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    Middle East
     Jan 23, 2008
Page 2 of 2
A salvo at the White House 
By Mark Perry

But it was a group of military commanders, working on the ground, who eventually took the lead, using the Fallujah effort as their model. After dispatching a marine combat team to help Fallujah's tribal leaders fight al-Qaeda, similar efforts sprang up among army units patrolling in Tel Afar and in Ramadi where, five months after Coleman's Fallujah initiative, American military officers began tentative approaches to the Rishawi tribe.

By September, the Americans and Ramadi's Sheikh Abdul Sattar

abu Risha had come to an agreement - and the nascent Anbar Salvation Council, a grouping of 25 tribes, had been formed to fight al-Qaeda. The killing of Risha in a car bomb attack in September of 2007 was a clear setback for the strategy of recruiting tribal leaders to end the insurgency and turn their guns on al-Qaeda, but by then the strategy had spread to enough provinces, Pentagon officials say, that Risha's murder actually solidified the growing anti-al-Qaeda front.

The strategy had even taken hold in Babil province, the heavily fought-over area south of Baghdad - in "the Triangle of Death" - where contacts with the insurgency were put in the hands of the 501st Parachute Regiment. Since at least September of last year, according to published reports, officers of the 501st have been cooperating with Babil's Sunni tribal leaders to drive what American officers describe as "extremist elements" - insurgents affiliated with al-Qaeda - that had become rooted in the province.

In fact, the first contact with the tribal leaders of Babil took place five months before the first payments were made, in May of 2007. At first the leaders were even more hesitant to sign up with the Americans than their co-religionists to the north, in part because of pressures brought against them by the Shi'ite-dominated government - which mistrusted the Awakening Council movement.

Then too, Babil province was in the hands of Shi'ite political leadership, who were even less enamored of the American initiative than the Shi'ite leadership in Baghdad. But the Americans pushed hard for the alliance, telling Babil's Sunni leaders that the Baghdad government was incapable of providing them with local security, or effectively fighting off the al-Qaeda's threat.

Babil's leaders were inevitably convinced - in part because their hatred of al-Qaeda (and their mistrust of the Shi'ite-run government) ran so deep. But for the Americans, the new alliance came with a price. During September of 2007 alone, US military officers dispensed well over US$200,000 to Babil's tribal leaders, including $370 for each provincial policeman hired by Babil's Janabi tribe, a potent and influential force in southern and western Iraq.

The payments were and are a source of unease for American military officers, who fought the Janabis for two years in the province - and who lost American soldiers in attacks led by Janabi insurgents. "They used to want to kill me, now they want to sign a contract with me," a senior officer of the 501st told the Times of London. "It's hard to get your head around, but it is working."

The Mansour bombing
But the price has not only been paid by the Americans. The negotiations between US military officers and insurgents in Babil carried out during the late spring and early summer of 2007 were a source of increasing sensitivity inside the Iraqi government and were denounced both inside Iraqi religious circles and inside the Hawza - the institutions that constitute the centers of learning in the Shi'ite religion - where an expansion of the Anbar strategy war particularly controversial.

"The imams denounced this. They even talked against it during Friday prayers. For them, this was just another American attempt to subdue Iraq. It was one thing for the Americans to recruit Sunnis to the awakening - that's fine. But it is another thing entirely to do this in Shi'ite areas, which are more independent, and have a history of being subverted by outsiders," an Iraq government official said at the time.

Senior American military officers were warned by Iraqi officials that they were playing with fire in the areas south of Baghdad, but the American pleaded that, to prove its worth, the program needed to go forward outside of Anbar. This was particularly true in those areas not dominated by Sunnis. As a part of the effort to highlight the success of the Anbar initiative, the Americans called for a meeting of the Awakening Councils with Iraqi government officials on June 25 at the Mansour Melia Hotel in Baghdad.

But just hours before the meeting was to convene, a suicide bomber penetrated three levels of security and killed 12 Iraqis, including six members of the Anbar Salvation Council. The blast was so powerful that it blew the doors off the Mansour's heavily enforced dining room and caved in the dining room ceiling.

The Mansour bombing was a political catastrophe for the US and its new Sunni allies. Among the dead was Sheik Abdul-Aziz al-Fahdawi of the Fahad tribe, Sheik Tariq Saleh al-Assafi and Colonel Fadil al-Nimrawi, both from the al-Bu Nimr tribe, and Iraqi General Aziz al-Yasari and Sheik Husayn Sha'lan al-Khaza'i of the Khaza'a tribe. Also killed was Sheik Fassal al-Gaood, a former Anbar governor and the successor to Talal al-Gaood - the man who had first approached US military leaders in Amman in 2004.

Gaood's loss was deeply felt at the Pentagon, where civilian officials had been pressing for an opening to the insurgency since the fall of Baghdad. "This was a blow," a Pentagon official confirms. "We knew both men [Talal and Fassal] and admired their courage." Worse yet, while "Muslim extremists" were blamed for the murders, senior US officials suspected a range of suspects, including Iraqi government security officials who had been less than cooperative with the US military in promoting the Anbar initiative.

These suspicions were highlighted by reports that the meeting at the Mansour was called so that the Anbar officials could discuss expanding the "Awakening of the Tribes" into Shi'ite areas. Now that initiative seemed endangered. "The bombing was as clear a message as we could get," a Pentagon official later speculated. "While everyone's attention was focused on how this hurt us in Anbar, the real message was that we should end our efforts in the south."

The coda to the Mansour bombing was a triumphant broadside from US military officers that they would remain undeterred by "these despicable terrorist acts". In fact, senior military strategists began to tread more lightly, particularly in Shi'ite areas. According to a senior Iraqi official with ties into the nation's complex tribal network, in the wake of bombing the US military began to "sketch out and think through" inter-sectarian tribal relationships.

Babil was the key, where the emerging strategy was to focus on recruiting respected Iraqi leaders with close tribal ties to those leading the Awakening movement in Anbar. In Babil, military officers began to refocus their efforts on the Janabi tribe, according to a Janabi family member with access to the tribe's decision-making. The choice of the Janabis was purposeful - even insightful.

The Janabis are nearly ubiquitous in a large crescent of the country running from an area south of Baghdad in an arc to the west and north. For the Americans, the recruitment of the Janabis was crucial - since some Janabis are Sunni and some Shi'ite. Additionally, high-profile Sunni and Shi'ite Janabis served both in Saddam's government and as leaders in the anti-American insurgency.

Recruiting the powerful tribe to the side of the American military, even in the face Iraqi government opposition, became a key not only to "turning Iraqi guns on the real culprits", as one serving officer notes, but to "stitching together a political front that is based on something other than wishful thinking".

A senior Iraqi observer with ties to the tribal network confirms this view: "The Janabis in the south have strong links to those in the north, tribal links, but you should know some are motivated by sectarian concerns and some are simply extremists." The question remains, of course: what happens when the American money dries up? "The answer to that question is simple," this Iraqi says. And then he laughs: "When the money goes, they go."
Tomorrow, Part 2: Military felled by 'trust gap'

Mark Perry is a director of Conflicts Forum and author of Partners in Command (Penguin Press, New York, 2007).

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