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'Anbar model' under fire

Four Iraqi Sheikhs tied to the US's anti-Al Qaeda plan were killed Monday in Baghdad.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 26, 2007

WASHINGTON and baghdad

A suicide bomber's attack on an upscale Baghdad hotel Monday was a blow struck against the US plan to support and arm Sunni tribes in western Iraq.

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The bomber walked up to a group of Sunni sheikhs and detonated his explosives belt. Among the 12 people killed were four senior tribal members linked to an American effort to combat Al Qaeda in Anbar Province.

The US military says that its strategy of building ties with the tribes has been effective in reducing attacks. But the approach is facing growing criticism from both Iraqi politicians and military experts. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has complained that the initiative is creating militias outside its control and undermining his plan to strengthen the central government's control over security forces.

"This may result in a temporary ally to help against Al Qaeda, but we are also creating more and better-armed militias, and we are working against what we have said is our principal reason for being [in Iraq,] which is to create and build up a strong central Iraqi government with a monopoly on handling the country's security," says Bruce Riedel, a career-long expert in the Middle East and counterterrorism with the Central Intelligence Agency and other federal agencies.

"This is a strategy fraught with risks," he says.

Some US military officers are questioning the wisdom of the strategy of working with the coalition of tribes known as the Anbar Salvation Council. Some officers in Iraq have noted they are now working with tribes whose members just a few months ago made up a large slice of the Iraqis they were arresting for attacks on US forces and other crimes.

But supporters say the strategy recognizes the reality of the tribes' powerful role in Iraqi society. Tribal sheikhs, or leaders, have already provided valuable intelligence about Al Qaeda operations and members in their areas. The tribes are anxious to change sides, they say, because Al Qaeda has used mass-casualty tactics like car bombings that the tribes find anathema.

US reliance on tribes is also supported by others who have already written off the possibility of seeing a strong central Iraqi government emerge.

"I've been pushing for four years to deal directly with the tribal leaders," said Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware at a Monitor lunch in Washington Thursday. The US, he added, has to "give up on … the possibility of having a strong central democratic government trusted by all the major constituencies.... It's simply not capable of occurring."

If Iraq is, as President Bush says, the central front in an international war of terrorism, it may make sense to cast one's lot with whatever forces in Iraq are best capable of working against a common enemy in that war – in this case Al Qaeda. But the approach, some say, ignores the possibility that the new allies are enemies themselves of other US priorities in Iraq – or could eventually turn once again against the US.

Old enemies, new friends

"Most of these Sunnis who were formerly targeting US and coalition forces and are now willing to fight on our side aren't doing it as a result of some deep ideological transformation," says Riedel, now at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They are doing it for reasons of financing, to make money, and to control turf in the Sunni parts of the country. It's unlikely they will be reliable allies in the long term."

As an example, Riedel points to one Anbar sheikh among the leaders of the front against foreign fighters "who essentially is a highwayman," having worked with Al Qaeda to rob travelers on the Baghdad-Amman highway and divide the "take."

"At some point such 'allies' can be bought back by the opposing side," he adds, "and then it becomes a bidding war."

Mr. Maliki has said the plan could end up creating new militias for the government to contend with. But government critics say what some see as US "desperation" might not have been necessary if Maliki had moved against militias in the first place. Other government supporters say the US may unwittingly be arming sides in a future full-blown civil war.

Some point to history and note that attempts by outside powers to divide insurgencies by buying off factions does not have a good track record. They cite French efforts in Algeria or similar attempts in Vietnam.