WASHINGTON — The leader of the tribal confederation that has fought to expel Al Qaeda from most of Iraq's Anbar province is offering his men to help gin up a rebellion against Osama bin Laden's organization along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
In an interview, Sheik Ahmad al-Rishawi told The New York Sun that in April he prepared a 47-page study on Afghanistan and its tribes for the deputy chief of mission at the American embassy in Kabul, Christopher Dell. When asked if he would send military advisers to Afghanistan to assist American troops fighting there, he said: "I have no problem with this; if they ask me, I will do it."
The success of the Anbari tribal rebellion known as the awakening spurred Multinational Forces Iraq to try to emulate the model throughout Iraq, including with the predominately Shiite tribes in the south of the country. Today, the tribe-based militias formed to protect Anbaris from Al Qaeda are forming a political alliance poised to unseat the confessional Sunni parties currently in parliament in the provincial elections scheduled for the fall and the federal ones scheduled for 2009.
During his nomination hearing for taking over the regional military post known as Central Command, General David Petraeus said one of the first things he would do would be to travel to Pakistan to discuss the current strategy of the government in dealing with Al Qaeda's safe haven in the Pashtun border provinces. A possible strategy for defeating Al Qaeda would be an effort there along the lines of the Anbar awakening to win over the tribes that offer Osama bin Laden's group protection and safe haven.
"Al Qaeda is an ideology," Sheik Ahmad said. "We can defeat them inside Iraq and we can defeat them in any country." The tribal leader arrived in Washington last week. All of his meetings, including an audience with President Bush, have been closed to the public, in part because the Anbari sheiks, while likely to win future electoral contests, are not themselves part of Iraq's elected government.
Of his meeting with Mr. Bush, Sheik Ahmad said he was impressed. "He is a brave man. He is also a wise man. He is taking care of the country's future, the United States' future. He is also taking care of the Iraqi people, the ordinary people in Iraq. He wants to accomplish success in Iraq."
When Sheik Ahmad's brother, Sheik Sattar, met with Mr. Bush in Anbar last fall, he told the president that he dedicated his victory over Al Qaeda to the victims of the attacks of September 11, 2001. On September 13, 2007, Sheik Sattar was assassinated by an improvised explosive device. Since then, his brother Sheik Ahmad has led the awakening movement.
Sheik Ahmad said he wanted Hollywood to make a movie about the life story of his brother, who was so revered after his murder that Iraq's interior minister dedicated a statue to him on the road from Baghdad to Anbar.
In his home province in Iraq, Sheik Ahmad's public addresses are preceded by two bugle players and an announcer proclaiming him as the "conqueror of Al Qaeda," and "friend of General Petraeus," among other formal titles. In Washington, however, he and his entourage stayed at the Hilton Hotel and were driven to meetings in a small bus. When this reporter first met him he was carrying a dog-eared paperback copy of Bob Woodward's "Plan of Attack."
In Washington, Sheik Ahmad also met with some members of Congress. He said he told them that American soldiers should stay in Iraq for at least as long as it takes to rebuild Iraq's national army. The Democratic majority in Congress has tried and failed to mandate deadlines for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq regardless of conditions on the ground.
"We have to rebuild a national Iraqi army, not built on sects, but the same way they built up the Anbar police," he said. "They must be well-armed, so they will be able to protect the country and all the American interests in the area. We also have to make a friendship treaty based on mutual respect between the two parties, and then the United States will be able to withdraw from Iraq, if they wish, and we will succeed in Iraq the same way America succeeded in Japan and Germany."
The Anbari sheik offered no comment on the details of the current negotiations on the American troop presence in Iraq between Prime Minister al-Maliki and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, saying he was not involved in the negotiations. But he also said he favored such a status-of-forces agreement. "With a diplomatic understanding we will be able to solve all the problems. We fully trust the Americans. We know the United States never in its history occupied a country. On the contrary, they were occupied and they were able to fight the occupier," he said, referring to the American rebellion against the British in 1776.
The sheik said he was leaving for Chicago in part to meet with agriculture experts in the hopes of learning new farming techniques for Western Iraq. He said he would like to meet Senator Obama though he has not asked for a meeting. He also said he would like to meet Mr. Obama's rival for the 2008 presidential election, Senator McCain.
"I would love to see both of them, McCain and Obama," the sheik said. "I have not asked though. If there is a possibility or opportunity I would love to see them. I know that both parties are really busy with the election now. That is why I have not asked for this."