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.
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.
What seems clear is that tribal leaders across Iraq are fully aware of the "Anbar model" and are seeking to follow it – either to "cash in," as critics say, or to help defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq.
A recent encounter in the provincial government offices in Kirkuk in northern Iraq provided emblematic, if anecdotal, evidence. A Sunni sheikh jumped to his feet and heartily shook the hand of a stranger in the room he learned was an American visitor.
"Please take a message back to America, tell them all the sheikhs of Kirkuk don't want Al Qaeda here any more," he said. Noting that tribal leaders in other parts of Iraq, particularly in Anbar, are uniting against Al Qaeda, the elegantly dressed elder said, "We are making the same effort here; we do not accept others to impose their rule upon us."
And then the sheikh from Hawija – a particularly troublesome area southwest of Kirkuk that US forces have had trouble wresting from insurgents – added, "We are willing to stop the progress here of the Al Qaeda group, and we will succeed with America's help."
Told later of the incident, one US officer said wryly, "Well, that's nice to hear – because up till now I've been doing more arresting of tribesmen with that sheikh's name than cooperating with them."
Attack on the Mansour Hotel
The suicide bomber who attacked the Mansour Hotel on Monday hit a Baghdad landmark, on the western bank of the Tigris River, where Iraqi politicians, news organizations, and diplomats are based.
The hotel is situated across from an abandoned building that housed the former Ministry of Information during the Saddam Hussein's regime. It's a heavily secured area, with a checkpoint at the top of the road leading to the hotel and a vast metal gate at the entrance of the hotel itself.
Sheikh Rafai al-Fahdawi, a leading member of the Bu-Fahed tribe, which formally joined the Anbar Salvation Council in late April, said his cousin, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Fahdawi, was killed in the attack, as was Sheikh Tariq Al-Assafi, head of the Bu-Assaf tribe, and former Anbar governor Sheikh Fassal al-Guood.
A leading Iraqi poet, Rahim al-Maliki, who had praised the tribal fight against Al Qaeda in his poems was also killed. He had his own show on state television and several episodes focused on Anbar tribes.
Sheikh Abdul-Aziz helped lead a meeting of the Bu-Faheds on April 25 in which they urged all their kinsmen to stop cooperating with Al Qaeda and to punish and banish all those who cooperate with the terror network.
Sheikh Jabbar al-Fahdawi, one of the senior members of the tribe, had said in that meeting that they received some weapons from the US military but that they were looking for stronger support.
Gaining the support of the Bu-Fahed tribe was a coup for US military forces in the fight against Al Qaeda. The tribe was among the staunchest supporters of Al Qaeda in Anbar.
Sheikh Rafai said that some of the tribal leaders killed in the Mansour blast had met with Maliki the night before to demand more support and a more active role for them in the province following their efforts to reduce the influence of Al Qaeda and regain the provincial capital, Ramadi, from its grip. Ramadi was declared in October as the capital of the Islamic state of Iraq but is now controlled by US and Iraqi forces.
"The support of the government has been weak and not at the level desired," he said in an interview Monday after the bombing.
He said it was unlikely that someone from within the tribe targeted the gathering and hinted that it might have been motivated by sectarian rivalries and carried out by militant Shiite parties that were not happy to see Sunni tribes gaining assertiveness and power.
"There are parties that do not care about the national interest. This attack will only increase our resolve and determination," he said.
Fierce debates have erupted over the wisdom of the US arming tribes and creating a "militia," as the government and the US were hoping to re-create the success in Anbar elsewhere.
This prompted Maliki to issue a statement on Friday to clarify his position. "The government does not fear the arming of the tribes, but it fears chaos and lack of discipline and the emergence of new militias. Everything must be done under the auspices of Iraqi sovereignty and government supervision and within a national context."