Iraq: With U.S. Help, Warlords Gain New Power

Kanan Al-Sadid was not yet 10 years old on the afternoon that his father opened the trunk of the family car and Saddam Hussein popped out. It was the early 1960s, and the future dictator was hiding out from the Iraqi authorities, who accused him of plotting to assassinate the country's then strongman, Gen. Abdul Karim Qassim. Kanan's uncle was a member of Saddam's revolutionary Baath Party clique; when the conspirators needed to lie low, they would disappear to the Sadid family estate near the Syrian border. Once, when Syrian soldiers came looking for the men, Saddam and the boy's father ducked into a linen closet. Another time, as the family Volkswagen approached an Iraqi Army checkpoint, Saddam ordered all the children in the car to blow on the windows, steaming them up to conceal the fugitives. While visiting a family home in Baghdad one afternoon, Kanan's father told his sons to get into the car; they were going to a park to play. But after driving around for a while, the car stopped, the boy's father opened the trunk and Saddam Hussein—curled up and dressed in a dishdasha—stepped out and walked off. Kanan's father drove away in silence. "When are we going to the park?" the deflated boy asked. "Keep your mouth shut," his father replied.

Almost 50 years later—and with Saddam in his grave—Kanan's hometown of Tikrit is still a nest of intrigue. As head of one of the most powerful branches of Iraq's massive Shammer tribe, Kanan, 49, can urge thousands of men to take up arms—or, with a few words, keep them at home. After the U.S. invasion, he rounded up some 1,200 loyalists and helped them enlist in the new Iraqi Army. In recent years Kanan—who wears a silver pinkie ring and snaps the lapels of his pin-striped suit coat when he's punctuating a point—has founded a satellite television station, launched a construction company and renovated a nearby sports stadium. ("Olympic pool," he says, his eyes widening.) Yet the necessary tactics for survival as a strongman in modern Iraq sometimes seem to change from hour to hour. Iraqis, he says, are once again looking for the kind of martinet he knew as a boy. "They want somebody strong like Saddam," Kanan told NEWSWEEK last week in an interview near Tikrit. "Power and money—that's how you [rule] Iraq. If I became like the Prince of Dubai, I would control Iraqis like a remote control."

The U.S. military discovered too late that Iraq's tangled network of tribal leaders is a major key to security. Yet over the past year, "government from the bottom up" has become one of Ambassador Ryan Crocker's favorite catchphrases. As violence has declined in Sunni enclaves like Ramadi and Fallujah in recent months, commanders have tried to replicate the apparent success of the region's Anbar Salvation Council elsewhere. Last summer American military commanders spent millions of dollars on "concerned local citizens" programs—essentially paying off tribal sheiks to keep their followers from planting roadside bombs. In Tikrit's Salah Ad Din province, the Army has spent more than $5 million to buy the loyalty of 26 different sheiks. (Kanan is not among them, although another sheik from the same family is.) With Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's central government weaker than ever—unable to provide basic services even to Baghdad—power brokers in the provinces are enjoying something of a renaissance. That's fine with Kanan al-Sadid. "We have to get rid of central control," he says, exhaling a cloud of French-cigarette smoke.

Yet "government from the bottom up" is not without risks. Critics say empowering regional strongmen is creating a warlord state in Iraq, with tribal and religious leaders operating increasingly independently—and often unconstitutionally. At best, the breakdown into local fiefdoms is not necessarily consistent with political reconciliation at the center, the strategic goal of U.S. diplomats. At worst, power struggles among local leaders—particularly in the southern Shiite heartland—could erupt into all-out civil war. "If nobody wins, you could end up with different groups in charge of different cities," says Vali Nasr, an Iraq expert at Tufts University. In a sense, it's happening already. Even as Iraqis furiously denounce the nonbinding U.S. Senate resolution that suggested dividing their country into three relatively autonomous parts, Iraq has splintered into a hundred pieces.

Kanan al-Sadid notes that no politician in Baghdad could rival his degree of credibility in Tikrit. His reputation, he says, depends partly on keeping his distance both from U.S. forces in the city and from the most vicious local insurgents. The strongman spends a lot of time in Syria—the better to stay above the fray, he believes. He argues that Iraqis have a right to fight U.S. troops in his country, yet he also decries the foreign "terrorists" he sees as responsible for ruining Tikrit's economy. (According to U.S. military statistics, attacks in Salah Ad Din province roughly doubled over the year ending in July, though commanders say they have come down somewhat since the "concerned citizens" program began.) When another sub-sheik from the Shammer tribe in Tikrit decided to sign up for the U.S. military's program last summer, Kanan says he had only small technical objections to the way the program was being run. Nobody can truly be a strongman in modern Tikrit without U.S. support, he says. But he also acknowledges that the alliance has caused disagreements within the family; looking like an American puppet is not necessarily good for a man's reputation among Tikritis. "They're scared to take [the money]," Kanan says. "A sheik should always have some credibility."

