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Will 'armloads' of US cash buy tribal loyalty?

The US policy of paying Sunni Arab sheikhs for their allegiance could be risky.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 2007



TIKRIT, Iraq

Inside a stately guesthouse on the grounds of Saddam Hussein's palace in Tikrit on the banks of the Tigris, sheikh Sabah al-Hassani jokes that the initials "SH" of the former dictator etched on the walls are his.

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"I have a weakness for Cuban cigars, French cologne, and Spanish-made loafers," he says with a wide grin.

Since June, Mr. Hassani, who claims to be one of the princes of the legendary Shammar tribe, which numbers nearly 7 million across the Arab world, says he has received at least $100,000 in cash and numerous perks from the US military and the Iraqi government.

With his help, at least $1 million has also been distributed to other tribal sheikhs who have joined his Salahaddin Province "support council," according to US officers. Together, they have assembled an armed force of about 3,000 tribesmen dubbed the "sahwa [awakening] folks."

All of these enticements serve one goal: To rally Sunni tribes and their multitude of followers to support coalition forces.

The payments are a drop in the bucket given the billions spent annually in Iraq by the United States. And paying tribes to keep the peace is nothing new. It was one of Mr. Hussein's tools in his selective patronage system designed to weaken and control all institutions outside his Baath party. The British also tried it when they ruled Iraq last century.

But the strategy is fraught with risks, including the serious potential for wars among the tribes themselves and the creation of militias in die-hard Sunni Arab lands where many continue to question the legitimacy and authority of the Shiite-led central government in Baghdad.

"[The US military] threw money at [the sheiks]," says Col. David Hsu, who heads a team advising Iraq's armed forces in Salahaddin, Saddam's home province. He shows recent digital photographs he captured of smiling sheikhs holding bundles of cash as they posed with US military officers. "You are basically paying civilians to turn in terrorists. Money was an expedient way to try to get results."

US military officers on the ground say there is tremendous pressure from high above to replicate the successes of the so-called "awakening" against Al Qaeda in the western Anbar Province. The drive reached its apex in the run-up to the September testimonies to Congress by the top US military commander and diplomat in Iraq, US officers say.

"In order to turn the intent of [Lt.] Gen. [Raymond] Odierno for reconciliation into action, the coalition forces on the ground basically started recruiting leaders to try to turn other civilians against the insurgents," says Colonel Hsu, a native of Hawaii. General Odierno is the No. 2 commander of US forces in Iraq.

And the push seems to have paid off. Both the number of explosions and US military fatalities in October dropped to almost half their September levels in the Multinational Division-North area, which comprises of Diyala, Salahaddin, Tamim (Kirkuk), and Ninevah Provinces, according to military figures.

Unwieldy allies?

A senior official in the Shiite coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki defends the wisdom of partnering with Sunni Arab tribes. Humam Hamoudi, a member of parliament from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council party, says the tribes may ultimately make better political allies than the Sunni political bloc that quit the government in June and has boycotted it since July.

But, he warns, Baghdad has to have more oversight over the tribal outreach project, otherwise the Sunni Arab tribes could turn against the government once the American presence diminishes.

"They need to have dialogue with the government," says Mr. Hamoudi of the tribes. "If their connection remains only to the Americans, then they are a time bomb. In the future they may become enemies of the democratic project."

Maj. Gen. Abdul-Jabbar Rabie, who was once a commander in the Saddam-era Army and now heads a brigade of the new Army in Salahaddin, shares that view. Hassani's men lack discipline and loyalty, he says, and could soon become a militia.

"They can spin out of control. They may be double agents and deal with both sides," says General Rabie.

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