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.
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.”
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