Iraqi Tribes in Anbar Team with U.S. Military

In Iraq's Anbar province, Iraqi tribes have teamed up with the U.S. military to fight al-Qaida. The surprising development is being followed closely in neighboring Syria and Jordan, where millions of Iraqis have fled from violence. Jordan is also a refuge for some of Anbar's tribal chiefs.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In Iraq's Anbar province we've been hearing about a surprising development. Iraqi tribes have teamed up with the U.S. military to fight al-Qaida. That development is being followed closely in neighboring Syria and Jordan, where millions of Iraqis have fled to escape the violence.

Jordan is also a refuge for some of Anbar's tribal chiefs, who from exile approve the turn against al-Qaida. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from the Jordanian capital, Amman.

(Soundbite of restaurant)

DEBORAH AMOS: With so many Iraqis in Jordan now, some restaurants serve only Iraqi cuisine. This one, Adamiyah, is named for a Baghdad neighborhood. Talk of home is served up with a meaty kebab and Iraqi-style bread. Hashimal Rekan(ph) from northern Iraq says he is exhausted by the violence he saw up close in Iraq.

Mr. HASHIMAL REKAN (Iraqi National): (Through translator) We are fed up with the news. And it's only about the crime and the killings.

AMOS: Rekan says he mostly watches cartoons instead.

Mr. REKAN: "Tom and Jerry."

(Soundbite of laughter)

AMOS: "Tom and Jerry." But there is one bright spot back home, he says: Anbar province. Rekan follows every detail of the war between the Sunni tribes and al-Qaida. And with the tribes on that, he says...

Mr. REKAN: (Through translator) And I know from the Anbar people who say when things calm down they will return. But still there needs to be more security.

AMOS: The fight has been raging for months with the backing of the U.S. military. Why it started is less clear.

Mr. SALEH AL-MUTLAQ (National Dialogue Front): Al-Qaida went too far, so al-Qaida lost the support of the Sunnis.

AMOS: It is a blood feud, says Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni member of Iraq's parliament.

Mr. AL-MUTLAQ: They targeted some of the very popular people among Al Anbar. They even targeted some of the resistance there. And also they wanted to enforce some of their religious source on the others. And people started to be against them.

AMOS: Others say the breach was over tribal customs. It was very personal. Al-Qaida members insisted tribal allies hand over their daughters and sisters in marriage, but it's a tribal taboo to marry outsiders.

(Soundbite of cell phone ringing)

Sheikh MAJID ABDUL RASAQ SOLIMAN (Dulaimi Tribe): Hello?

AMOS: Sheikh Majid Abdul Rasaq Soliman, one of the leaders of the Dulaimi tribe in Anbar, says he turned against al-Qaida because of the unrelenting violence.

Sheikh MAJID: (Through translator) Because Islam is a religion of love, of forgiveness. And it's not about decapitating heads and blood.

AMOS: Sheikh Majid is a prince of the Dulaimi confederation, a hereditary title which makes him one of the leaders of the largest tribal organizations in Anbar. He carries out his responsibilities now with a cell phone, in constant contact with Anbar province from his villa in the Jordanian capital. Sheikh Madrid fled the Iraq in 2005, he says, after al-Qaida tried to kill him.

Sheikh MAJID: (Through translator) They sent me a guy who was wearing an explosive belt, and he asked who is Sheikh Majid. But with God's help, it did not explode.

AMOS: Sheikh Majid approved the tribal war with al-Qaida and the new alliance with the U.S. military. But his views reflect the central dilemma in the U.S. strategy. The sheikh says he does not support the U.S. occupation or the Iraqi government in Baghdad. He just hates al-Qaida more. He makes it clear his alliance with the Americans is a temporary thing, an alliance of convenience. Anyway, he says, the Americans will eventually go home. His long-term project: To defeat the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, which he believes serves Iran's interest. Sheikh Majid is convinced when the Americans leave, Iran will step in.

Sheikh MAJID: (Through translator) The Iranian occupation will not leave. The Iranian politics should be eliminated because it's like a cancer in the region.

AMOS: Without a political deal in Baghdad, the conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites will only intensify. And Sheikh Majid and the Dulaim tribe will turn on a government they believe threatens Sunni interests, which means loyalties can change quickly, says Moween Rabani(ph), a political analyst in Oman.

Mr. MOWEEN RABANI(ph) (Political Analyst): We need to understand the highly fluid nature of these alliances rather than saying, oh, the Dulaimi are fighting al-Qaida. We finally managed to sow irreparable divisions within the Sunni insurgency.

AMOS: The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is worried and is raising questions about the U.S. alliance with the Sunni tribes, asking why the U.S. military is arming another militia. The Iraqi government is certain if al-Qaida is defeated, it will be the next target.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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