The Tribes of Iraq: America's New Allies

Pungent smoke floats through the chandeliers of the tribal chief's reception room. At his home in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province and a onetime Iraqi insurgent stronghold, Sheik Shakir Saoud Aasi is enjoying after-dinner cigars with his guest of honor, battalion commander Lt. Col. Craig Kozeniesky of the 2/5 Marines. Around the room, Marines and Iraqi tribesmen and police are sitting together, swapping jokes and stories. Some of these Iraqis were probably shooting at Americans less than a year ago. Now they and the Marines are fighting side by side against Al Qaeda. "We are not just friends but also brothers," the sheik tells Kozeniesky. "This is a new beginning for both of us." Kozeniesky can only agree: "Things have changed dramatically." A 5-year-old Iraqi boy in traditional robes and headdress is racing around the room and vaulting into U.S. troops' laps. What does he want to be when he grows up? He proudly announces: "American general named Steve!"

The Pentagon is praying that its new allies will reconfigure the war. The success of the Ramadi experiment has given rise to hopes that the model can be applied elsewhere in Iraq. A year ago insurgents were launching nearly 30 attacks a day in the city; now the daily average is less than one. Anbar province as a whole is showing similar improvements. Brig. Gen. John R. Allen, deputy commanding general of the Second Marine Expeditionary Force in Anbar and a tribal-affairs expert, describes the province as "a laboratory for counterinsurgency." From roughly 500 attacks a week, the rate has sunk to barely a third of that figure. Weapons-cache discoveries, based largely on tips from sympathetic Iraqis in Ramadi, have skyrocketed nearly 190 percent. The fledgling local police force could muster only 20 recruits a year ago; today, with local sheiks encouraging tribe members to sign up, it has 8,000.

But even as the Americans rejoice in Ramadi's transformation, they worry that it may not last. Some townspeople are already losing patience as they seek Baghdad's help in rebuilding their community. At the same time, the Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad is in no hurry to do favors for Anbar's overwhelmingly Sunni population. Col. John Charlton, commander of the nearly 6,000 U.S. troops in central Anbar, warns of political trouble ahead if reconstruction falters. "Now that the shooting's stopped, people's expectations have risen wildly," Charlton says. "They want electricity back. They want things fixed now. The question is, can the government step up and deliver the goods?" The danger is that the government will allow Ramadi to languish while America's newfound allies drift back into the jihadists' orbit.

The insurgents are in retreat now, thanks largely to traditional tribal leaders who began trying to organize themselves in late 2005. The radicals of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who were led at the time by the murderous Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, "went after them with a vengeance," says General Allen. "It was very bloody and very ugly." Late last year local sheiks—most of whom had by this point lost family members to the killings—formed a group they called Anbar Awakening. Their leader, Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Rishah, had lost three brothers and his father to insurgent attacks. The sheiks ordered their followers to assist the Americans against the jihadists—and among Iraq's tribesmen even today, the sheik is the law.

After the Awakening's sheiks began urging their followers to join the police, enlistments soared. The quick drop in attacks would seem to indicate that many of the newly minted cops were once part of the insurgency. While declining to take a public stand on a nationwide amnesty, the Americans aren't asking too many questions. The names of new recruits are checked against a list of previously detained insurgents, but most background checks are left to the sheiks. "In every counterinsurgency, one of the indicators ultimately of some level of success [was] that the people who fought you decided not to fight you anymore," says General Allen. "We're not naive," says Colonel Charlton. "Some police could've been insurgents at this time last year. But the sheiks have changed their fundamental understanding of who the threat is—and the threat is Al Qaeda."

All 23 of the major tribes in and around Ramadi have joined the Awakening, according to Abdul Sattar's elder brother, Sheik Ahmed Abu Rishah, who claims that more than 1 million of Anbar's 1.3 million people support the Awakening—"and it's spreading to other parts of Iraq." Last week the Awakening even sent envoys to Sadr City to meet with followers of the militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The two men share some common objectives. Both present themselves as Iraqi nationalists who do not favor a federalist solution to the country's sectarian problems, and both are eager for provincial elections.

As Abdul Sattar's influence among ordinary Iraqis grows, his political ambitions are rising as well. Most of Anbar's tribes boycotted previous Iraqi elections, giving them little voice in the political process as it unfolds in Baghdad. "We have to become part of decision making," says Ahmed Abu Rishah. "Central-government support is taking forever" to reach the newly liberated people of Ramadi, he says.

