Sheiks' Meetings: Tradition Poses Risks In Iraq

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As part of the effort to restore security in Iraq, the American military has helped to revive an ancient tradition — the sheiks' council meeting. But those meetings have also become flashpoints for power struggles among the leaders. At least seven Americans have been killed recently in attacks at council meetings.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Sitting in for Steve Inskeep, I'm Ari Shapiro.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Iraq, two recent suicide bombings shattered gatherings aimed at bringing Iraqis together, one at a meeting of tribal sheiks last week in al-Anbar Province; the other at a council office in Baghdad's Sadr City. Both Iraqis and Americans were killed. The Americans were at these gatherings to nudge along the process of governance and to help arbitrate power struggles.

NPR's Corey Flintoff attended one sheik's council meeting for this report.

COREY FLINTOFF: Sheik Sallah Mahmoud Mohammad(ph) is in an ebullient mood. His son has been released from prison after being held on suspicion of insurgent activity, and his neighborhood has a few extra hours of electricity. He beams across a smoky, crowded room at the American Army captain who's his counterpart.

Sheik SALLAH MAHMOUD MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) At the beginning of this meeting, I want to thank Captain Diokie(ph) for his help in getting more electricity for our neighborhood.

FLINTOFF: Sheik Sallah is an almost cinematic version of an Arab tribal leader: dressed in a white robe and headdress, presiding over the council meeting from behind his wide desk. In his business life, he's a car dealer. Captain Parsana Diokie(ph) is a dark, compact soldier who keeps his attention on the key players in the room as his interpreter speaks into his ear.

Mr. PARSANA DIOKIE (Captain): The purpose of the of the sheik's council is basically an outlet for the sheiks who represent the people to basically air their issues with the coalition forces. Actually, this meeting went pretty well, considering. Normally it's filled with complaints about power but in the last few weeks, we've actually made great steps in that.

FLINTOFF: Electric power has been an especially sore issue in this neighborhood. It sits in the shadow of Baghdad's major power plant but residents, like most other people in the city, received electricity for only about two hours a day. Captain Diokie's unit from the Army's 10th Mountain Division helped get a transformer installed that can bring the neighborhood power for as much as eight hours a day.

The only time this meeting got heated was when it came to a dispute over the leadership of the local Sons of Iraq unit.

Mr. MOHAMMED GURKAN(ph) (Sons of Iraq): (Through translator) I was threatened by al-Qaida because I helped the Americans. I fought the terrorists, so why are you replacing me?

FLINTOFF: Mohammed Gurkan, known to the Americans by his nickname, Steve, has just learned that he is being replaced as the head of the SOI, the Sons of Iraq, a Sunni guard group that's been funded and trained by the Americans. Captain Diokie says it wasn't an easy decision because Steve was among the first to turn against al-Qaida, known as AQI.

Mr. DIOKIE: When the SOI first set up, Steve was the guy who was there, said, hey, my family is all AQI. I'm not into that. Someone came over to my house, attacked me. They were AQI. I think it's time to stand up to AQI. So we said, sure, we'll support you on it.

FLINTOFF: Steve continues to protest that he worked with the Americans when the security situation was bad.

Mr. GURKAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: That he risked his life while others, meaning the men who will replace him, merely sat by.

Mr. GURKAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Captain Diokie says Iraqi police and Army leaders don't fully trust Steve because he doesn't have a background as a military officer.

Mr. DIOKIE: He's an excellent officer; he knows what he's doing, but in terms of making one of their constituents happy, I have to tell him to, you know, take a back seat and let this guy, you know, take the reins. You're still in the SOI, you still have a job, you're still able to control these guys, but we're making everybody happy this way.

FLINTOFF: After a lot of discussion, the sheiks and officials in the room accept the decision. But it's still more complicated and risky than a simple personnel change. The disgruntled employee has armed followers in a neighborhood that only recently was shaken by daily violence. Command of the Sons of Iraq unit means prestige, power and the control of much-needed jobs.

It's a loss that's not easy for Steve to accept. Still, Sheik Sallah ends the meeting as he began it, with a thank you for Captain Diokie's help, something the captain says has never happened before. He says it's a big change from when he first took the job of dealing with local leaders.

Mr. DIOKIE: I can actually shake their hands without cringing, like, it's going to be another one of those two-hour meetings where I'm going to just sit back and, you know, get blasted. It's actually gotten to the point where it's pleasurable to sit there and speak to him and know that the major issues are getting taken care of and now it's just the minor things are popping up.

FLINTOFF: The meeting is just one of many that Captain Diokie will attend in the week, with tribal leaders, local government officials, Iraqi national police and the Sons of Iraq. And it's part of the careful balancing act that's needed to keep the peace in the neighborhood.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.

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