“The enemy didn’t come from outer space or the moon. He is between us, from here,” Sheikh Ahmed Hamid al-Tamimi told Colonel David Sutherland.
Tamimi, who identified himself as a representative of the powerful Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is intimately acquainted with a wide variety of enemies. He moved from Baquba to this Shiite community just outside the city after an assassination attempt. Threatened by both Sunni al-Qaeda and by Shiite extremists, he is afraid to travel. He keeps in touch with the Ayatollah al-Sistani in Najaf by telephone.
Sutherland, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, had arrived to discuss an upcoming meeting in Baquba of sheikhs from the Diyala River valley - tribal leaders the U.S. has increasingly turned to in an attempt to stop the violence here.
The strategy rests on convincing tribal leaders, many of whom see the U.S. as occupiers, to identify insurgents in their midst to the American military. The American military deals directly with Tamimi as a representative of Sistani, the most revered Shi'a cleric in Iraq.
“They want checkpoints as opposed to addressing who the bad people are so we can arrest them,” Sutherland complained to Tamimi. “I don’t need help with tactics – I need help with the people turning against the terrorists. I’ll bring the terrorists to justice but we need to stop this support that your friends – our friends – are giving here every day to the terrorists.”
If the strategy is working in some places, it is because tribal leaders have decided al-Qaeda has become more of a threat than the U.S. Army. Military commanders are concentrating on providing amnesty to those they deem ‘reconcilable’ and capturing or killing those who are not.
“People here need the olive branch and they need the gun,” Tamimi said.
Only the U.S. has the kind of guns they need.
At the sheikh’s meeting a few days later, several of the tribal leaders stood up and said they needed more U.S. forces with more heavy weapons to help defeat al-Qaeda.
The U.S. commanders told the sheikhs in return for military support the U.S. needed their cooperation in identifying the terrorists.
“I have found in my seven months here that the sheikhs have power beyond understanding,” Sutherland told them through an interpreter. “Understand that I hold the sheikhs responsible for actions on their land. Understand that I hold the sheikhs responsible for the actions of their people.”
Sutherland at these gatherings is treated as an honorary sheikh – given the seat of honor beyond even that of a normal guest at many gatherings. At the head of the table as the sheikhs and U.S. officers dug into lunch after the meeting, he stood and ate with his hands, like his hosts rolling rice and lamb into a ball with practiced fingers.
Four female members of the provincial council who had attended the meeting were taken to wait in another room, uncomplainingly, as the men ate. Plates of food appeared for them an hour later.
Of the many things, the U.S. failed to understand about Iraq when it invaded in 2003 was its tribal structure and how it held large parts of the country together.
Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel Richard Welch spent 18 months after the start of the war mapping out who the tribal leaders were and reaching out to some of them. He couldn’t get anyone to take over the project when he left.
“I don’t think we have ever been serious about it and I don’t think we understood it,” he said in an interview in Baghdad. “We’re now realizing we have to do something – it’s the one force in this country we have not tapped into and harnessed in a unified way.”
Welch, who deals with tribal and religious engagement and reconciliation for coalition forces in Baghdad, said the military is now making an effort. “They’re not waking up because of me – they’re waking up because there’s a security situation that’s out of control.”
In such an alien and ancient culture, tribal engagement is fraught with missteps. “We have a data base that is probably 98 percent accurate about who the major leaders, who the major sub-tribal leaders are, that’s who we try to encourage our leaders to work with – I’ve seen situations where our leaders were starting to build relationships with someone who wasn’t a real tribal leader but said he was to the exclusion of the real tribal leader.”
In Diyala, U.S. commanders and their Iraqi advisers say they believe they are dealing with most of the key tribal leaders. But there are others who refuse to meet with American forces.
“There are reports that there are some tribal alliances working within Diyala that we don’t know about and they don’t want us involved,” said an intelligence officer.
“Those are the movements we should support,” Welch said. He said they should support them by identifying who they are and staying out of their way.
Part of the reconciliation if focused on getting the tribes to stop fighting each other. Lt Colonel Scott Jackson, the U.S. military adviser to the Diyala governor, helped broker an agreement between six tribes this year in which they agreed to stop attacking each other.
“Everybody keeps pushing for overall tribal engagement,” he said. “We have to start taking it at the small level of the village.”
Some officials worry that U.S. military commanders are taking so prominent a role it will be difficult to disengage.
“It amazes me there will be sheikh who has been solving his tribe’s problems for 50 years and he will turn to a young commander and say ‘fix my problems’. I think we need to be more facilitators rather than participants,” said one Army officer involved in the process.
Political engagements have traditionally been the domain of state department officials trained in the art of diplomacy. But in Baquba, as in many parts of Iraq for the last four years, US Army officers and soldiers have taken over that role.
John Jones, who has spent 27 years with the State Department, heads the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Baquba, focusing on the provincial government.
It’s tough work in a security climate where attending meetings in the city can kill you.
The U.S. government has donated medical equipment and 18 ambulances to the ministry of health. But it’s in a section of town near the government center where there are frequent attacks and the military has little control.
“There is some equipment that the director has ordered but I can’t see if that works well. We need to send real live people over there for a meeting. I just can’t see it. We looked at the security situation and said until it gets better over there we’re not sending our folks.”
Jones, a former Army reservist, thinks carefully about any of his people leaving the compound just outside of Baquba. There’s a ritual involved.
“If they’re riding up the road I shake their hand and give them a hug - they’ve got to the point where they won’t leave without me being out there.”
Compounding the violence in Baquba is the lack of services from the central government in Baghdad. The Shiite-dominated government says violence prevents food rations and fuel from getting to Baquba. Residents of the city and many U.S. commanders believe it’s political – meant to punish the largely Sunni area for the attacks.
Sutherland says he had a hard time convincing the Ministry of Agriculture even to conduct crop spraying in the largely agricultural area. “No one in the government in Baghdad was willing to support it,” he said. “They say ‘Diyala is a bad place – don’t give them anything. My philosophy has always been and what I taught when I was at the School of Advanced Military Studies was – you have to get jobs into bad areas.”
Welch, who is working on tribal forces which would provide a ring of security around Baghdad, believes the tribes provide the best remaining hope for Iraq.
“This is the social network that is the fabric that’s now trying to hold the country together and I think they in the broadest sense - and I’m talking about the real tribal leaders – they’re the ones who are much more concerned about Iraq they believe than anybody else in the country including some of those in the government.”