Tribe helps al-Ma­liki win con­trol of south­ern Iraq

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - By Rowan Scar­bor­ough

Of all the tac­ti­cal moves Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki made in March to wrest con­trol of south­ern Iraq from Shi’ite ex­trem­ists, none was more im­por­tant than his gov­ern­ment’s meet­ings with tribal sheiks.

Be­hind the scenes, as his troops fought street by street to gain con­trol of the city of Basra, Mr. al-Ma­liki reached out to Bani Tamim.

Tamim is one of the largest Arab tribes in the Mid­dle East. Its Shi’ite-Sunni mix is es­pe­cially in­flu­en­tial in south­ern Iraq, where Ira­nian-backed bands of mil­i­tants reg­u­larly launch at­tacks on al­lied forces and im­pose their will on much of Basra.

Mr. al-Ma­liki’s strat­egy, U.S. sources said, was to meet with tribal lead­ers at the same time he was or­der­ing troops into Iraq’s sec­ond-largest city. He wanted to per­suade the tribal lead­ers to join his risky coun­tert­er­ror­ism cam­paign in which a Shi’ite-dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment was mov­ing against Shi’ite fight­ers, some led by fire­brand cleric Muq­tada al-Sadr.

“They have been work­ing with the Tamim tribe, one of the largest tribes in that area, in terms of strate­gic en­gage­ment. And they’ve been help­ing them,” said re­tired Army Gen. Jack Keane, an ad­viser to Gen. David H. Pe­traeus, the U.S. com­man­der in Iraq. Gen. Keane was meet­ing with Gen. Pe­traeus and other lead­ers in Iraq as the al-Ma­liki gov­ern­ment was plan­ning its sur­prise of­fen­sive in Basra.

“Ma­liki worked di­rectly with the Tamim leader,” Gen. Keane told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “He worked with him in terms of pro­vid­ing Iraqi se­cu­rity forces to as­sist them and also some fi­nan­cial sup­port.”

Gen. Keane added, “They are get­ting peo­ple to turn in the mili­tias. That was the pur­pose of it, just like we did with the Sun­nis in An­bar and Diyala prov­inces and other places.”

Crit­ics in the news me­dia ini­tially met the al-Ma­liki of­fen­sive with broad skep­ti­cism, but later re­ports ac­knowl­edged that gov­ern­ment forces per­formed rel­a­tively well in tak­ing con­trol of much of Basra.

Gen. Keane cred­its the out­reach to Tamim, some of whose mem­bers lob­bied their sheiks to let them fight the Amer­i­cans. Now, it ap­pears they are on the gov­ern­ment’s side.

“The se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion has im­proved dra­mat­i­cally in Basra,” said the re­tired four-star gen­eral who helped con­ceive the troop surge strat­egy be­gun in Fe­bru­ary 2007. “The peo­ple are out on the streets. The [Iraqi Se­cu­rity Forces are] clearly in charge. The var­i­ous fac­tions of mili­tia are no longer in charge.”

Gen. Keane added, “The most sig­nif­i­cant strate­gic ob­jec­tive in 2008 is to sta­bi­lize the south and counter the Iran in­flu­ence in the south. Ma­liki be­gan that some­what im­pul­sively, as we all know, but that was the be­gin­ning of a cam­paign that is go­ing to last well into the fall and it’s do­ing fine. Basra is com­ing along. Ma­liki is prob­a­bly the strong­est po­lit­i­cally he’s ever been be­cause he’s tak­ing on the Shia ex­trem­ists.”

Crit­ics of the post­war plan­ning say the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion did not place enough em­pha­sis on en­gag­ing Iraq’s mil­lions of tribes­men, whose loy­alty to their sheiks of­ten trumps al­le­giance to the gov­ern­ment.

In his new book, “War and De­ci­sion,” Douglas J. Feith, who was un­der­sec­re­tary of de­fense for pol­icy dur­ing the Iraq war plan­ning, con­cedes, “The crip­pling dis­or­der we call the in­sur­gency was not an­tic­i­pated with any pre­ci­sion, by ei­ther intelligence an­a­lysts or pol­icy of­fi­cials.”

