The U.S. policy of paying Sunni Arab sheikhs for their allegiance could be risky.
TIKRIT — Inside a stately guesthouse on the grounds of Saddam Hussein’s palace in Tikrit on the banks of the Tigris, sheikh Sabah al-Hassani jokes that the initials “SH” of the former dictator etched on the walls are his.
“I have a weakness for Cuban cigars, French cologne, and Spanish-made loafers,” he says with a wide grin.
Since June, Mr. Hassani, who claims to be one of the princes of the legendary Shammar tribe, which numbers nearly 7 million across the Arab world, says he has received at least $100,000 in cash and numerous perks from the U.S. military and the Iraqi government.
With his help, at least $1 million has also been distributed to other tribal sheikhs who have joined his Salahaddin Province “support council,” according to U.S. officers. Together, they have assembled an armed force of about 3,000 tribesmen dubbed the “sahwa [awakening] folks.”
All of these enticements serve one goal: To rally Sunni tribes and their multitude of followers to support coalition forces.
The payments are a drop in the bucket given the billions spent annually in Iraq by the United States. And paying tribes to keep the peace is nothing new. It was one of Mr. Hussein’s tools in his selective patronage system designed to weaken and control all institutions outside his Baath party. The British also tried it when they ruled Iraq last century.
But the strategy is fraught with risks, including the serious potential for wars among the tribes themselves and the creation of militias in die-hard Sunni Arab lands where many continue to question the legitimacy and authority of the Shi’a-led central government in Baghdad.
“[The US military] threw money at [the sheiks],” says Col. David Hsu, who heads a team advising Iraq’s armed forces in Salahaddin, Saddam’s home province. He shows recent digital photographs he captured of smiling sheikhs holding bundles of cash as they posed with U.S.military officers. “You are basically paying civilians to turn in terrorists. Money was an expedient way to try to get results.”
U.S. military officers on the ground say there is tremendous pressure from high above to replicate the successes of the so-called “awakening” against Al Qaeda in the western Anbar Province. The drive reached its apex in the run-up to the September testimonies to Congress by the top U.S. military commander and diplomat in Iraq, U.S. officers say.
“In order to turn the intent of [Lt.] Gen. [Raymond] Odierno for reconciliation into action, the coalition forces on the ground basically started recruiting leaders to try to turn other civilians against the insurgents,” says Colonel Hsu, a native of Hawaii. General Odierno is the No. 2 commander of US forces in Iraq.
And the push seems to have paid off. Both the number of explosions and U.S. military fatalities in October dropped to almost half their September levels in the Multinational Division-North area, which comprises Diyala, Salahaddin, Tamim (Kirkuk), and Ninevah Provinces, according to military figures.
A senior official in the Shi’a coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki defends the wisdom of partnering with Sunni Arab tribes. Humam Hamoudi, a member of parliament from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council party, says the tribes may ultimately make better political allies than the Sunni political bloc that quit the government in June and has boycotted it since July.
But, he warns, Baghdad has to have more oversight over the tribal outreach project, otherwise the Sunni Arab tribes could turn against the government once the American presence diminishes.
“They need to have dialogue with the government,” says Mr. Hamoudi of the tribes. “If their connection remains only to the Americans, then they are a time bomb. In the future they may become enemies of the democratic project.”
Maj. Gen. Abdul-Jabbar Rabie, who was once a commander in the Saddam-era Army and now heads a brigade of the new Army in Salahaddin, shares that view. Hassani’s men lack discipline and loyalty, he says, and could soon become a militia.
“They can spin out of control. They may be double agents and deal with both sides,” says General Rabie.
Based on intelligence provided by Hassani, Rabie says he led a force of Iraqi soldiers and policemen on Oct. 30 to arrest alleged Al Qaeda cell leaders and free hostages at a “kidnap colony” in the province’s remote Hamreen mountains. When they arrived, they discovered that most of the men had been tipped off about the operation.
Hsu, the U.S. officer, says that while Hassani’s role in that operation was positive, he may be tempted to “do whatever to continue the flow of money.”
He recounts how in early October Hassani rushed on a whim to the scene of an Iraqi Army-led operation west of the volatile city of Samarra “to try to claim some credit” only to be hit by a roadside bomb that killed two other sheikhs who were accompanying him.
An Iraqi-born sociologist and expert on tribes says the U.S. strategy has a good chance of succeeding if the military learns from its own lessons and chooses credible tribal figures able to reach out not only to their constituencies but to other tribes, technocrats, former regime military and intelligence brass, and businessmen — what he calls the four main components of Sunni Arab society.
“It depends on the quality of the tribal leaders. Some lack connections, resources, and credibility,” says Faleh Jabar, director of the Beirut-based Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies. “If the Americans do not understand that then they will always be in trouble.”
Rumors are swirling that Hassani isn’t even a real prince, says Hsu. If the U.S. cultivates a perception that it is funding hucksters, other sheikhs may doubt the “awakening” program’s credibility.
On the ground in Salahaddin, a province of 1.3 million of whom nearly 90 percent at one point were once Baathists, attitudes toward the new order and the shifting alliances are complex.
For example, Hassani’s archenemy, deputy governor Abdullah Jabara, who was a senior Baathist and hails from the rival Jubour tribe, tried to have the sheikh arrested last month.
For his part, Hassani praises the U.S. support and says he’s gotten only “empty promises” from Baghdad. He says if U.S. forces were ever to leave the province he would be in the lead of their departing convoy. As tribes got down to settling scores, he says, there would be a “bloodbath.”
Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Obeidi, one of the chiefs of the Obeid tribewhose fiefdom is in the plains of nearby Kirkuk and extends to Salahaddin, says the U.S. push for these awakening councils is “a recipe for endless blood feuds” among tribes.
He says a commander of U.S. forces in Kirkuk arrested his son and two nephews “on false charges” in September because he refused to form an awakening council. Meanwhile, many members of his tribe continue to oppose the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq but still advocate joining the Iraqi police and Army.
“This is unspeakable fitna [discord] being sowed by the Americans,” says Mr. Obeidi. “They want you to kill your own cousin and brother.”
On a recent evening, Hassani sat behind a large desk that once belonged to Hussein. Two rifles were propped up against the marble wall behind him. Immense crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling of the carpeted office.
Four sheikhs arrived. They asked that their chief, Fanar Mubarak al-Farhan al-Obeidi, be released from jail. He is head of the tribe’s Albu-Issa clan and was arrested in the Oct. 30 operation. The brother of one of the visiting sheikhs was a known member of Al Qaeda who was recently killed by U.S. troops.
Hassani said the tribal chieftain will only be released if they provide information on all insurgents in their area and publicly announce their support for his awakening council. He flashed a photo of a wanted man.
“There’s no such thing as resistance,” Hassani told them. “The American is our friend. The enemy is the one that slaughters us … this man [Col. Hsu] is trying to help us. Join us. Do not waste this opportunity, and I promise you will get moral and financial support.”
There was a momentary silence. Then one of the visitors spoke.
“We can’t do it this fast, we just can’t,” says Sheikh Nouri Ahmed al-Obeidi. “Our area is hell. There’s Al Qaeda, Islamic Army, bandits, you name it.”