Shaky U.S.-Sheikh Alliance Tempers Violence in Iraq Violence in Iraq's al-Anbar province has dropped dramatically, due in large part to friendly relations between coalition forces and local sheikhs who have allied with the U.S. to fight al-Qaida. But as tribal leaders who had fled the country return home, old rivalries are re-emerging.
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Shaky U.S.-Sheikh Alliance Tempers Violence in Iraq

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Shaky U.S.-Sheikh Alliance Tempers Violence in Iraq

Shaky U.S.-Sheikh Alliance Tempers Violence in Iraq

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ANDREA SEABROOK, Host:

And I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Iraq's largest province, al-Anbar, has experienced some of the country's worst violence. But since local tribal leaders started cooperating with U.S. forces to fight al-Qaida, insurgent attacks have dropped.

And now that the province is safer, some tribal leaders who have fled are coming home. They're reigniting old rivalries and threatening the alliance between U.S. forces and the tribes.

NPR's Rachel Martin has this on al-Anbar.

RACHEL MARTIN: In recent years, the Sunni sheikhs of al-Anbar province have had a hard time telling their friends from their enemies. After the Americans overthrew the Saddam regime, many sheikhs viewed the U.S. as an occupation force, and they shouldered up with al-Qaida and other insurgent groups fighting the Americans.

But when it became clear that al-Qaida wanted to impose a radical brand of Islam on the province, many of the sheikhs cut ties with the insurgents. Al- Qaida pushed back, attacking the sheiks and their families. So many, like Sheikh Ali Amer Suleiman whose oldest son was killed by al-Qaida, fled the province.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN SPEAKING)

MARTIN: Now, three years later, Amer has returned home to Ramadi and a new alliance with U.S. forces. Soon after his return, he gets a visit from U.S. Brigadier General John Allen, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Anbar province and the point person for U.S. tribal relations in the region.

Seventy-five-year-old Amer is one of two leaders of the Dulaimi confederation, an umbrella group for roughly 40 major tribes in the province. The last time the two men met was in Jordan over dinner. Today, the sheikh and the general greet each other like old friends.

ALI AMER SULEIMAN: It is good to see you back in Anbar.

JOHN ALLEN: It is my honor to see you again.

MARTIN: Amer is dressed all in white, an Arab headdress and a long tunic that pulls taut across his rather generous midsection. He's a head shorter than the general, who's dressed in full combat gear and escorted by a dozen Marines carrying M4s and M16s. The sheikh has his own entourage, many armed with pistols.

The general and his men take off their flak vests and sit on gold-gilded couches. Amer's two young granddaughters are ushered into the room in a gesture of trust. The Marines offer the girls lollipops, which they accept warily.

It's a complicated scene. But managing this tension between war and peace, friend and foe, is how things get done in Anbar now with this new alliance between U.S. forces and tribal leaders. It's a relationship of convenience. But General Allen says it's crucial.

(SOUNDBITE OF VELCRO RIPPING)

ALLEN: In the counterinsurgency struggle, you can only kill your way so far to victory. We are now past that point.

MARTIN: Last fall, about a dozen tribal leaders here formed a group called the Anbar Salvation Council. And they signed a pact to fight al-Qaida. The sheikhs have recruited thousands of men for the Iraqi police and army and provided intelligence to U.S. officials about al-Qaida. In exchange, the military helps them get water treatment centers and medical clinics and more personal benefits like business contracts.

Again, General Allen.

ALLEN: When a tribal leader commits the sons of his tribe into the police or into the army and he pledges to support the coalition forces in his area, then the relationship becomes very clear and very explicit.

MARTIN: But that relationship has become more complicated recently as the sheikhs jockey for leadership positions within the new U.S. alliance. Allen's visit to Sheikh Amer was meant to be purely social until Amer's nephew, Sheikh Ali Hattem, showed up. The 30-something sheikh had been running tribal affairs while his uncle was in Jordan.

Now that his uncle has returned, the younger man is trying to carve out a role for himself in the tribal confederation. Ali Hattem has questioned the close relationship his uncle and other sheikhs have with the Americans. He complains to General Allen about the coalition-supported chief of police who, he says, doesn't do enough to clamp down on corruption. The general responds.

ALLEN: We had this conversation before, Ali Hattem. And I disagree with you. I think he's doing better all the time. The situation is not perfect with the police but with your help, it can be better, all the time.

MARTIN: Ali Hattem whispers something in his uncle's ear while General Allen talks quietly with his cultural adviser and translator, trying to gauge the younger sheikh's influence.

American officers here say navigating tribal politics is like trying to see through smoke.

JOHN KOENIG: We're just constantly learning new things about these guys and so the question that we go through is who are the players.

MARTIN: Colonel John Koenig is a tribal specialist with the Marines based in Fallujah. He says for a long time the sheikhs were united in a common struggle, first, against the Americans, then against al-Qaida. Security was their dominant concern.

KOENIG: Now we're moving on into a different world and to - you know, the alliances will change and how they participate in the economic recovery is going to influence how some of the alliances lay out.

MARTIN: U.S. commanders in Anbar acknowledge that rebuilding the provincial capital, Ramadi, and other parts of the province will be key to preserving relations with the sheikhs. The U.S. has already pumped $50 million into Anbar in the past year. But some sheikhs, like Sattar Abu Risha, say reconstruction is moving too slowly, and unemployment is still around 60 percent.

SATTAR ABU RISHA: (Through translator) Reconstruction must be a priority. We have many factories that we need to fix so people can work. That way, we can provide everybody with a job. So when a terrorist comes and tries to entice someone with money to plant an IED, he will refuse.

MARTIN: Ramadi is slowly starting to crawl out from the rubble of years of warfare. There is still violence here. Military officials say Iraqi and American forces combined have taken more than 1,000 casualties in the past four months.

But overall, the province is safer. U.S. officials talk about trying to replicate what's happened in Anbar throughout Iraq. But Allen is quick to point out that the relative stability here has less to do with U.S. operations and more to do with the nature of this province.

ALLEN: When your population base is 90 to 98 percent Sunni and it's largely out of one tribal confederation, there is an advantage to that social dynamic, which probably isn't exportable, if you want the term, or can be replicated elsewhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLATES CLATTERING)

MARTIN: After Allen's conversation with the sheikh is over, they sit down to share a meal of spiced lamb and rice. They agreed to talk business again soon. The sheikh wants more guns for his personal security team and more money for reconstruction projects. The sheikh also says he has some information about secret terrorist cells still in Ramadi. It's a delicate relationship of give and take defined by a shared enemy. And for now, both sides say that's enough to hold it together.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Baghdad.

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