribal lead­ers and Amer­i­cans be­gan a mod­est re­la­tion­ship based on sim­ple mu­tual needs.

“They would en­sure that we could drive down this road and we would not get blown up, and we would get them elec­tric­ity or clear a canal,” said Lt. Col. Glaze.

As trust in­creased, U.S. com­man­ders started hir­ing Sunni vol­un­teers put for­ward by the sheiks as lo­cal se­cu­rity forces. Once vet­ted and put into an elec­tronic data­base, those forces could pro­tect their ar­eas. In re­turn, U.S. units would award con­tracts to re­build lo­cal wa­ter, sewage and elec­tric­ity in­fra­struc­ture.

In west­ern al An­bar prov­ince, the project worked so well that al Qaeda is iso­lated and vi­o­lence has de­creased.

Forces on the ground, speak­ing on the con­di­tion that they not be quoted, say some Sunni sheiks have suf­fered hor­ri­ble ret­ri­bu­tion for their co­op­er­a­tion — in­clud­ing the tor­ture and killing of their fam­i­lies.

But the over­all suc­cess of An­bar has led U.S. com­man­ders to re­peat the ex­per­i­ment in Sunni strongholds in Bagh­dad and Diyala prov­inces — al­beit with a de­gree of cau­tion. “While we deal with them, we keep our pow­der dry, our hatch­ets sharp and both eyes wide open,” Col. Townsend said.

In Baqouba — where some of the fiercest re­cent fight­ing against al Qaeda has taken place — rec­on­cil­i­a­tion has been more along lo­cal lines than tribal ones, the colonel said.

Amer­i­cans there are work­ing

with the “Baqouba Guardians,” lo­cal forces who also co­op­er­ate with Iraqi se­cu­rity and lo­cal gov­ern­ment, and vol­un­teers they call Con­cerned Lo­cal Na­tion­als or Cit­i­zens.

“They have come to the con­clu­sion that al Qaeda in Iraq and Ira­nian in­flu­ence are far more se­ri­ous and long-term prob­lems for Iraq than the Amer­i­cans are,” said Col. Townsend, adding that most Iraqis just want to raise their chil­dren in safety, free from both ex­treme el­e­ments.

Some of those Sunni lo­cals have told Col. Townsend they in­tend to run in fu­ture elec­tions and not boy­cott them as has hap­pened in the past.

Baqouba gov­ern­ment and Diyala pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment lead­ers have mixed feel­ings about the U.S. co­op­er­a­tion with the Sun­nis, he said.

“They don’t seem ex­actly thrilled with the idea, but I be­lieve they re­al­ize that th­ese Sunni vol­un­teer groups are help­ing and even nec­es­sary right now. They are con­cerned that they might be­come the next mili­tia but also see with their own eyes that the good they are do­ing far out­weighs the fric­tions,” Col. Townsend said.

Col. Gibbs said his ef­forts are fo­cused on hir­ing lo­cal vol­un­teers and train­ing them to serve in their own neigh­bor­hoods, es­tab­lish­ing a cred­i­ble, un­bi­ased po­lice force.

To se­cure the sprawl­ing Sun­ni­ma­jor­ity area of Rashid, he said, will take an ad­di­tional 5,000 to 6,000 po­lice.

U.S. mil­i­tary com­man­ders also are be­gin­ning to reach out to Shi’ite tribal lead­ers and more mod­er­ate re­li­gious fig­ures, en­cour­ag­ing them to take on more re­spon­si­bil­ity for keep­ing the peace in their ar­eas.

But the process is bumpy at best. The al­liances are frag­ile, and the level of trust is not high.

At a re­cent meet­ing be­tween U.S. forces and Omar al Jabu­uri, a pow- er­ful Sunni sheik, the Iraqi leader asked that a Shi’ite work­ing for the Amer­i­cans not par­tic­i­pate in the meet­ing for se­cu­rity rea­sons. For the sake of a suc­cess­ful talk, the Amer­i­cans agreed, but they in­sisted the dy­namic should change.

Con­flict­ing pri­or­i­ties be­tween the Amer­i­cans and the tribal lead­ers some­times pro­duce frus­tra­tions.

Mr. al Jabu­uri, for ex­am­ple, fo­cused on spe­cific prob­lems he wanted fixed right away, such as the kid­nap­ping of the mother of a young man charged with pro­tect­ing a Sunni mosque. With his hands on his head, the Sunni leader could not un­der­stand why his calls to the Amer­i­cans had gone un­heeded.

The Amer­i­can mil­i­tary com­man­ders ex­plained to Mr. al Jabu­uri that to try to res­cue one kid­nap vic­tim in­volved mo­bi­liz­ing a pla­toon and a con­sid­er­able amount of plan­ning.

“We get 70 to 80 calls a day,” Maj. Eric Tim­mer­man said af­ter the meet­ing. “We are not a po­lice unit to fol­low up on each call.”

At a dif­fer­ent round ta­ble of U.S. and Iraqi mil­i­tary and po­lice com­man­ders work­ing in Rashid, Amer­i­can com­man­ders drew a line as to how much crit­i­cism they were will­ing to take, par­tic­u­larly from po­lice force lead­ers thought to be to­tally cor­rupt.

“If any of you ever say again that you have a prob­lem with the coali­tion, when we are dy­ing here ev­ery day, that’s go­ing to [make me an­gry],” said Brig. Gen. John Camp­bell, deputy com­mand­ing gen­eral of the 1st Cavalry.

Mr. al Jabu­uri, who is thought to be linked to the Sunni in­sur­gency, said the tribal strat­egy was the only one that could work in Iraq.

But be­yond en­cour­ag­ing the Sun­nis to set up vol­un­teer se­cu­rity forces, join pro­vin­cial po­lit­i­cal net­works and re­join the na­tional po­lit­i­cal process — which has failed so far — not much thought ap­pears to have been put into how to trans­late Sunni tribal power into ac­tual po­lit­i­cal power, or even how to en­sure that tribal power even­tu­ally does not cre­ate mul­ti­ple lines of author­ity in the coun­try.

“You would be naive if you thought there was no con­cern” on the part of the gov­ern­ment, Col. Gibbs said. “Ev­ery day is an adjustment. Ev­ery day is dif­fer­ent. Ev­ery sheik wants his own fla­vor. We live with what we have and shape it as we go,” he said.

Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Work­ing to­gether: U.S. com­man­ders have started us­ing Sunni vol­un­teers as se­cu­rity forces. The U.S. re­wards the tribal ef­forts by award­ing them re­con­struc­tion con­tracts.

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