Michael Totten

Now They Have Turned to the Tribes

Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha, leader of the Iraq’s Anbar Salvation Council before he was murdered by a car bomb in front of his house in late 2007, summed up the Anbar Awakening movement in a few concise sentences to Johns Hopkins University Professor Fouad Ajami. “Our American friends had not understood us when they came,” he said. “They were proud, stubborn people and so were we. They worked with the opportunists, now they have turned to the tribes, and this is as it should be. The tribes hate religious parties and religious fakers.” The tribal system in Anbar Province is ancient. Attempts to overthrow it are not wise. Both Americans and Al Qaeda learned that the hard way.
Marine Captain Quintin Jones, commanding officer at Outpost Delta in the city of Karmah, told me he works with tribal authorities as well as the mayor every day and can’t get much done if he doesn’t.
Captain Jones and Mayor of Karmah.jpg
Captain Quintin Jones and Mayor Abu Abdullah
MJT: So what kinds of things do you do with Sheikh Mishan and the mayor?
Captain Jones: I do everything with them. My battlespace is pretty big. We deal with the security issues. We get out to the surrounding areas. Karmah is Jamaeli-centric. The whole Jamaeli tribe covers Karmah, but we’ve got these others smaller tribes around. So we try to get the mayor out to see these other smaller villages around Karmah. That way people don’t think everything in Karmah is all about the Jamaeli tribe. So we go out there. They need contracts in their areas to fix things like schools, businesses, stuff like that. That’s generally what we do. We eat dinner together. We eat lunch together. And pretty much the same thing with Sheikh Mishan, but on the tribal level. Everything has to run through the head sheikh, and he’s the head sheikh over all this area.
MJT: So who has more power? The sheikh or the mayor?
Captain Jones: The sheikh. Al Anbar is really tribal in everything that it does. Although they’ve had a city council in the past, a mayor in the past, a lot of the people in the city want to go to the rule of law through tribal law. Making that transition is really tough. It’s a delicate line that we have to walk.
MJT: How compatible is tribal law with a democratic system? Are they merging the two systems, or basically still using the old-world authoritarian model?
Captain Jones: The way to approach it is, there is still a need for the tribal way of life, but we’re trying to make it more democratic at the same time. They’re parallel. The true part is run by the democratic process. If you look at countries like Bahrain or Dubai — the UAE — they still have a strong tribal base, but they’re somewhat democratic in their governance and the way they approach things. You can’t move forward or progress as a country if you’re stuck in the tribal way of life.
MJT: Right. But how do they merge them? I mean, nobody elected Sheikh Mishan.
Captain Jones: No. It’s just passed down through generations.
MJT: So are some of the people below him elected democratically? Like the mayor. Was he elected, or was he appointed?
Captain Jones: A little bit of both. [Laughs.] They’re going to hold elections. Once they hold elections, they will vote in an actual mayor and an actual city council. But because the sheikh is the biggest guy in the area, it defaults back to him if there’s a dispute. They’ll go to him and he’ll try to resolve the issue.
MJT: Do you get the sense that this is the way the average person here wants it to be? Or is that just the way it is?
Captain Jones: It’s just the way it is. They don’t know what they don’t know. If you’ve never been introduced to a democratic way of life, then you don’t know it exists. You don’t know that there is another way. So it’s an education process.
MJT: Did this tribal system exist when Saddam Hussein was in charge?
Captain Jones: Yes. The sheikhs existed. They were just really suppressed by Saddam. They relegated themselves to tribal disputes and marriages.
MJT: So they were not a part of the state?
Captain Jones: That I can’t answer.
MJT: How well do you get along with these guys?
Captain Jones: Pretty good. At this stage, if you want to succeed, it’s all about personality. You have to have the personality to be able to go out and immerse yourself in this culture every day and understand, try to understand, what’s going on. You’ll never fully understand what’s going on. For me it’s a little easier. I’ve traveled a lot in my lifetime. My wife is European. She’s from Italy. English is her second language. I helped her learn to speak English. So understanding a culture without a language, I’ve done it.
Last year I was on a military training team where I lived with Iraqis. This is basically my third shot at dealing with different cultures.
MJT: This training with Iraqis was in the States?
Captain Jones: No, it was here in Iraq. I was in an embedded training team with the Iraqi Army last year. But now I’m dealing more with governance than with tactics.
MJT: Have you been anywhere else in Iraq aside from that training?
Captain Jones: I was in Baghdad in ’03.
MJT: How was that?
Captain Jones: In ’03 it was totally different. I didn’t deal with any Iraqis. I did site security assessments. Then I did security at the CPA building for Ambassador Bremer with a team of Marines I had. Last year I was in Haditha.