In other parts of Iraq, working closely with U.S. forces has clearer advantages. Consider Gen. Qais Hamza Aboud, the local police chief in the mostly Shiite city of Hillah, about 50 miles south of Baghdad. A former fighter pilot in Saddam's Air Force, Qais is now probably the most powerful individual in Babil province—more influential than either the governor or local Iraqi Army commanders. He was working as a car salesman in 2003 when U.S. military officials helped him form an elite paramilitary police unit, now known as the Scorpion Battalion. Flush with American cash and weapons, Qais's Scorpions have since swelled to roughly 800 troops. U.S. officers in Hillah refer to Qais simply as "the Godfather." Asked about the nickname during a recent visit to a U.S. military base outside Hillah, General Qais stared down a NEWSWEEK reporter for 10 seconds or so, and then replied: "Yeah, that's right."

At a recent meeting attended by U.S. officers, diplomats and Iraqi security officials, Qais sat at the head of a horseshoe-shaped table facing a slide projector. The general, who looks somewhat like a plump Albert Einstein, listened as the Americans talked about the need to incorporate 200 or so of Babil's own "concerned local citizens" into his police force. The "citizens" program, in Hillah as elsewhere, can be problematic. Legally, for instance, participating citizens are not supposed to carry weapons outside their homes, a ban that is often ignored, leading to clashes between the U.S.-supported guardians and other local armed groups. "What we're seeing is the de facto establishment of a militia," said a State Department official at the meeting, who declined to speak to NEWSWEEK on the record without embassy authorization. "We need to be very careful that we remain constitutionally correct." Another U.S. officer at the meeting, Col. Michael Garrett, added: "We've never addressed the fact that we're putting citizens outside what is now the current law." Qais said he agreed. "We don't want this group to become another militia," he said quietly. After the meeting, one American diplomat, who was not authorized to speak on the record, referred to the project derisively as a "guns and whisky" strategy.

As the meeting ended, Qais leaned over a tactical map with a smaller clutch of U.S. and Iraqi officers, making final preparations for a raid on a suspected Mahdi Army office. "We're going to shut those f–––ers down," the general said, to titters from his U.S. military counterparts. American officers mostly consider his personal bravado endearing. Yet they also recognize that relying on charismatic individuals for security carries its own risks. Qais's authority derives largely from "a personal allegiance to the general," says Lt. Col. Thomas Roth, an American officer who works closely with the police chief. The Scorpion Battalion might fall apart completely if the chief were to be assassinated, as enemies have tried to do several times in recent years. U.S. officers also worry about the health of the general, who is significantly overweight. "Give him anything, he'll drink it," says Roth, adding that Qais's brand of whisky is Jack Daniel's. "He'll smoke anything." If the general fell ill, Roth says, the local security effort could be set back significantly. "He's one-man deep," says the American officer. "There's nobody else."

If Hillah's security is one-man deep, Basra's political scene is stacked with competing actors, many of them sworn enemies. Perhaps the best-known warlord figure in the city is Muhammad al-Waeli, the provincial governor from the Islamist Fadhila party. Al-Waeli's men control the city's significant oil resources, protecting the facilities with a powerful militia. Yet a number of other militant groups compete with the governor for authority, including the 17,000-strong Mahdi Army and the Hakim family's Badr Corps. Earlier this summer the British military's remaining 5,500 soldiers withdrew to near the Basra airport, leaving the city's security largely in the hands of the various rival militias. Some observers believe the British military's "light touch" throughout the occupation has also contributed to the fragmentation of the city's local political scene.

Last week NEWSWEEK visited one of the city's most powerful young warlords, an Islamist in his early 40s named Yussef al-Mussawi, who leads Basra's Thar'Allah ("God's Revenge") Party. At the organization's heavily guarded complex a couple of miles north of the city, bodyguards milled about carrying Iraqi-made Tariq pistols; one guard had stationed himself inside an air-conditioning duct above the building's front door. In a reception room near the parking lot, supplicants queued up to ask the leader for favors. A group of four young men said they had come to get his help in finding their kidnapped brother. Upstairs in his office, Mussawi—dressed entirely in black and wearing a pinkie ring—sat at a desk covered with letters from petitioners asking his help. "The Iraqi government is weak and the Parliament is shallow," Mussawi told a caller. Later, when another caller asked for the Islamist's advice about a property dispute, Mussawi replied: "The sword is the solution"—meaning he believed force was the only thing that would get the man's property back.

Even to ambitious local sheiks like Kanan al-Sadid in Tikrit, the warlords' rise is a troubling development. "What century are we in?" he asks. "If we go back to the tribes—say goodbye to democracy." The businessman says he would prefer to hold an elected position in a modern, liberal state—provincial governor, perhaps. Yet he also acknowledges that with Tikrit's security still in chaos, that prospect seems a long way off. "Since the beginning," the sheik explains, "the tribes have depended on weapons. At first it was for the wolves. Then it was for humans." He smiles to himself, stamps out a Gauloise Blonde and then steps into his nearby BMW, which is always occupied by three armed guards.