A scholarly soldier steps inside the world of Iraq's potent tribes

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In the battle for Iraqi hearts and minds, Lt. Col. Alan King has two secret weapons: his Palm Pilot and his Koran.

"Sura 2, Aya 62," he recites, quoting the Muslim holy book from memory: "'Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Sabeans are all believers in the book, and therefore their reward is in heaven.'"

Which leads him to another favorite, Sura 29, Aya 46: If you're dealing with a believer, you should work to resolve your conflicts peacefully.

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"They're Muslim, I'm Christian," explains Colonel King, a Virginia-born Lutheran with a blond crew cut and a ruddy, boyish face. "So I try to explain to them that we're both believers, and I can go to specific verses in both the Bible and the Koran."

In a past life, King worked on Republican political campaigns, stumping for Elizabeth Dole in the Democratic stronghold of Cumberland County, Va.

Today he's campaigning in Iraq, the mother of all swing districts. His platform: For months, he has been memorizing the Koran and building a Rolodex of sheikhs, the tribal leaders who still command wide influence in many parts of Iraq.

The coalition has been slow to realize the importance of tribal affiliations in Iraq, earning criticism from analysts and anger from the sheikhs. "If the Americans heard our advice from the beginning - our repeated advice - all this chaos wouldn't be happening now," says Sheikh Hussein Ali al-Shaalan, striking the table with his forefinger.

But King, a veteran of Special Forces and Psychological Operations missions in the Middle East and Latin America, sees the sheikhs as key to securing Iraq. "I realized early on that the sheikhs have a place," says King. "The idea is not to build controlling little warlords, but to use the information that the sheikhs have to benefit the country."

Immediately after the war, King was a battalion commander charged with securing and reconstructing Baghdad. In August, he was named to a new position: Special Assistant for Tribal Affairs, 352d Civil Affairs Command.

He got a copy of Baghdad Wilayat, a guide to Iraq's tribes published by colonial British authorities, and began learning the history of the major tribes. One sheikh told King about Salam Pax, the Baghdad Blogger who earned international fame for his wartime diaries. King read the blog, now compiled into a book, and relived the war through Iraqi eyes.

"One striking thing about Alan is his commitment to learning, which verges on being intellectual," says Adnan al-Janabi, a London-educated sheikh who used to be head of economics and finance in OPEC. "He's less of a soldier and more of an intellectual person who tries to learn about other societies."

Under Saddam Hussein, tribal sheikhs gained influence as civil society collapsed. When disputes arose, Iraqis turned to their sheikhs instead of to corrupt Baathist judges or policemen.

Hussein, always wary of rival powers, suppressed the sheikhs at first. But during the Iran-Iraq War, as Iraq's Army began deserting, he realized that the sheikhs could help track down deserters. Those who didn't cooperate, he replaced with "fake sheikhs," also called "Swiss sheikhs" for the largesse they received.

Today, Iraq has more than 150 tribes and 2,000 clans, with countless sheikhs and subsheikhs, some real, some fakes. King indexes them in his Palm Pilot, neatly subdivided into tribe, subtribe, clan, sub-clan, branch, and family. Every week, he meets with a sheikh who is also a tribal scholar. In a battered binder, they're slowly amassing a guide to all of the tribes in Iraq.

His studies paid off when he met Mr. Shaalan. A Shiite sheikh from the southern town of Diwaniya, Shaalan was the perfect US ally. He fled Iraq after the 1991 uprising against Hussein and got political asylum in Britain. He had a good relationship with the US State Department. But when he offered his counsel, and the loyalty of his 200,000-member tribe, American military commanders didn't take him seriously.

"I noticed something among the officers: They have this arrogance, and this arrogance really hurts them a lot," says Shaalan, who studied law and political science in Baghdad and London. "Everyone, even a small officer, thinks he's a big man. They don't come and ask for opinion or advice - they just do what they please, and this antagonizes the people."

Except King. When they met, King told Shaalan a complicated tribal tale about a tribe crossing a river many centuries ago. "I noticed that he was talking about the history of some clans," says Shaalan approvingly. "This shows that he is doing his duty."

Shaalan has wide-ranging influence, and not just in Iraq. His clan, the Khazzal, has branches in Syria, Jordan, southern Iran, Yemen, Palestine, and even Egypt. Like most tribes, its members are Sunni in some areas and Shiite in others.

Because their influence cuts across national and sectarian boundaries, the sheikhs can help find foreign fighters who are filtering into Iraq to fight Americans. King has asked them for help in finding insurgents and former Baathist bigwigs. So far, tips from sheikhs have helped King capture numbers 23, 62, 85, 91, 97, and 99 on the US military's Most Wanted list, as well as other miscellaneous evildoers.

On Dec. 4, the CPA approved King's pet project, a council of tribal sheikhs who will meet regularly and dispense advice to coalition forces on everything from securing pipelines to building roads and bridges. Two days later, Shaalan gave a dinner to celebrate. Over grilled chicken and kebabs, he delivered a lengthy ceremonial speech congratulating King.

"The first time that I met Mr. King, I felt that he was exerting himself to learn about tribal affairs," said Shaalan, graciously inclining his head toward King, who tried to look modest. "So I also exerted myself to get to know Mr. King."

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