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.
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."
Captain McGee's battalion is in charge of the area where the Bu-Fahed is located, and says that many of the tribesmen now joining Iraqi government security forces once fought with insurgent groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigades, Islamic Army, Mohammad's Army, and the Fatiheen Army.
New fight for Bu-Faheds
At the gathering in Hamdhiyah last week, tribal leaders took their place in rows of white plastic chairs in the presence of a handful US military officers.
"The tribe has gone through its most difficult period. We have lost many dear sons. What complicates matters is that some of our same sons have embraced terrorists and carried out their orders," Sheikh Haqi Ismail al-Fahdawi told his fellow tribesmen.
He told them that they must now encourage young men to join the Army and police and write to sheikhs from other tribes in Anbar to pressure them to hand over fugitives from the Bu-Fahed who were Al-Qaeda members and also use their families who remained behind as leverage.
"The days of writs of forgiveness are over," he said.
Another tribal notable, Hussein Zbeir, grabbed the microphone from Sheikh Haqi and spoke more bluntly about Al Qaeda's role: "If it was not for the coyotes among us, no one would have been killed, kidnapped, or bombed. You know who among you brought the Yemeni with the suicide vest."
Sheikh Jabbar al-Fahdawi, a 30-something civil engineer, who is being groomed to assume the tribe's leadership, said in an interview that his brother and hundreds of his kinsmen were killed by Al Qaeda. He said 20 percent of his tribe had, over the years, been recruited by Al Qaeda, while an equal amount joined insurgent groups.
"We have frozen the true resistance, and I told my followers to stop attacking the Americans. We consider the Americans to be our friends at the moment so that we can get rid of the extremists," he said adding that tribe fugitives guilty of killing must be tracked down and executed and their families banished from the tribe.
He rolls up his sleeves to show deep scars from gunshot wounds he sustained in recent battles against Al Qaeda. "I left my work in Baghdad to come and free my tribe," he said.
Soon thereafter, Abu Risha appears. He arrives in a motorcade of SUVs and police pick-up trucks bristling with machine guns.
The door of one of the vehicles is flung open. Abu Risha emerges wearing dark wrap-around sunglasses and dressed in the finest tribal attire.
He hugs Sheikh Jabbar who leads him by hand into the meeting. "Anbar is one tribe and our awakening will sweep through all of Iraq, God willing," he tells the Bu-Faheds.
In an interview later, he proudly pulls out a pistol from a holster tied around his waist. He says it was given to him by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His father and four of his brothers, he says, were killed by Al-Qaeda.
Al Qaeda ties linger
But throughout Anbar, the ties are still strong to Al Qaeda. Sheikh Hareth al-Dhari, who hails from one of Anbar's most prestigious tribes and heads the antigovernment Association of Muslim Scholars of Iraq, called on Osama bin Laden to intervene to stop the rift between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the local insurgency.
He described men like Abu Risha as "agents and conduits of the [US] occupation."
"I call on Sheikh Osama bin Laden in the name of the Islam for which he fights to intervene and to instruct Al Qaeda to adhere to the rules of proper jihad and to respect the people who had previously opened their arms to Al Qaeda," Mr. Dhari said in an interview Sunday with Bahrain's Akhbar al-Khaleej newspaper. Dhari's remarks indicated that the US and Iraqis still have much work ahead to fully dislodge Al Qaeda from all the Anbar tribes.
"If he [bin Laden] has no influence over Al Qaeda in Iraq, then he must say it so that we can decide how to deal with those who have hurt our main cause, which is liberating Iraq," he said
• Tomorrow: Can the US preserve success in Ramadi? Doing so means getting more tribes on board and spreading the formula to other parts of Anbar Province.