Sunni Sheiks Join Iraqi Police to Fight Al Qaida
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
American forces in Iraq's volatile Anbar province have a new ally, Sunni tribal sheikhs. Angered by the brutal attacks by al-Qaida, these traditional leaders are now ordering their men to join the Iraqi security forces. And as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, they're the driving force behind a new armed group.
(Soundbite of men talking)
TOM BOWMAN: It's payday for the Iraqi second battalion, a sergeant calls the roll.
(Soundbite of roll call)
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)
BOWMAN: A long line snakes through this dusty camp, just north of Ramadi, the provincial capital - toward a crumbling brick building were stacks of dinars sit on a desk.
Unidentified Man #2: (speaking foreign language)
BOWMAN: They are young and old. Some wear Western-style knit caps, others, Arab headscarves. They are in mismatched uniforms - camouflage army shirts, blue jogging pants. They only have two things in common, they are all Sunni and they carry the AK-47 assault rifle.
This is the new emergency response unit, 750 strong. As many as eight of this units are created to patrol Anbar province. The commanding officer is Colonel Dawud Ibrahim(ph), a one-time army officer and farmer, he is a lean man in a worn leather jacket. They are all here because of orders from their tribal leaders.
Colonel DAWUD IBRAHIM (Commanding officer, Emergency Response Unit, Iraq): (Through translator) Yes. It's mostly true - that it was the sheikhs who called for the formation of these battalions.
BOWMAN: Many of the sheikhs once worked with al-Qaida militants, or at least tolerated their presence. But when some sheikhs tentatively reached out to the Americans, al-Qaida's reaction was swift and deadly. Sheikhs were murdered; even their children were targeted - beheaded and delivered to the family doorstep.
Sheikh AHMED ABU RISHA (Sunni Tribal Leader): (Through translator) And they are assassinated a lot of the sheikhs at that time.
BOWMAN: Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha and his family, live in Ramadi and lead the Abu Risha tribe.
Sheikh ABU RISHA: (Through translator) They killed my father and they killed three of my brothers. And they killed 14 other sheikhs from different tribes.
BOWMAN: Al-Qaida also hurt the sheikhs financially, muscling into their oil-smuggling operations. Finally, these Sunni tribal leaders had enough. Some two dozen sheikhs banded together late last year, in what they called the awakening. They signed a document pledging to destroy al-Qaida, and they said any attack by al-Qaida on the Americans was considered an attack on the tribes.
Sheikh ABU RISHA: (Through translator) The insurgents had the upper hand in al-Anbar. And we decided to that we must put our hands together and fight, defeat these criminals.
BOWMAN: But al-Qaida militants are not the only ones fighting U.S. troops here, insurgent attacks continue with grim results. Since the beginning of February, at least 16 American troops have died in combat in Anbar province.
(Soundbite of men talking)
Another of the tribal leaders is Sheikh Awad Ali Hussein(ph), of the Abu Theeb tribe. Spread through the rural Jazeera area just north of the city, he sits in his living room and gestures toward family photographs on the walls.
Sheikh AWAD ALI HUSSEIN (Sunni Tribal Leader): (Through translator) Two of my brothers have been killed. We wanted to wage a war against terrorism in the Jazeera area.
BOWMAN: He is among those ordering his family and members of his tribe to join the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police, known widely as the IA and IP.
Sheikh HUSSEIN: (Through translator) Of my family, we have 32 volunteers, IA, IP. Three of my children who have graduated from college - they work as IPs.
BOWMAN: That effort has led to a surge in recruitment, especially for the Iraqi police. There were about 100 police at Ramadi last year, now there are around 4,000. The Iraqi police and these new emergency response units bring what Americans don't have, a detailed knowledge of the people. They can pinpoint the Anbar citizens fighting the Americans; they can pick out a foreign fighter.
Hussein and Abu Risha say their alliance with the Americans has crippled al-Qaida in Anbar province. Many have been killed or captured, others scattered.
Sheik HUSSEIN: (Through translator) And we think there is nothing left but 30 percent of them in al-Anbar. And it's only in few little areas.
BOWMAN: That may be optimistic. Cities like Alkaim near the Syrian border have seen a marked decrease in attacks; even sections of Ramadi, a city once synonymous with violence are slowly turning around. But other cities in the province are still plagued with attacks - Heet, to the west, and Haditha, to the north. Fallujah to the east has seen an increase in violence and intimidation.
Senior American officer say the partnership with the tribes is significant. They hope it will allow them to finally defeat al-Qaida after several years of bloody stalemate. Lieutenant General Ray Odierno is a day-to-day ground commander in Iraq.
Lieutenant General RAY ODIERNO (U.S. Army): What's happening is - is over the last several months, I would say 70 percent of the tribes have started working in a very robust way with the Marine Corps out here in the west. And what that has been able us to do is join together with the populous of al-Anbar, to fight against the al-Qaida - the al-Qaida insurgents here.
BOWMAN: Odierno and other officers say the sheikhs' armed support will allow the Americans to shift their forces, focusing on the insurgent supply lines coming in from Syria or training camps in the more remote desert areas. Still, some American officers are privately wary of the mercurial sheikhs. They worry about the growing power of the Sunni sheikhs within the police force, that could lead to more friction with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
Abu Risha and the other sheikhs have little confidence in Baghdad. They complain the capital does not send the necessary reconstruction money; the government has not set a date for provincial elections; and, Abu Risha says, the real security problem in the country rest with the Shiite militias, not the Sunni insurgency.
Sheikh ABU RISHA: (Through translator) As long as the militias are out there, I think there will never be any conciliation.
BOWMAN: Major General Rick Zilmer just stepped down as the top Marine commander in Anbar. He has heard the concerns about the sheikhs becoming a shadowy military force. He says the new emergency units will answer to Iraq's interior ministry, which is in charge of all police forces in the country.
Major General RICK ZILMER (Former Commander, U.S. Marines): Any sort of organization potentially runs that risk, if it's not held in check. But again, this is an organization that has vowed its loyalty to the government of Iraq.
BOWMAN: Colonel Ibrahim, the commander of the emergency response unit, brushes aside a question about sectarian tensions. He works closely with the Iraqi army, largely a Shiite organization.
Colonel IBRAHIM: (Through translator) We have no problems with them. And the fact that we meet with them in conferences, as you see, shows that we have no problems with them. Our purpose is one: we are military.
BOWMAN: The colonel then leads his men on a patrol, passed children tending sheep and toward a main highway leading to Jordan. He says they have captured some two dozen al-Qaida members since the beginning of the year, some of them along this main roadway.
The patrol heads back to camp, where 19-year-old Ibrahim Mohammed Abraham(ph) waits for his pay.
Mr. IBRAHIM MOHAMMED ABRAHAM (Iraqi soldier): (Through translator) I've joined to protect my people and my tribe.
BOWMAN: Abraham was a student at a teacher's college. He recalls being approached by Islamic radicals encouraging him and his friends to join their fight.
Mr. ABRAHAM: (Through translator) They used to come us and speak of religion. And they come to us.
BOWMAN: As he talks, a mortar explodes just outside their camp.
(Soundbite of shouting)
Mr. ABRAHAM: We've just heard a mortar in the neighborhood exploded, and they are asking their men to disperse.
BOWMAN: The men scatter for cover. Payday for this new unit will have to wait.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Ramadi.
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