Featured Report from Iraq: COIN, Sheikhs and Eatin’ Goat

By Gene E. Blanton, who is currently embedded with the Multi-National Forces West Training Center in Habbaniyah. Support for Gene’s reporting was provided by Public Multimedia Inc.

LtCol. McGrath and Sheikh Khamis. Click to view.

The Jump Platoon of 3rd Battalion 6th Marines was supposed to roll at 0800 and head out to the eastern battle space. As I walked up to the now familiar briefing area, LtCol. Jim McGrath – Commanding Officer of 3/6 – asked me if I was “Semper Gumby” – always flexible. There was a change of plans. He was going to be meeting with Sheikh Khamis Abdal Karim at an undisclosed location.

According to Captain Timothy Armentrout, the S-2 officer for 3/6, Sheikh Khamis had just returned from Jordan where he had been in exile since 2005. Sheikh Khamis heads up the Abu Fahd tribe, one of the three major tribes including the Albu Issa and the Albu Mahal tribes located in Al Anbar. The three tribes are part of the influencial Dulaimi Confederation, the largest in Iraq. The Albu Fahd tribal area stretches from the “suburbs” of eastern Ramadi to the Habbaniyah area, and has roots all the way to the south inside Saudi Arabia.

The reason Sheikh Khamis fled to Jordan was simple. He wanted to live. His brother and predecessor as the leader of the Abu Fahd tribe – Sheikh Nassir Abdal Karim – had been killed when he started cooperating with Coalition Forces. Reportedly, there was a split in the Abu Fahd tribe at that time and it is unclear whether he was killed by al Qaeda in Iraq or by sympathizers within his own tribe.

We first drove to the “neighborhood watch” center in Habbaniyah where we joined up with Majeed Hameed Abid, the local ICF (Iraqi Counterinsurgency Forces) leader. Our convoy of heavily armed humvees was led off of Route Michigan by a blue and white Ford pick-up with blue flashing lights on. We traversed narrow winding roads passing through villages with waving children and check points with military aged males dressed in civilian clothes – carrying AK-47s. Not that long ago that would have been the green light to “shoot to kill.”

From an elevated roadway we passed rows of large houses with symmetrically aligned palm trees. We turned into a long driveway where dozens of cars were parked. Upon arrival, Jump Platoon humvees formed a security perimeter in the fields and on the road leading in. Milling about were a combination of dozens of armed men and children – all boys and not a female in sight.

LtCol. McGrath was met at his vehicle by Sheikh Khamis who wore a traditional Arab headdress and a black abaiyah (robe or cloak) trimmed in gold. After initial greetings, we were led to an outside area where we took off our Kevlar and body armor before entering an approximately 3600 square foot room. There, we were met by a receiving line of over forty sheikhs and other leaders from the Abu Fahal “sub-tribes.” Also significant was the presence of the appointed mayor of Habbaniyah.

Handshakes, “Salam alay kuhm” – meaning “Peace be upon you” – and the movement of the right hand over the heart signifying respect were exchanged between the Marines and their hosts. Since I was sporting a high and tight haircut and flight suit, I can only assume they thought I was a Marine, albeit an old and “calorically-challenged” one. (Many Marines wear Nomex fire-retardant flight suits while on mounted patrols or convoys to protect against burn injuries.) Some of the greetings seemed enthusiastic, with smiles, firm handshakes and solid eye contact. Some were indifferent. Some acted as though they were they were touching a dead rat.

No doubt some of the guys in the room had fought against us.

Eating Goat. Beginning in the upper left then moving clockwise: Gene Blanton, Maj. Charles Preston, Sheikh Khasmis’ interpreter, SgtMajor Andres Moratalla, Capt. Timothy Armentrout, Capt. Daniel Snyder, local ICF Leader Majeed Hameed Abid and my new found “buddy.” Click to view.