MJT: How is Karmah now compared with Haditha then?
Captain Jones: Every day Marines were getting hurt and sometimes killed.
MJT: By local insurgents?
Captain Jones: Locals insurgents. Al Qaeda in Iraq. Whoever.
MJT: The locals here and in Fallujah talk about the insurgents as though the insurgents are…not them. Like they are all from somewhere else. I know some of them are from somewhere else. Some aren’t from Iraq at all. But a lot of them had to be local, right? At least they were protected by some of the local people.
Captain Jones: You have to understand that everything is tribal. So when the sheikhs came on board with the coalition, whatever the sheikh says to do, that’s what they are going to do. The sheikhs said hey, we’re not fighting the coalition anymore. They’re helping us push out Al Qaeda. Some of these Al Qaeda guys were from here. And they have families that are still here. We work with them. Your brother, for example, might be Al Qaeda but you could be with the coalition. You may not want that way of life. I can’t detain just someone because his brother is Al Qaeda.
MJT: When you get a situation like this where one brother is with you and the other is against you, will the one who is with you inform on his brother?
Captain Jones: It just depends. It is truly a case by case basis. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes he’ll inform on his brother, but when you detain the brother he’ll come back and say hey, he’s a really good guy. Why did you detain him? That’s his way of denying that he had anything to do with it. So you have those cases as well.
MJT: Did Sheikh Mishan switch sides?
Captain Jones: No. He has been pro-coalition from the beginning. He lost a couple of his sons. He lost one of his daughters back in September.
MJT: What happened?
Captain Jones: She was killed in a mortar attack.
MJT: A mortar attack on his house?
Captain Jones: Yeah. When we first came in, in late August, there was an area out to the east that was all bad guy country. We hadn’t cleared it out yet. So in this area there were pockets where they would launch mortars. They hit Sheikh Mishan’s house because they knew he was pro-coalition. So they shot mortars at his house and killed one of his daughters. Prior to that, a couple of his sons got killed and he fled to Syria. He stayed there until General Allen convinced him to come back and lead his tribe.
MJT: And when was this?
Captain Jones: I think it was in July of this year. I think it was July 5.
MJT: So what happened to his sons, exactly?
Captain Jones: Al Qaeda stormed the house. Or in gun battles outside the house. More of the usual.
MJT: Have you ever met anyone who you know has switched sides? I’m sure we have both met some of these people, but have you met anyone who has admitted it?
Captain Jones: Yep. There are some guys that were bad who we work with now. They say they got tired of that life, that they didn’t have the right ideals. They were really all about power and money rather than pushing us out. They want safety and security now. There was also some reconciliation with some of the insurgents who decided to put down their guns. They didn’t want to fight the coalition any more. We walked them back to the other side. The sheikhs had to vouch for these guys. They said these are not going to pick up arms against you again.
MJT: Do you believe that?
Captain Jones: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. [Laughs.] It’s a case by case basis again. Some of these guys have done a lot of good things. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Some of them do revert back to their old ways. I don’t mean they’ve started fighting us again. I mean…if they tortured people before and have switched sides now we have to say Hey, we don’t torture people. You detain them and turn them in and let the professionals question them. It has been an ongoing process with some of these guys. We’re training them in the laws of war, rules of engagement, and so forth. Sometimes it’s a hard concept for them to grasp, and other times they get it, they understand it.
MJT: How’s the Baath Party doing these days?
Captain Jones: That I don’t know. That I’m trying to figure out myself.
MJT: This is Baath country. Or at least it was. I don’t know if it is anymore.
Captain Jones: Right. I’m still trying to figure some of this out. A lot of the guys in this area say they are nationalists and want a greater Iraq. They don’t necessarily support this ideal or that ideal. They just want the unification of Iraq. That’s it.
MJT: Do you have any Shias here?
Captain Jones: No. They’re all Sunnis.
MJT: And all Arabs. No Kurds.
Captain Jones: No Kurds. Not in my area.
MJT: What’s the most important thing you still need to do while you’re here, before you can leave, if you can only pick one?
Captain Jones: [Long pause.]
MJT: Or how about the top three things, if coming up with only one is hard.
Captain Jones: We’d like to kick start the government and the economy. That has been the big focus for me outside of security, which is obvious. Of course I need to make sure they have security, and that their security isn’t porous. We can’t have people infiltrating back in.
Now, there are always going to be some insurgents around because we don’t know who they are. Only the Iraqis know who they are. So we need to keep the security maintained and set up a system where the government and economy are starting to push back in. I only have a few months left. There is no way I can achieve that in the seven month period we’re given, let alone a three month period. So we’re trying to set the stage where we have a no-kidding city council with a one- or two-year plan of things they need to achieve. We need to make sure it’s running properly so it can be sustained after the Marines have left. That’s really what I’m trying to work on here.