Mr. Feith also re­counts how the Joint Staff, the plan­ning arm of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pen­tagon, reg­u­larly com­plained that U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand un­der Gen. Tommy Franks spent a lot of time on in­va­sion plans, but lit­tle on post- war pol­icy.

Be­cause the in­sur­gency was not an­tic­i­pated, no com­pre­hen­sive plan was in place to en­gage tribal lead­ers af­ter the 2003 in­va­sion, mil­i­tary of­fi­cials say.

“A key to end­ing the in­sur­gency is get­ting Iraqi tribal lead­ers to de­cide that it’s bet­ter for them to join the po­lit­i­cal process than to en­gage in anti-gov­ern­ment or anti-U.S. vi­o­lence,” Mr. Feith said in an in­ter­view.

James Rus­sell, co-di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Con­flict at the Naval Post Grad­u­ate School in Mon­terey, Calif., is writ­ing a book on the U.S. coun­terin­sur­gency cam­paign in Iraq.

Af­ter in­ter­view­ing com­man­ders and read­ing their in­ter­nal re­ports, he con­cludes, “There was no na­tional-level plan to con­duct a coun­terin­sur­gency in 2003, in­clud­ing no plan for en­gag­ing tribal lead­ers.”

Mr. Rus­sell told The Times that Marine Corps and Army com- man­ders, largely on their own, be­gan grass-roots over­tures to sheiks and their fol­low­ers in 2005. Troops moved out of for­ward op­er­at­ing bases and started liv­ing in the neigh­bor­hoods.

The Marines, Mr. Rus­sell said, went so far as to bring Amer­i­can po­lice of­fi­cers to An­bar prov­ince to show them how to im­pose se­cu­rity, street by street.

Be­gun in An­bar, the on-the-fly doc­trine spread to places such as the north­ern border town of Tal Afar, which the Army freed of ex­trem­ist con­trol in 2006.

By 2007, the sheiks of An­bar were re­nounc­ing al Qaeda and or­der­ing young Sun­nis to fight the ter­ror­ist group.

“Ma­liki is ap­ply­ing some of the same lessons in Basra,” Mr. Rus­sell said, “ ‘I’m send­ing in troops. The troops are go­ing to stay there and I’m en­gag­ing the lo­cal peo­ple, the tribal lead­ers.’”

In 2007, the U.S. com­mand be­gan the troop surge and brought the An­bar ex­per­i­ment to Bagh­dad. It au­tho­rized unit com­man­ders to ne­go­ti­ate on their own with Sunni in­sur­gent lead­ers. Up sprung the ad-hoc Sunni coun­tert­er­ror­ism units known as the Sons of Iraq.

“We have to rely on the Sons of Iraq pro­gram to help us be­cause they are ex­traor­di­nar­ily valu­able, par­tic­u­larly if al Qaeda or ex­trem­ists start to move back in,” said Gen. Keane, not­ing that al Qaeda now has been largely pushed to north­ern Iraq. “They’re the first guys to know it and they fin­ger it. They have to get paid. They have to be pro­vided for. They have to be part of the team.”

Said Col. Steven Boy­lan, Gen. Pe­traeus’ spokesman: “Gen­eral Pe­traeus has, since his days as com­man­der of the 101st Air­borne Di­vi­sion in north­ern Iraq, rec­og­nized the im­por­tance of the tribes and their sheiks. He con­sis­tently sought to en­gage them and to en­sure that they are part of Iraqi ef­forts to re­solve the var­i­ous prob­lems that their coun­try faces.

“The past year’s progress ap­pears to have val­i­dated such an approach. In­deed, Prime Min­is­ter Ma­liki has reached out to tribal lead­ers re­peat­edly in ef­forts to help make them part of the so­lu­tions he has sought to forge in Iraq.”

Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki is greeted by Is­lamic cler­ics in Na­jaf, Iraq on May 22. Mr. al-Ma­liki has reached out to the Bani Tamim tribe, a Shi’ite-Sunni mix that holds strong in­flu­ence in the re­gion.

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