ABU GHRAIB, Iraq — In the aftermath of America's recent troop surge in Iraq, tribal leaders throughout this country are turning on Al Qaeda, and American military commanders are trying to exploit the new development by bringing tribe members into the Iraqi Security Forces.
For those officers overseeing the new tribal diplomacy, signs are emerging that Iraq's deepest social networks — its tribes — are withdrawing their tacit acceptance of Al Qaeda and are becoming more willing to cooperate with American authorities to combat the terror network.
The plan is inspired by some successes that the Marines and the Army had with tribes in Anbar province, but it is still in the early stages.
While the military and CIA have tried to reach out to Iraq's tribes since before the war, those efforts yielded mixed results. The majority of Sunni tribes cut deals with Al Qaeda for cash — between $30,000 and $40,000, according to sheiks here — to turn a blind eye to Al Qaeda's activities. That arrangement is starting to fall away.
"I see what I think is becoming a national trend, especially in areas influenced by Al Qaeda, where they have made inroads, and even in places where you see other forms of religious extremism, such as Jaish al-Mahdi, you have it from the South. It's coming, it's there," Lieutenant Colonel Richard Welch said in an interview. Colonel Welch, a public prosecutor in Ohio, spends his days meeting Iraqi tribal chiefs as he oversees tribal and religious outreach for the Multi-National Force in Baghdad.
Sheikh Hussein al-Tamimi, whose tribe has been friendly to American forces since the invasion, agrees that many of his fellow chieftains have changed their position on Al Qaeda in recent months. "I think the motivation behind the change is to protect their interests," he said in an interview. "They lose business."
Sheikh Hussein, as well as other sheikhs interviewed for this piece, said the turning point for the tribes was in September when Al Qaeda in Iraq declared the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq, a shadow state that in pockets of the country has established Islamic sharia courts and tried to provide some social services. The declaration was a direct challenge to the centuries-old tribal system that has prevailed in most of Iraq. As a result, the terrorists once seen as allies against the American invaders have also come to be seen as invaders.
"Think about it in our terms," Colonel Welch said. "If I invite you to my home as a guest, and I give you a place in my home, then you slap around my family, it is a huge blow to my sense of honor, dignity, and respect. It is deeper than pride. You have bitten the hand that fed you."
Despite the rising antipathy toward Al Qaeda, the tribal sheikhs in the Sunni regions in particular are very clear that their new alliance with the Americans is merely a tactical one. Sheikh Hussein summed it up: "We would like America, a friend, to rebuild the country. This is what we want, what the tribes want. But to stay here as a military force indefinitely is unacceptable." For Sheikh Hussein, however, the prospect of a speedy exit is also unacceptable. At a luncheon at a home of one of his cousins, he asked this reporter, "Please, tell the Democrats for now to stop pressuring Bush."
Sheikh Hussein, a Shiite in a tribe that also contains Sunnis, has been one of the most valued assets for Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Pinkerton, who commands the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Cavalry Regiment in Abu Ghraib. In April, the sheikh informed Colonel Pinkerton that a faction of the powerful Sunni Zobai tribe was planning an assault on their fellow tribesmen and Al Qaeda and requested that his soldiers refrain from interfering. Nonetheless, one day after the fighting began, a message was relayed to the colonel asking for backup. The platoon that the colonel dispatched set up shop in a nearby house and defeated a small band of fighters on April 7. It was the first time a faction of the Zobai tribe had fought in alliance with, though not alongside, American forces.
The significance of the fact that a portion of the Zobai tribe was willing to receive American help cannot be underestimated. The tribe has a century-long tradition of fighting invaders due to the fame of Sheikh Dhari, who was credited with killing a British colonel, Gerald Leachman, in August 1920. A scion of Sheikh Dhari, Harith al-Dhari, is the leading voice in the Association of Muslim Scholars, which has sanctioned attacks against Americans.
A Zobai leader, who asked to be anonymous in part because his compound has withstood assaults from rival sheikhs affiliated with Al Qaeda, said he estimates that "98% of the people are now against Al Qaeda. The people who followed them and became partisans of Al Qaeda, they are either naïve, they were seduced, or coerced, or deceived, and some were looking out for their own political interests. I can put a lot of people in the third class. We call them lewd gangsters," he said.
But he also conceded that for most of the war until the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq, the Zobai tribe tolerated Al Qaeda. "They announced the Islamic State of Iraq, and they said you are either on our side or stay home. They insulted our manhood."
Making sure the anti-Qaeda side of the Zobai tribe's civil war prevails is a necessary condition for Colonel Pinkerton to secure his battle space. Unlike the Anbar Salvation Front, the colonel is wary of creating a separate tribal militia and is focusing his energies on a joint board of tribal leaders, American officers, and Iraqi officers to vet future candidates for the security forces.
"I did not want to build these tribal security forces," Colonel Pinkerton said. "The tribes want to join the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police, but they want to stay where they are and patrol their own areas."
At a meeting with the general of the police district that oversees Abu Ghraib, the American colonel boasted that he could muster 10,000 volunteers from the once-hostile tribes to join the national police and army. To date, he has a list of 1,300 volunteers whom he is trying to get the Iraqi security forces to accept. His initial outreach was more modest, based on an old Iraqi initiative, Night Watchman, whereby the police designated senior men in the village and gave them whistles to raise the alarm against thieves.
"That worked well. They started expanding out and putting people to observe the enemy's movements. They would call us with the information, tell us about IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. We would get the IEDs and get the information where the people who placed them went, and then we would detain them."
Formalizing this process has proved trickier. The Iraqi Security Forces have been wary of inviting members of tribes once seen as the enemy. Indeed, one of Colonel Pinkerton's liaisons on the tribal outreach — who asked not to be named — has to travel with the military in Abu Ghraib because he is a terrorist target. A police general in Abu Ghraib in one meeting said terrorists had kidnapped his own son, an event the colonel says he helped to resolve.
The colonel says there have been times where he has denied requests to release detainees from allied sheikhs, including Sheikh Hussein al-Tamimi. "We had evidence on one guy. They asked us to let him go. But we looked at it and determined he was part of a militia," he said.
Colonel Pinkerton has also had to confiscate weapons from the Tamimi tribe. Last Wednesday, after agreeing to return 27 AK–47 rifles, Sheikh Hussein said, "We will never use these weapons against you."
As he walked out, the colonel told this reporter, "I believe him. But it doesn't matter. If they ever did turn their weapons on us, we have superior firepower. We would flatten them."