We need to give people hope in Karmah. The re-opening of the town square, that gave people hope. They saw that the very worst part of Karmah, the part that was constantly getting car bombs and IEDs, where the police station was constantly attacked because the insurgents see the government as a threat, was able to have so many people outside in that one area. Six months ago that never would have happened.
MJT: The Iraqi Army isn’t here, are they?
Captain Jones: They’re north of us. We do have meetings once a week where we coordinate with the Iraqi Police and the Iraqi Army. They’re our neighbors, if you will, and we need to make sure we’re all going in the right direction for the greater area. We do, on occasion, do joint operations. We did a clearing operation out to the east, and the Iraqi Army providing some blocking positions for us as the Iraqi Police pushed up and cleared the area. So we do work with them quite a bit.
MJT: How is the Iraqi Army in this part of the country?
Captain Jones: They’re pretty professional. They have a good battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ali. He’s a pretty good guy by Iraqi standards, compared to the Iraqi battalion I was working with last year. He’s pretty articulate. He understands and can talk tactics. He has basic common sense. And he looks…he’s very professional.
MJT: Are they mostly Shias?
Captain Jones: No, these guys are Sunnis.
MJT: Arabs also?
Captain Jones: Yep. And no Kurds, but that will probably change in a couple of years when they start deploying all over Iraq. Last year in Haditha, the Iraqi Army I worked with was Shia.
MJT: Did they have problems with the [Sunni] locals?
Captain Jones: Sometimes. But down south, in Baghdadi, the Iraqi Army also worked with the Baghdadi Police which is all Sunni. Initially there were some problems because people were saying these guys are thieves, and the others said, no, you’re thieves. Blah blah blah blah blah. We had to squelch a lot of that crap. We said, look, we’re here to get rid of insurgents, not fight each other. So I had to have them take a step back and look at all the things that the other culture had given to the other guys.
The Shia Iraqi Army, when they first went to Baghdadi, they didn’t have anything. But the Sunni Iraqi Police went out and bought them flour, vegetables, and fruit, brought it to them, and gave it to them for free. Here. You’re here to help us. Here you go. So I had to remind them what these guys were doing for them. And in the end we’d always go out on joint patrols. So we had Sunni and Shia going out on joint patrols. That’s a good thing because when you’re going into Sunni neighborhoods with Shias, you have some of their own people working with them. That definitely helped out a lot.
But we don’t have any of that here.
MJT: What’s the relationship like between the local government in Karmah and Baghdad? Or do they even have one?
Captain Jones: Well, they have the government of Al Anbar. They’re the guys who are in contact with Baghdad. What that relationship is like, I have no idea. It doesn’t affect me on my level. My local government ties into Fallujah, and Fallujah ties them into Ramadi.
MJT: Right.
Captain Jones: And that’s what we’re working with.
MJT: Do they have a good relationship with Fallujah?
Captain Jones: They’re starting to have a good relationship with Fallujah. A lot of those lines were severed because of the insurgency, but now they’re opening those lines back up. It’s starting to work a lot better.
MJT: What’s the biggest problem here?
Captain Jones: Probably the connection to Fallujah and Ramadi so they can get Iraqi dinars, rather than American dollars, into the army. That’s their biggest issue. Once they can do that, we can take them off the coalition aid. So our focus is the transition from dollars to dinars.
MJT: Anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask you about? Anything you wish Americans knew about this place and don’t know?
Captain Jones: I wish more Americans knew about the good things Marines are doing at the lower levels. They see a lot of things we’re doing at the general level, but they don’t see what the privates and lance corporals are doing to further this relationship with the Iraqis and help the Iraqi people. We came here in part to liberate the Iraqi people and help the Iraqi people. And truly we have, at the lowest level. As we move away from kinetic warfare, we have those diplomats if you will, the strategic corporals, who is out there every day, helping Iraqis paint their businesses, helping Iraqis open their businesses, helping disabled people out of their own pockets, starting the Adopt a School programs because they can’t get school supplies through the Iraqi chain.
Schools back in the States, through family members, adopt some of these schools and they send school supplies out. Those kinds of things I wish the Americans could see. The actual good things. The progress. I wish Americans could see the number of kids who attached to you today. They were happy, they weren’t throwing rocks at you. They were happy to see you and talk to you. They probably asked you for chocolate, but you know, still, they talk to you. That’s the message. That’s what I want them to know about.
Not all Iraqi people are bad. There are some really truly good people. The fact that they would not let you leave their house today until you ate their food, until you were full, things like that. A lot of people open up their homes when they see that Americans are actually here to help them.
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