After the greeting line we were all seated in chairs along the walls. Many of our hosts were acquainted with the Marines present. One of sheikhs present was jokingly calling Captain Daniel Snyder – Company Commander of 3/6’s India Company – “Sheikh Snyder.” Shortly after we were seated, a servant enters with a silver pitcher full of cold water. Starting with the first chair each occupant was given a drink. As he progressed down the line I was somewhat concerned about the source of the water. (I live in Dallas, Texas and am one of those fools that only drink bottled water.)

My concern heightened significantly when I noticed each man was receiving his drink from the same glass. I took my cue from Major Charles Preston, Executive Officer of 3/6. He manned up without hesitation. I, too, took one for the Corps.

Later we all “shared” a cup of really strong, chicory-like coffee in the same fashion. After about an hour, we were all seated on the floor and served on round trays the size of truck tires. The menu included goat, rice, bread and vegetables – community style. As you can see in the attached photo, my new “buddy” seemed to think the food on my part of the tray was more appealing than his own.

After the meal we had more “community” glasses of water, some chai (hot, sweet tea) and conversations. Most importantly, LtCol. McGrath and Sheikh Khamis were having the chance to get to know and size up each other. According, to LtCol. McGrath, Sheikh Khamis is ready and willing to work with the coalition and has a realistic view of the progress that needs to be made and the time and effort required to achieve that progress.

In today’s COIN environment, what was accomplished with the meeting was as critical as any kinetic movement. The return of Sheikh Khamis signifies not only the improvement made in the security of the region, but more importantly, the government leaders in Ramadi and Baghdad now have a recognized spokesman for the region.

There still remain enormous external and internal challenges. For example, the Abu Fahd tribal region not only spans the 3/6 battle space but spills over into the Army’s 1st of the 9th. That’s why the next scheduled meeting with Sheikh Khamis will be with Brig. Gen. John R. Allen, Deputy Commanding General, II Marine Expeditionary Force. Coordination – at a higher level – between the units is critical to success.

Most of the Marines I’ve talked to agree we have a limited window to actively engage Anbar Province with Ramadi and Baghdad to develop the area. Hopefully, the return of Sheikh Khamis is a step in that direction.

Gene Blanton is a Marine veteran and the author of the soon to be released book, “Semper Fidelis Leadership: From The Corps To The Corporation.”

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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14 Comments

  • Al Reasin says:

    The important political/civil progress continues. This has to be another milestone in Anbar which will recieve little or no media coverage. Now if a fire fight had broken out, you would have received some coverage.

  • cjr says:

    I gotta vent for a minute:
    What continues to amaze me is that the government agency whose job it is to work the political an economic issues is always absent. Where is the State Department Foreign Service Officer? I have never ever seen one at any of these meetings. Why, in addition to their military duties, do Marine officers have to be loaded down with this job as well? And why does the media write about every nitpicking problem in the military but NEVER a stories about the State Dept being completely AWOL?

  • David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 06/07/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.

  • anand says:

    CJR,
    My thoughts exactly. Why aren’t state department (and other agency) officials expected to risk and sacrifice their lives in service of their country like our GIs? And why haven’t these government agencies been held to task for their failures.
    Unfortunately, much of the blame lies in weak and uncertain leadership from the top of our executive branch (Bill doesn’t like bringing politics into these discussions, so I won’t go further). Congress hasn’t exactly distinguished itself by standing up to the executive branch in the way it should.
    Our country and our government aren’t at war, only the military is. The American people haven’t been asked and inspired to sacrifice.
    Our Iraqi friends need to interact with foreigners who are successful in civilian life (entrepreneurs, teachers, scientists, engineers etc.). That might inspire civil society and private sector development among Iraqis. Put differently, they need exposure to a diverse plethora of people with different mindsets, to open them to different possibilities and a more realistic idea of what “normal free societies”

  • ECH says:

