Turning Iraq's Tribes Against Al-Qaeda

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Sheikh Abdel Sittar Baziya, head of the Abu Risha tribe and a founder of the movement the Sahawat Al Anbar, or Awakening Council, an alliance pledged to fighting al-Qaeda in Al Anbar province.

Col. Sean MacFarland, the commander of U.S. forces in Ramadi, knows another powerful man when he sees one. MacFarland understood immediately the sway Sheik Abdul Sittar holds in Ramadi when he met the tribal leader for the first time in August. "The walls were just lined with guys in the sheik robes," MacFarland says, describing the scene at Sittar's compound when he arrived for a formal meeting with the sheik shortly after assuming command in the area. Among Sittar's guests that day were local police officials who often fail to turn up for meetings called by the governor of Anbar Province, Maamoun Sami Rashid al-Awani. And there were other prominent local leaders sometimes difficult to corral. "I go down and see to the governor about once a week, and it's just me and the governor," says MacFarland, who views Sittar's ability to fill a room as a measure of the respect and authority he commands. "I go into sheik Sittar's house, and the place is packed."

Tasked with clearing Ramadi of insurgents, MacFarland and the officers under his command had been looking for local allies to help with the fight since they arrived in the summer as Ramadi became an urban battleground. Seemingly from nowhere Sittar, the leader of the Albu Risha tribe, volunteered himself — and the thousands of followers loyal to him. Shortly before MacFarland met Sittar, a tribal alliance led by the sheik had come together and issued a manifesto denouncing al-Qaeda in Iraq and pledging support to American forces. MacFarland had heard about Sittar and his movement, which the sheiks call the "Awakening." And after a few meetings with Sittar, MacFarland felt he had a friend he could trust.

Soon an agreement was struck. U.S. forces would build and secure a series of police stations in Ramadi, where insurgents had run off the cops almost entirely. In return, Sittar would send recruits, hundreds of them, to join local security forces, which MacFarland wants to see take the lead in the battle to regain control of the city. MacFarland admits that he was a bit skeptical about Sittar's commitment to cooperating with U.S. forces. But month after month through the fall, police volunteers turned up, just as Sittar promised. An estimated 500 recruits joined the revamped police training program for Ramadi in November, bringing the number of overall new volunteers to around 1,500. Compare that figure to enrollment in May, when roughly 40 men signed on to a police force then numbering only about 150 officers in Ramadi. "Sheik Sittar has delivered on every single thing he has promised me," says MacFarland. "He's a leader."

MacFarland says his pact with Sittar is bringing gains in Ramadi, which remains the latest insurgent stronghold in Anbar Province. But, helped by U.S. forces, local police for the first time in recent memory are taking to the streets, where they fight and sometimes even capture insurgents. Blocks once overrun by al-Qaeda fighters are gradually becoming safer, if only a little. To be sure, Ramadi is still a dangerous place. Insurgents, working with other tribes loyal to them, control much of the territory. U.S. and Iraqi forces come under attack frequently and often suffer casualties. MacFarland is seeing enough progress nonetheless to predict that the city will be under control within a year.

MacFarland's goal may indeed be in reach, but forging alliances with tribes to achieve it brings its own risks. For hundreds of years, tribal sheiks in western Iraq have skillfully played politics with powers who've arrived in their region. The campaign the United States is waging now in the sandy expanses of Anbar Province probably looks similar to the struggles waged there in the past by the British and the Turks in the eyes of at least some of the tribesmen who surround Sittar. And the United States may be doing itself more harm than good in long run in Iraq by throwing its lot in with sheiks like Sittar, whose brand of tribal power ultimately poses a challenge to any democratic institutions many hope to see prevail some day in Iraq.

Sittar himself embodies the kind of difficult issues MacFarland and other U.S. commanders face in co-opting tribes in their efforts to wage war in Anbar Province. Until this summer, little distinguished Sittar from dozens of other sheiks in and around Ramadi except his reputation as a ringleader of successful highway bandits. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Sittar is said to have made a fortune by nabbing cars moving along the unguarded roads of Anbar Province. As the insurgency began to take shape in Anbar Province in 2003, Sittar extended help to al-Qaeda in Iraq, then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. A former al Qaeda fighter who spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity says Sittar offered the group cars, safe houses and local guides for the foreign volunteers. But that partnership was short-lived. When insurgents began raiding the highways as a means of fundraising, Sittar and his gang began clashing with insurgents in a turf war. "He has no loyalty to anybody or any ideology," the former al-Qaeda fighter says of Sittar. "He wants money and power, and will shake the hand of anybody who he thinks can get him money and power. But tomorrow, he can turn and cut off the same hand if somebody else offers him more."

About a year ago, Sittar and a group other sheiks tried to form an alliance of nationalist insurgents that would exclude al-Qaeda, which had become extremely radical in its ideology and violent in its tactics. Attacking U.S. troops was fine, as far as Sittar and others were concerned at the time. But they felt that establishing a puritanical caliphate in Ramadi, as some in al-Qaeda hope to do, shouldn't be part of the insurgency's agenda. In the end, however, the move fizzled and the nationalists and al-Qaeda remain allies in the insurgency. Sittar then abandoned it and said he then began to consider working with American troops, who've arrested him at least three times in the past.

None of this is to say Sittar is a particularly bad character among the many tribal leaders in western Iraq. His is a fairly typical profile of the chieftains who've lived for generations as the dons of the region. In person, Sittar is personable, even likeable. A compact man, he sits erect and chops his hands in the air as he speaks. Welcoming all manner of guests, he'll hold court for hours in his house, which sits right outside the main U.S. base in Ramadi. Sittar makes sure his visitors are never without tea or a cigarette as he holds forth, talking about everything from guns to Isaac Newton. In a litany of the good and bad contributions of Western civilization, Sittar cites the English scientist ("smart" but "lazy") as one of the positive contributors; Hitler, he said, was unmitigatedly bad.

In one moment Sittar will wax philosophical about the sociological complexities of Iraq. And in the next he'll politely explain how al-Qaeda in Iraq is really made up of tribal outcasts — criminals, countryside bumpkins and homosexuals. His people, on the other hand, says Sittar, are the elite of local society. "Tribes aren't what you're imagining," Sittar tells me as we sit talking one evening at his house. "These people who make up tribes are doctors, engineers, intellectuals, farmers and mechanics."

Sittar paints his transformation into a U.S. supporter in Iraq as an epiphany flowing from the realization that al-Qaeda was an evil force destroying life for him and others in Ramadi. The tribal leaders who've gathered under his banner, about 40 in all, echo the sentiment, which seems sincere enough even if other motives have factored into their decision to take up the cause now, three years into the insurgency. The U.S. is simply glad that the enemy of its enemy is now a friend. MacFarland acknowledges that the reasons Sittar and other tribal leaders have for cooperating with U.S. efforts in Anbar Province remain somewhat murky even to him. But what matters most to MacFarland are the results he's getting from Sittar as the two work together against their common enemy in Ramadi these days.

Some early signs of success in the slightly improved situation in Ramadi offer hope that the arrangement will continue to work for the foreseeable future. Sittar says the tribes would never turn against Americans, and he stresses again and again his commitment to building up the Iraqi government and deferring authority, eventually, to it. MacFarland puts much faith in Sittar and takes him at his word. But MacFarland also realizes how abruptly tribal politics can change directions, turning allies into enemies. "Tribes are like countries," he says. "They don't have friends, they have interests. Right now we're both to them. Down the road, would they fight us if we overstayed out welcome? They might very well."

With reporting by Aparisim Ghosh/Baghdad