The Sept. 13 murder of Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha was tragic, but not catstrophic. His death does not change the vastly improved situation in Anbar Province, since his role in its pacification was exaggerated from the beginning. Anbar stabilized for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with Abu Risha or America's counterinsurgency efforts there — something that the American military command has yet to figure out. Abu Risha found himself in the limelight at the right time and place, and the Americans fighting the terrorists in Anbar seized upon him as the poster-boy of a new strategy — empowering Iraq's defunct tribal structure — that they had hoped would make belated sense of the positive transition and would allow them to claim credit, and medals, for it.
But why begrudge General David Petraeus and his counterinsurgency advisers the accolades for this turnaround at this time? Does it really matter, whether tribes were the primary factor in defeating Al Qaeda or not, given that the story coming out of Iraq is more and more hopeful? Yes it does: the implication is that if you don't know why and how you've won, then you won't be able to replicate victory. The tribes, like the American troop surge, were catalysts that sped up the demise of the insurgency, but they did not trigger the process the insurgency's failure predated the surge and any tribal strategies.
I believe the insurgency failed because it had bad ideas and unrealistic expectations. When the price paid by the local population for these ideas and expectations — fighting the Shiites and re-establishing Sunni hegemony — became too steep, Sunnis turned against the insurgents and tried to find shelter, yet again, under the central government This latter trend is the one that should be reinforced: Sunnis should be encouraged to throw in their lot with the New Iraq, rather than falling back into the tribal identities of Iraq's past.
Once tribal leaders realized that Al Qaeda was losing, they turned towards Baghdad for guidance. As one Iraq observer put it to me, "Tribes are a barometer of power; they swarm around whoever has the upper hand." The danger now is that Americans are trying to resuscitate a clannish social system that had withered away in Iraq, and turning it into a power in of itself.
Those who champion the success of the tribal policy have forgotten that America's first approach to handling Anbar Province was through tribal politics. During and right after the invasion Anbar was the playground of the Central Intelligence Agency, and no one else was allowed to tinker with their operations there. The CIA was working with Ayad Allawi, who had sold them on the notion that the nominal head of the Dulaim tribal confederation — Anbar's largest — Sheikh Majid Al-Abdel-Razzak can run the show and bring the Anbaris to heed.
We all know how that CIA job went: it failed miserably.
Sheikh Majid's grandfather had been Sheikh Ali Al-Suleiman, who had competed for the supremacy of the Dulaim with other sheikhs, and only got a leg's up when British occupiers arrived after World War One and awarded him the gold and the authority to overcome his rivals. The monarchy that the British left in their wake also depended heavily on men such as Sheikh Ali, and continued a policy of patronage by which tribal sheikhs grew rich, and their children grew educated. But even seventy years ago, the tribal system was breaking down as peasants flocked to urban centers, and the laws of the government superseded the rule of the tribe.
When military officers overthrew the monarchy, the tribes could do little to help, and they couldn't even safeguard the lives of the statesmen who were their benefactors and sponsors. Then land reform set in depriving the grand sheikhs of their sizable estates, and they again could do little by way of protest. The totalitarian nightmare of the Saddam years further eroded the institution of the tribe or clan, which was turned on its head in the 1990s when Saddam re-invented the tribal structure by propping up tribal upstarts — again using the British method of gold and authority — who were loyal to him alone, thus making him the effective chief of all the tribes.
By the time the Americans had arrived, the tribes had been reduced to a pitiful state: tribal leaders could only speak for the branches of the tribe that had a vested interest in keeping the tribal structure together; that is the branch of the sheikhs' family which in some larger tribes could number over a thousand men. The Iraqi opposition had given much credence to the claims of tribal leaders in exile that they could lead their clansmen into action against the Saddam Hussein regime. But once the Iraqi opposition had become the new nexus of power in Baghdad, the cousins of these exiled tribal leaders gathered around to denounce their exiled kinsmen as imposters whereas they themselves were the real pivots of their tribes. It all quickly became a headache, and whoever relied on the tribes for votes was sorely disappointed, including the tribal leaders themselves who ran for parliament.
Throughout Iraq's modern history, tribal leaders held on to some lingering prestige accorded to them by their ancestry; their dress and mannerism harked back to romanticized notions of Arabian chivalry. They were a sort of savage aristocracy from Iraq's folkloric heritage that the men in power — now wearing Western suits — would tolerate, and do small favors for. The tribes turned into job placement agencies; the sheikhs would petition the powerful for government jobs for the desperate young men who still came to them for help.
There had been many sheikhs in Anbar who wanted to be part of the new Iraq from the very beginning. Later on, others confronted Al Qaeda: credible leaders like Sheikh Nasr Abdel-Karim and opportunists such as Sheikh Usama al-Jeryan, only to be killed. None achieved Abu Risha's fame, simply for the fact that he had better timing, and an audience willing to be charmed.
Abu Risha's story was the stuff of powerful narrative: a pro-American tribal sheikh who had courageously confronted Al Qaeda's menace and eventually evicted them from his province, but was then killed by a treacherous bomb planted by the terrorists — Al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq took credit for it. In war, icons are invented and Abu Risha was such an icon: he looked ‘authentic' and trim in his flowing Arabian robes, said the right things, and was always available for media comment. But he was creature for an American audience rather than an Iraqi one, and his American minders fell into the trap of believing their own propaganda.
Interestingly, Abu Risha's tribe is numerically insignificant by Dulaim standards, and only number in the hundreds. Their claim to fame was a descent from an ancestor who once ruled the deserts between Iraq and Syria. When one of their own, Saadoun Dulaimi, became Iraq's minister of defense during the Ja'afari cabinet, they were little swayed to throw in their lot with the Iraqi state against Al Qaeda because the latter seemed to be winning; in fact, some Rishawis volunteered for suicide missions in neighboring Jordan.
But when Al Qaeda began to falter, Sheikh Sattar found his moment, and gathered at first a motley crew of fighters, many of whom were Shiites from a branch of his tribe that lived in the southern Samawa Province (his wife is from there). Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki furnished him with SUVs and weapons permits, and began to put some of his men on the government's payroll. At the time, the Americans were witnessing a turnaround in Anbar, and just like medieval peasants trying to make sense of lightening, they attributed these positive trends to all sorts of ‘magic'. One such thing was to believe that the tribes had turned the situation around.
President Bush's meeting with Abu Risha in Anbar was a mistake, since it gave the impression that the latter was a counterpart to the Iraqi government. This paper reported that some in the State Department stood against inflating Abu Risha's stature; that would be one of the rare occasions where the diplomats got it right on Iraq. President Bush's photo-op disrupted the pecking order: the tribes follow the state, and the state arranges matters with the Americans. The Americans will now have to deal with the headache that is familiar to anyone who's dealt with tribes, only to find out that there's little return on success down that path.
Mr. Kazimi, a contributing editor to The New York Sun, can be reached at [email protected]