A ride through the ravaged city shows how desperately needed that support is. Our convoy rolls down an avenue the Americans call Route Michigan. Until a few months ago the road was lined with IEDs. On most days now, potholes are the main hazard. Still, the insurgents haven't been totally eradicated. At an intersection near what soldiers call the "White Apartments Market," a massive truck-bomb explosion on Good Friday killed a dozen people. Most of the rubble has been hauled away, but a gutted apartment building, much of its façade blown off, marks the scene. Lying nearby are the rusting, twisted remains of a large chlorine tank—the insurgents' way of turningordinary truck bombs into chemical weapons. As we pass the city's destroyed train station, Colonel Charlton remarks on the city's "World War II-style destruction." Soldiers clearing away the rubble found the corpses of Iraqis who had been executed by insurgents and dumped in the ruins.

Residents are finally venturing into the streets, trying to resume some semblance of normal life. Just off a main artery—Central Street, the Americans call it—Mazen Fouzi Khalaf is hacking huge chunks of mutton from sheep carcasses hanging on hooks outside his relocated butcher shop. He moved here last year, after his original place was badly damaged in the fighting. Townspeople go out of their way on foot and bicycle, even under the blazing noonday sun, to buy fresh meat from him. "I get 50 or 60 customers a day, but business would be even better in my other shop," says Khalaf. "I want to go back there; I'm getting impatient and angry." To the U.S. military's promises that his old market will be rebuilt, he answers with a grunt: "I've already waited a long time."

The sight of him being interviewed soon draws a crowd. What is your biggest worry? Everyone tries to answer at once. "Water!" shouts a man in a flowing white Arab robe. Most of the city was without water for three days recently, after an IED blast destroyeda key water main. "We need electricity," a white-haired man declares in immaculate English. A policeman chimes in from his checkpoint right next door: "You think you have problems? I've been working for four months as a policeman, and all I've gotten so far is $100 and this badge." He shows everyone a card identifying him as a member of the district security force. It's the equivalent of a "neighborhood watch" group, although the Americans want to upgrade members to full police status as soon as the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad agrees. Are the police in Ramadi doing a good job? "Yes! Yes, we need them!" everyone exclaims. "We have some security at last!"

The trouble is, the Americans and the Baghdad government can hardly keep up with training, equipping and paying the massive influx of recruits. Most newcomers start off as unpaid provisional local security personnel. They may receive contributions of food and small sums of cash from the sheiks that encouraged them to enlist in the first place. But that raises its own set of problems: the payments tend to blur the line between police and the tribal militias the sheiks also maintain.

Not that Ramadi's regular police have it much better. Early last week the crumbling police station in the Tameem neighborhood was packed with cops picking up their monthly pay. The money had finally arrived, a week and a half late. Parts of the building are unusable, having been destroyed long ago in insurgent attacks. A former bathroom has been turned into a makeshift entrance, a squat toilet still in the floor. In one of the better offices, an outer wall is crisscrossed with fissures where the rain blows in horizontally during the wet season. "We don't get anything from the government; the Americans give us everything," complains one cop. "Last year the Americans were our biggest enemies, and yet now they're how we get what we need."

Under heavy U.S. pressure to show more progress toward national reconciliation, last week Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged every Iraqi province to set up its own "salvation council," following the Awakening's example. But Ramadi's success may not travel well. The tribes in and around that city are unusually homogenous and traditional compared not only with Baghdad but even with other Anbar cities suchas Fallujah, where religious concerns outweigh tribal ties and security remains patchy. In mixed cities like Baghdad, tribal loyalties are even weaker, and the potential for clashes with sectarian militias greater.

Then there's the question of how strong a foundation the tribes are to build on. After the disastrous invasion of Kuwait in 1990-91, Saddam Hussein also used the tribes to reinforce his grip on power. He strengthened some sheiks, paid many, killed others and when necessary appointed bogus sheiks to do his bidding. The technique worked so well, even among the Shia tribes in the south, that Saddam could count on them through the 1990s to patrol the Iranian border, says Amatzia Baram, an Iraq expert at the University of Haifa. But it was also a recipe for corruption.

Like Saddam, though, the Americans may have little choice. "Let the sheiks be spokesmen for their tribes," says Baram: "'Tell me, what does your community need? A school? A clinic? A well? A power generator?' And deliver on that, but make it clear that in return, the sheik needs to work for peace in his territory. That may not be some ideologue's dream of a modern state, but it's how Iraqi society works." In a war where success is so rare, no one can be too fussy.