Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Al-Anbar's tribes fight alongside Americans to drive out al-Qaeda

Security, Tribes
A power struggle is taking place in the Sunni triangle, with tribal leaders and coalition forces aligning against a common enemy Sheikh Abd Sittar Bezea Ftikhan, a Sunni tribal leader on whose unlikely shoulders rest American hopes of reclaiming Ramadi and defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq. Ramadi, a city of 400,000 inhabitants that al-Qaeda and its Iraqi allies have controlled since mid-2004 and would like to make the capital of their cherished Islamic caliphate.
A power struggle has erupted: al-Qaeda’s reign of terror is being challenged. Sheikh Sittar and many of his fellow tribal leaders have cast their lot with the once-reviled US military. They are persuading hundreds of their followers to sign up for the previously defunct Iraqi police. American troops are moving into a city that was, until recently, a virtual no-go area. A battle is raging for the allegiance of Ramadi’s battered and terrified citizens and the outcome could have far-reaching consequences.
Ramadi has been the insurgency’s stronghold for the past two years. It is the conduit for weapons and foreign fighters arriving from Syria and Saudi Arabia. To reclaim it would deal a severe blow to the insurgency throughout the Sunni triangle and counter mounting criticism of the war back in America. It’s very hostile,” said First Lieutenant Matthew McGraw, the US platoon leader. “We get attacked every day.” But not all the fighting is between al-Qaeda and US or Iraqi troops. There are many factions battling for control in Ramadi — al-Qaeda, hardline nationalists, Islamic radicals, former Baathists and the tribal leaders — and that is the background to Sheikh Sittar’s unlikely alliance with the Americans. As one US officer put it, the sheikhs are only “pro-American in the sense that they are fighting the same enemy”.
As al-Qaeda’s fighters tightened their grip on Ramadi, they became increasingly repressive and challenged the tribal leaders’ power. Soon they were kidnapping and beheading innocent people as part of a campaign of extortion and intimidation. During the late summer he began enlisting his fellow sheikhs in a movement called the Sahawat or Awakening, whose goal is to drive al-Qaeda from Anbar province. The US military wooed the sheikhs and agreed that their chosen instrument should be the police force, which was practically defunct thanks to al-Qaeda death threats against anyone who dared to sign up. In June there were only 35 recruits; in July Sheikh Sittar sent 300 members of his 30,000-strong Resha tribe for training.
Last month a record 409 new recruits were dispatched to the police academy in Jordan, and 1,300 are now signed up, many of them former Baathists. The US and Iraqi armies have armed and protected them against al-Qaeda attacks, and as fear of al-Qaeda has dissipated, so the process has accelerated. The beauty of the police is that they serve — unlike the Iraqi army — in their own communities. They know exactly who the enemies are.
Inside the heavily fortified Abu Faraj police station, just north of Ramadi, the recruits all said that they had been too frightened to join before. Colonel MacFarland, who arrived in Ramadi fresh from pacifying the much smaller town of Tall’Afar near the Syrian border, has abandoned his predecessor’s policy of merely surrounding the city. He has instead adopted an aggressive “inkblot” strategy of seizing and securing key points within it then radiating outwards. Helped by the flood of new recruits he has already established a chain of 19 COPs and police stations designed to curtail the terrorists’ freedom of movement within Ramadi. Previously, he said, the US military “controlled” just one road into the city and had to fight its way up and down that.
Colonel MacFarland and his officers say that they are already seeing dividends. They claim to have killed 750 terrorists since June, that the number of foreign fighters has fallen from more than 1,000 to the “low hundreds” and that US and Iraqi forces now control 70 per cent of the city. They recently found the graves of 200 foreign fighters in a former park. When they recaptured Ramadi’s general hospital they found it occupied by only four wounded insurgents.
They say that the number of attacks has fallen from 20 to 15 a day, that the number of IEDs has fallen from about ten a day to three and that al-Qaeda can no longer stage mass attacks on Iraqi police or army posts. The US installed a mayor last week whose brief is to get Ramadi’s administration back up and running. Colonel MacFarland estimates that 70 per cent of Ramadi’s population now openly backs the security forces, and says that his priority is to get the telephones working so that people can provide tips about weapons caches without fear of reprisals.
There is no way of corroborating such claims in a city that is still so dangerous and inaccessible. There is no guarantee that the new police force will not eventually disintegrate into armed militias loyal to the sheikhs. But for once the insurgents are bleating. Harith al-Dhari, head of the hardline Muslim Scholars Association, denounced Sheikh Sittar’s tribal leaders last week as “thieves and hijackers” fighting the “honourable resistance”.

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