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Sunni Muslim sheikhs join US in fighting Al Qaeda

Iraqi tribal support is linked to drop in violence in Anbar Province.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 3, 2007



Ramadi, Iraq

Amid fields of wheat and barley, dozens of armed men emerged along a dirt road leading to the fiefdom of the Bu-Fahed tribe in Hamdhiyah, an idyllic corner of restive Anbar Province, just north of Ramadi. "Welcome to our proud sheikhs. Down with terror," read banners on the road.

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Dozens of sheikhs and tribal elders in flowing gold-trimmed camel-hair cloaks, many clutching colorful worry beads, streamed into a conference hall. Each was frisked by tribesmen to guard against suicide bombs.

The meeting looked to be a typical gathering, but its true purpose was for top sheikhs to issue an ultimatum: quit supporting Al Qaeda and turn in relatives belonging to the group.

Like dominoes, tribes reeling from a campaign of killing and intimidation by Al Qaeda have been joining, one by one, the US-led fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq in this Sunni Arab province. Last month, US Gen. David Petraeus told Congress that violence was down significantly here and that the tribes were key to the transformation.

On Tuesday, the tribes claimed a major victory: the death of Abu Ayub al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. While many are skeptical about the claim, the episode underscores the Iraqi government's eagerness to bank on the success of turning tribes away from Al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency. But whether these new allegiances from tribes that once backed Al Qaeda will stick remains to be seen, say analysts.

"I do not think it [the council of tribes against Al Qaeda] goes far enough to weaken other elements of the insurgency," says Zaki Chehab, political editor at the London-based Al Hayat newspaper. "There is also no clear commitment yet from influential tribes on how to deal with the Americans."

But winning over the Bu-Fahed tribe was a coup. It had been one of Al Qaeda's staunchest supporters, and traces its lineage to the birthplace of the puritan form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism in the Saudi Arabian province of Najd. It formally threw its lot behind Sheikh Abdel-Sattar Abu Risha.

Sheikh Abu Risha

Sheikh Abu Risha is the force behind the so-called Al Anbar Salvation Council of tribes against Al Qaeda, which is now strongly backed by both the US military and Iraqi government, and it includes 17 tribes.

It was Abu Risha who boasted on state TV Tuesday that his kinsmen killed the Al Qaeda in Iraq commander and seven of his cohorts – two Saudis and five Iraqis.

"Our kinsmen in Taji clashed with Abu Hamza, and he has been killed.... There are witnesses, he has been killed," he said, referring to a town northwest of Baghdad. His announcement was then followed by songs praising the "glories of Anbar's tribes."

The US military and the Iraqi government were unable to confirm Mr. Masri's death with the Interior Ministry, which said that it was working on retrieving Masri's body from the Taji tribes. A posting on a fundamentalist website denied it..

Abu Risha's movement emerged last fall in what one sheikh described as the "Anbar Intifada," a reference to the Palestinian uprising against Israeli forces. In posters prepared by the US military in Ramadi, Abu Risha is shown with his rifle slung on his shoulder and looming large over small masked men (meant to represent Al Qaeda) fleeing in fear.

Anbar's provincial seat, Ramadi, which Al Qaeda declared in October to be the capital of its so-called Islamic state in Iraq, is now firmly in the grips of US and Iraqi forces.

US Capt. Jay McGee, intelligence officer with the 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment from Fort Worth, Texas, says that the motivation for the tribes to join the council is largely self-serving.

"Everyone is convinced Coalition forces are going to leave and they are saying, 'We do not want Al Qaeda to take control of the area when that happens.' For them, Al Qaeda is a greater threat long term."

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