Sunni sheiks join in fight against insurgency
RAMADI, Iraq ” Not long ago it would have been unthinkable: a Sunni sheik allying himself publicly with American forces in a xenophobic city at the epicenter of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency.
Today, there is no mistaking whose side Sheik Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi is on. Outside his walled home, a U.S. tank is on permanent guard beside a clutch of towering date palms and a protective dirt berm.
The 36-year-old sheik is leading a growing movement of Sunni tribesmen who have turned against al-Qaida-linked insurgents in Anbar province. The dramatic shift in alliances may have done more in a few months to ease daily street battles and undercut the insurgency here than American forces have achieved in years with arms.
The American commander responsible for Ramadi, Col. John W. Charlton, said the newly friendly sheiks, combined with an aggressive counterinsurgency strategy and the presence of thousands of new Sunni police on the streets, have helped cut attacks in the city by half in recent months.
In November 2005, American commanders held a breakthrough meeting with top Sunni chiefs in Ramadi, hoping to lure them away from the insurgents’ fold. The sheiks responded positively, promising cooperation and men for a police force that was then virtually nonexistent.
But in January 2006 a suicide bomber attacked a police recruiting drive, killing 70 people. Insurgents killed at least four sheiks for cooperating with the Americans, and many others fled.
The killings left the effort in limbo, until a turning point; insurgents killed a prominent sheik last year and refused to let family members bury the body for four days, enraging Sunni tribesmen, said U.S. Lt. Col. Miciotto Johnson, who heads the 1st Battalion, 77th Armored Regiment and visits al-Rishawi frequently in western Ramadi.
Al-Rishawi, whose father and three brothers were killed by al-Qaida assassins, said insurgents were “killing innocent people, anyone suspected of opposing them. They brought us nothing but destruction and we finally said, enough is enough.”
Al-Rishawi founded the Anbar Salvation Council in September with dozens of Sunni tribes. Many of the new newly friendly leaders are believed to have at least tacitly supported the insurgency in the past, though al-Rishawi said he never did.
“I was always against these terrorists,” al-Rishawi said in an interview inside his American-guarded compound, adjusting a pistol holstered around his waist. “They brainwashed people into thinking Americans were against them. They said foreigners wanted to occupy our land and destroy our mosques. They told us, ‘We’ll wage a jihad. We’ll help you defeat them.”‘
The difficult part was convincing others it wasn’t true, and that “building an alliance with the Americans was the only solution,” al-Rishawi said.
His movement, also known as the Anbar Awakening, now counts 41 tribes or sub-tribes from Anbar, though al-Rishawi acknowledges that some groups in the province have yet to join. It’s unclear how many that is, or much support the movement really has.
And there is opposition. In November, a top Sunni leader who heads the Association of Muslim Scholars, Sheik Harith al-Dhari, described al-Rishawi’s movement as “thieves and bandits.” And for at least a year, U.S. forces have also witnessed sporadic firefights between Sunni militias and insurgents in Ramadi, reflecting the growing split among Sunnis. They used to describe such skirmishes as “red on red” fighting ” battles between enemies. Now they call it “red on green.”
But violence in some districts of Ramadi previously hit by daily street battles has dwindled to a degree so low that American soldiers can walk on the streets in some areas and hand out soccer balls without provoking a firefight ” apparently a direct result of the sheik’s influence.
U.S. Lt. Nathan Strickland, also of the 1-77th, said the sheiks were influenced by the realization that Shiite Iran’s regional influence was rising, and “the presence of (Sunni) foreign fighters here was disrupting the traditional local tribal structure.”
Al-Rishawi and other sheiks urged their tribesmen to join the police force, and 4,500 Sunnis heeded the call in Ramadi alone ” a remarkable feat in a city that had almost no police a year ago.
Local Sunnis have deeply resented the overwhelmingly Shiite Iraqi army units the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has deployed here. Sunni tribes have begun to realize that if anybody is going to secure the city, it might as well be the sons of Ramadi, Strickland said.
Also pouring through the streets in police trucks fixed with heavy machine-guns are 2,500 Sunni tribesmen who have joined newly created SWAT team-like paramilitary units. Paid by the Interior Ministry with the blessing of U.S. commanders, the so-called Emergency Response Units are clearly loyal to local sheiks. Some wear track suits and face-covering red-checkered headscarves ” looking startlingly like insurgent fighters. Others wear crisp green camouflage uniforms bought by al-Rishawi.
The ERU members were screened and sent either on 45-day police training courses in Jordan or seven-day courses at a military base in Ramadi ” part of an effort to capitalize on the Awakening movement and make use of them as quickly as possible.
“I’d say 20 percent of the credit for the change in Ramadi could be taken by U.S. forces,” said Strickland. “The vast majority of the turnaround is due to the sheiks.”
Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made his first trip to Anbar province this month, meeting al-Rishawi and saying he applauded Sunni tribes and clans that had “risen up and countered terrorism.”
Still, al-Rishawi complained the Interior Ministry had given police and ERU units “one-tenth” of the resources they needed ” from equipment to guns to food, despite promises to do more. Some of the fighters use automatic weapons they brought from home.
“If I had the tools, I could wipe al-Qaida from Anbar within five months,” al-Rishawi said.
Strickland said the government was probably “hesitant to strengthen and supply something that might become a popular Sunni movement.”
The message has taken longer to spread to eastern Ramadi, but it’s getting through there, too, said Maj. Dave Christensen of the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment.
The base he works from used to be hit daily by mortar attacks, prompting outgoing barrages targeting launch sites that inadvertently damaged buildings, killed cattle, and alienated locals. The sheik responsible for the neighborhood where the attacks originated began cooperating with Americans a few months ago, prompting insurgents to attack and burn down his house.
“He fought back, then called and said, ‘Hey, I’ve been helping you, now I could use your help,”‘ Christensen said.
U.S. forces moved into the now relatively quiet area, and Christensen’s base has seen only a handful of mortar strikes since.