If you are waiting for Iraq to heal its sectarian wounds, Baghdad is the wrong place to look. If reconciliation can happen anywhere, it may be in the country's war-torn margins, where some locals say they've had enough of the violence and are trying to come together around common goals with or without the central government's help.
That's apparently the case with the region around the Iraqi town of Mahmudiyah, a district on Baghdad's rural southern fringe, which until recently was best known for its place in the Triangle of Death. Mahmudiyah was where five U.S. soldiers were killed and three kidnapped in May. But local Iraqis there are now trying to soften its violent reputation and even make Mahmudiyah and its surrounding political district a model for peace and reconciliation among Iraqis and with Coalition troops.
On Thursday, 32 tribal sheiks from the region mostly Sunni, but including some Shiites signed a groundbreaking accord pledging to work together to curb extremism and to shake the sectarian violence that has rent the region since the U.S. forces invaded the country in 2003. The rare gathering at Baghdad's al Rashid Hotel, in the heart of the Green Zone, was the culmination of months of delicate negotiations and a welcome breakthrough for U.S. troops who've been fighting and dying there for the past 14 months. "You know the saying: that all politics is local. Well you really see that playing out here. This is the capstone of the first phase of tribal reconciliation in the region," said Col. Mike Kershaw, the commander of the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, the Fort Drum, New York-based unit which has worked among some 400,000 mostly Sunni Iraqis in the southern portion of Baghdad Province since last year. "Am I saying the war's over? No way. But I am saying that this is an opportunity that we didn't have before."
The political district of Mahmudiyah lies just south of metropolitan Baghdad and includes the violent urban centers of Yusifiyah, Latifiyah and Mahmudiyah. It shares a rough-and-tumble neighborhood with Anbar to the west and Babil to the south. A mixed region of Shi'a and Sunni, city and country, the mostly agricultural region suffers all the sectarian, economic and political woes of the capital. While the region's Sunni and Shi'ite tribes battled each other for land and primacy, they found a common enemy in the U.S. troops stationed there. But that situation changed about four months ago.
"You look at the graph [of attacks] after about April and it just falls. It's a free fall," said Maj. Austin Miller, head of the U.S. Army's civil affairs mission in the Mahmudiyah district. Military leaders credit the recent lull in violence to Sunni tribal leaders who earlier this year turned on al-Qaeda in Iraq in response to its excesses. It dovetails with a movement that began a year ago in neighboring Anbar Province to the west and has since spread out from there along tribal lines.
Tribal leaders approached the soldiers, who in turn notified civilian leaders, including the local Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team, a State Department-sponsored unit of development and security experts working in the region since early this year. The EPRT turned to the U.S. Institute for Peace, a body created by Congress in the 1990s, to assemble the tribes, local Iraqi Army and local political leaders into working groups to come up with a plan. A delegation even traveled to Amman, Jordan, to convince exiled former members of the ousted Ba'ath regime to buy in.
Gradually Shi'ite tribes, themselves tired of the most extreme elements of their own sectarian militias, joined the process. The result was the document signed Thursday, which identified local governance, rule of law, the local economy, "social well being," and security as its main priorities. Wearing tribal robes and head scarves, the 32 sheiks signed the document and shook hands with Iraqi political and military leaders in a grip-and-grin ceremony easily reminiscent of an American college graduation.
"At first we saw the U.S. only as an occupier," Sheik Hassan Khalid Shwerd al Hamdani told TIME Thursday after the ceremony. The sheik said he represented more than a million Iraqis of the Hamdani tribe, mostly Sunnis in and around Baghdad. "In the beginning, they listened to the wrong people. Now they listen to the real Iraqis. Now everything has changed and we are helping them." Al Hamdani said he spoke for the other tribes present when he said the U.S. troops are welcome "as long as they finish the job." He would not be more specific.
While enthusiastic, U.S. military leaders have to keep their guard up. Kershaw and other U.S. military leaders said they know they walk a tightrope, and that the reconciliation process, if that's what this really is, is delicate at best. "I don't have a crystal ball," said Kershaw, who has less than a month left in Iraq before his unit turns the region over to the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. "But five months ago people told me this wouldn't last a month. And look," he said, pointing to the unlikely gathering of sheiks at the al Rashid Thursday. "All I know is that the more this has taken root, the more bad guys we've been able to catch. It doesn't have to be perfect to be worth doing."