Sunni leaders gain power by working with Americans
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.
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.