Sunni tribes turn against jihadis

To fight foreign terrorists, US and Iraqi forces are looking to the Sunni Arab resistance.

Sheikh Osama al-Jadaan, head of the influential Karabila tribe in Sunni Arab-dominated western Iraq, is more politician than traditional sheikh these days. He's given up his dishdasha and Arab headdress for a pinstripe suit with a silk handkerchief in his breast pocket.

He's also turned away from supporting Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi and other foreign fighters in Iraq. "We realized that these foreign terrorists were hiding behind the veil of the noble Iraqi resistance," says Mr. Jadaan. "They claim to be striking at the US occupation, but the reality is they are killing innocent Iraqis in the markets, in mosques, in churches, and in our schools."

In Anbar Province, an insurgent hotbed that borders Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, US and Iraqi officials say they have a new ally against the Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists: local tribal leaders like Jadaan and home-grown Iraqi insurgents.

"The local insurgents have become part of the solution and not part of the problem," US Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told reporters at a press conference last week.

Until recently, many of the Sunni Arab tribes in Anbar and local insurgent leaders collaborated with Islamic extremist groups whose funding and manpower is thought to come largely from abroad. They had a common goal: drive out the Americans.

But Mr. Zarqawi's indiscriminate killing of innocent Iraqis has alienated many of his erstwhile Iraqi allies. His shadowy militant group, known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, is believed to have assassinated four prominent Anbar sheikhs. And in January when hundreds of Anbar men turned up at an Iraqi Army recruiting depot in Ramadi, the provincial capital, a suicide bomber killed 70 would-be soldiers.

Zarqawi's brutal methods have stirred controversy beyond Iraq, as well. When he declared an "all out war" on Shiites last September, his former mentor, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, publicly rebuked him and Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, warned him against alienating the Muslim masses.

But Zarqawi appears to have done just that. Last month, a poll of 1,150 Iraqis throughout the country, conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, the website World Public Opinion, and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, revealed that just 7 percent of Iraqis approve of attacks on Iraqi government security forces.The same poll, which over sampled Sunni Arabs, found that only 1 percent of Iraqis support attacks on Iraqi civilians.

Sunni Arabs vs. foreign fighters

"There is a change," says Mithal Alusi, a secular Sunni Arab parliamentarian. "After these attacks, and after the elections, we find the people are eager to be rid of the terrorists."

Analysts say the participation of Sunni Arabs in the December elections, and the tripling of that sect's seats in parliament, has convinced local leaders like Jadaan that political participation can bear fruit, such as infrastructure, jobs, and an end to US military operations in their cities.

"We are caught in the middle between the terrorists coming to destroy us with their suicide belts, their TNT, and their car bombs, and the American Army that destroys our homes, takes our weapons, and doesn't allow us to defend ourselves against the terrorists," says Jadaan.

It was that frustration that first pushed Anbar's elders to take a stand against outside terror groups, which set up camp there and turned Anbar's highways into rat lines for foreign fighters coming in from Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

US and Iraqi forces launched a series of offensives throughout the province last year. Caught in the crossfire, Anbar's residents began looking for a way out.

"A sheikh from the Samarra tribe, which had suffered a lot from the military operations, came to see the minister of defense, and he said, 'Give me two weeks to get rid of the foreigners from our city,' " recalls Mohammed al-Askaree, an adviser to Iraq's Sunni Arab Defense Minister Saadoun Dulaymi. "The minister said, 'Take a month. If you get rid of the foreigners and the terrorists your city will avoid further problems.' "

Other tribal sheikhs followed suit. About three months ago, Mr. Dulaymi, intent on exploiting the rift between the tribes and the foreign insurgents, convened a series of meetings with Anbar's tribal sheikhs, religious leaders, and local elders. The US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, attended some of the meetings.

The provincial leaders made a number of demands in return for their cooperation, Mr. Askaree says. They asked for weapons to fight the terrorists with, but the minister refused. Instead the minister agreed to step up recruitment of Anbar residents to the Iraqi security forces.

"If you want to participate in attacking the terrorists, you have no choice but to send your sons to volunteer for the Army and give the Army information on the terrorists," Askaree says the minister of defense told the gathered Anbar notables.

US casualties in Anbar decline

Those negotiations seem to have unsettled Zarqawi and his allies. But it remains difficult to gauge just how effective and how widespread the new wellspring of tribal support for the Iraqi government is.

A report released last September by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) estimates that 4 to 10 percent of the country's combatants are foreigners. However, the report points out that this element represents a virulent strain of the militancy responsible for the most violent attacks. Furthermore, local insurgents have pragmatic demands and are more willing to compromise than Zarqawi-led fighters, who view the struggle in Iraq as part of a global jihad.

"If you can get real progress here, then it's a lot easier to end the insurgency by having the insurgents join the government than by hunting them down," says Anthony Cordesman, coauthor of the CSIS report.

Other military analysts have pointed to a decrease in US casualties in Anbar to show that the strategy is working.

Still, many Sunni Arab hard-liners remain defiant, and downplay the apparent rifts between foreign elements and local insurgents. "These are just a few sheikhs who want to get political power by claiming to be fighting the terrorists, and to be speaking for the resistance," says Sheikh Abdel Salaam al-Qubaysi, a leading member of the Muslim Scholars Association, a hard-line Sunni group that draws much of its support from Anbar. "They are slaves in the pockets of the occupation. They have no weight in the streets."

Mr. Qubaysi scoffs at suggestions that Anbar's tribes are starting to turn against the resistance. Last month's suicide attack on Sunni Arabs in Ramadi was not the work of the "noble Arab resistance," he says. "We know that 40,000 militants from Iran have to come to Iraq," he says. "I don't rule out that they did this to prevent Sunni Arabs from joining the Iraqi Army."

Sunni Arab demands

Sunni Arab politicians from Anbar also warn that this measured progress could wither just as quickly as it blossomed if the country's Shiite and Kurdish leaders don't respond to key Sunni Arab demands in negotiations to form a government.

Tariq al-Hashimi, leader of the Sunni fundamentalist Iraqi Islamic Party, laid out a 10-point ultimatum for the US and Iraqi governments last week. He demanded the release of political prisoners and the resignation of Iraq's controversial Shiite interior minister. He threatened "a massive civilian uprising" if his demands were ignored.

Another top Sunni demand, with a direct impact on negotiations with tribal sheikhs in Anbar, is ending the stringent debaathification law, which prohibits ex-Baath Party members above a certain rank from holding government positions.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Defense suddenly implemented a six-month-old order from the Iraqi Debaathification Commission that demanded the dismissal of 18 Iraqi generals, colonels, and majors. Most were Sunni Arabs from Anbar.

At a time when the government is trying to bring the provincial leaders on board to fight the insurgency, the decision sends the wrong message, says Mr. Alusi, the secular Sunni politician. "You're telling these sheikhs in Anbar that there's a place for their children in the new Iraq, but your actions say otherwise," says Alusi.

Support for attacks on US remains

And even if Zarqawi and his ilk can be defeated in Iraq, this is no guarantee that the rest will be smooth sailing for the US. The same poll that showed Iraqi disapproval of attacks on fellow Iraqis, also reported that 88 percent of Sunni Arabs and 41 percent of Shiites approved of attacks on US forces.

It's a statistic that Jedaan, the tribal sheikh, is well aware of. "Iraq has its men, its honorable resistance, and we will drive out the Americans and liberate our country ourselves."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Sunni tribes turn against jihadis
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today