    The creation of a Sunni Peshmerga is going forward, but it could be spead up. I also think the Iraqi government must do much more for Anbar in terms of reconstruction money and if they don’t we will have to pick up the bill. Our security is on the line and we can’t leave it up to the dithering of Shia leaders. 100 or 200 million dollars the price of us being in Iraq for a day or two could go a massive way in Anbar.
    Have there been any ERUs or whatever they are calling them these days formed yet in Diyala or Saladin? I think we could use several of them in Diyala and Saladin, at least two of them in southern Baghdad, and at least two of them in Western Baghdad. They are the key to making up for the security vaccume that exists in certain parts of Western Iraq.
    I know the US is very lerry about building ERUs and powerful local Sunni police forces in Western Baghdad. But, it must be done to beat al-Qaeda and increase the cost to the Iraqi government of a potental civil war. The Shia must not be allowed to believe that winning a civil war would be easy or they will support getting rid of the Sunnis rather then give them one red cent.

  • JD says:

    We have a State Department?

  • Robert B says:

    Well, first, this is an initial meeting, and the first goal would be to define borders and avoid now “friendly fire” and what does the state department to do with that tactical situation. Quite likely Sheikh’s men already have backchannels with Iraqi government intelligence and CIA, etc. This wouldn’t be visible here, would it?
    Lastly, what are you thinking, Gene, with putting food in your LEFT hand?, how gross to your hosts I think, but he was going to take the food before you contaminated it!

  • Neo-andertal says:

    ECH
    “Have there been any ERUs or whatever they are calling them these days formed yet in Diyala or Saladin? I think we could use several of them in Diyala and Saladin, at least two of them in southern Baghdad, and at least two of them in Western Baghdad.”

  • irish guard says:

    The troubling thing is that although this article and others seem to portray progress, the testimony of General Lute yesterday and today was not particularly encouraging.
    I cannot imagine how difficult it is for guys like LtCol McGrath to do their jobs while guys like LtGen Lute suggest before the senate that we will not be successful.

  • Gene Blanton says:

    Hey Robert B:
    It is true that since these dudes wipe their rear ends with their left hands (without toilet paper) – it is considered improper to eat with your left hand.
    The rice was dry and would not clump together, thus falling from my right hand each time I took a scoop. As a considerate guest – as you will see in the photo – I have simply cupped my left hand to catch the stray rice. My left hand did not go into the community tray nor did I eat from it.
    Hope this puts at ease your concerns regarding my etiquette. Sorry to have taken your focus off of the larger issues.
    Semper Fi,
    Gene

  • Robert B says:

    Cool, Gene. Rice was dry, but the goat looks scrumptious if seasoned well. I think it’s more a Mediterranean treat, but any baklava for dessert to go with your chai?
    Irish – Lute has to explain away his cautions before the fact, and actually I think reducing expectations just a tad is a good thing, at least until Moqtada may have an accident, may the Almighty be pleased to do so. Give Lute a chance, just because his wife is military coordinator for UN’s surge in Africa, between them have a lot of responsibility for troops lives and the future of the world. Al Qaeda and Iran now has the West and its coalition of the willing extended to numerous fronts worldwide and either we break or they do. Just that simple and just that hard.

  • Rubin says:

    ..now would you really want to eat commune style with State Dept types in Iraq?
    didn’t think so…

  • Dear Gene,
    It was really great meeting you and J. D. Johannes. We had an Anbar Blogger Convention and didn’t even know it.
    I wish I had figured out who you were sooner, and we could have had a stimulating discussion while waiting for the plane at TQ. As it was, the light bulb didn’t pop over my head until the lights came on and you took off your helmet, but it was too noisy to carry on a conversation.
    Helluva sand storm blowing. Tent flaps so loud it’s hard to sleep. I’ve been looking for you guys, but no luck so far. Maybe we can meet again this evening when we get our passports back.

  • mike reider says:

    excellent report. Stay safe out there Marines.

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