“No comment”: An interview with a mukhtar

Mukhtars meet to discuss infrastructure concerns.

The “build” portion of the counterinsurgency doctrine of “clear, hold, and build” is a vital component of current strategy in Fallujah; as local civilians see improvement in their daily lives, they are becoming more involved in maintaining the new status quo of security and reconstruction momentum. A regular citizen now getting 14 hours per day of electricity — roughly equivalent to prewar levels — in the heat of August will have huge self-interest in reporting insurgents planting IEDs that could destroy generators or power lines, for example. And as US aid is distributed through Iraqi Police, the government, and local contractors, those institutions are empowered in the eyes of the people, thus diminishing insurgent hold on the city.

However, early American efforts at plugging civil affairs and reconstruction projects into the city proper of Fallujah often appeared poorly targeted and/or timed. During my last visit in January, civil affairs teams utilized limited sums of money from the military’s Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) to engage the population with beautification and job creation projects, when Fallujans were getting as little as two hours of power per day. At first it seemed like the failure to address basic needs was an oversight, until several Marines familiar with the strategy told me that leadership consciously refused to rebuild infrastructure until security improved; they had attempted such projects in 2005, only to have insurgents destroy them all.

In addition, reconstruction funds had previously been funneled through a local sheiks’ council and a select few contractors at the Fallujah Development Center. These channels were problematic: The few contractors at the FDC were corrupt and recommended projects out-of-line with the needs of the populace, and area tribes are not greatly representative of the city itself, as the tribes control the outlying areas and have little connection with urbanites and their needs. Eventually security improved enough to retry building infrastructure. And in addition to tackling reconstruction through the city government’s Director Generals (DGs, who are like ministers), the Americans finally noticed the mukhtars.

Officially appointed during the Saddam Hussein era, mukhtars are akin to “city sheiks” or “block captains.” They arbitrate interests within and advocate for their neighborhoods to the city government. Mukhtars know the people of their areas and understand their needs. And the reestablishment of this traditional position and new engagement with American civil affairs efforts have empowered both parties, as well as evened out distribution of employment and mitigated the systemic corruption and mafia-style intimidation that has historically plagued contracting in Fallujah.

I interviewed a mukhtar after a meeting in the Nazaal Precinct, which had focused on repairing generators, obtaining fuel, plugging leaks in sewage lines, and fixing the treatment plant that ensures the potability of the city water supply. He is a quiet man with suspicious eyes who radiated leadership relative to the others in the meeting.

I gathered a few distinct impressions from the interview: While the insurgency is on its heels in Fallujah, the man’s desire to avoid individual identification bespoke residual fear that tempers current optimism. Additionally, though certain examples of capitalism are sprouting up in the city where they never existed, Fallujans may have trouble weaning themselves away from the model of socialist dependence on the central government that marked the reign of Saddam Hussein. And finally, mukhtars are surely classic politicians, as my interview subject kept his answers short and close to the vest.

INDC: What is a mukhtar?

Mukhtar: A mukhtar is the man, the leader of a special area inside Fallujah.

INDC: And these positions existed for a long time?

Mukhtar: Yes.

INDC: And how does one become a mukhtar?

Mukhtar: The people of that area select me.

INDC: And what are you responsible for?

Mukhtar: I look out for my area; look for the solutions to the troubles of my area. And I also bring the requests from the people of my area to the government and to the mayor.

INDC: And was this position the same before the US invasion of Iraq?

Mukhtar: Yes.

INDC: Did the Americans work with the mukhtars before, and why or why not?

Mukhtar: No, because the security situation was so bad.

INDC: Security has improved a lot; I was here in January and things were very bad. Why has security improved so much?

Mukhtar: The people of Fallujah, now they know the truth of the terrorists, the mujahadeen. Now they know that these people are not working for Fallujah; no, they are working against the people here. So they’ve changed their minds, all of their thinking about the terrorists. Fallujah was a city of peace for a long time. It’s the “city of mosques” and all the people are peaceful, hard workers.

INDC: Why was there so much conflict with the Americans initially?

Mukhtar: We thought America wanted to steal Iraq. And from our perspective as Muslims, you should fight against thieves. And all the people around the world … it’s the same in America … if Iraq went to America to take America, all the people would fight against Iraq. I think we can agree about that.

INDC: What do you think of Americans now?

Mukhtar: The Americans now are peaceful — more than us (laughs). They are helpful and give humanitarian support for the people here.

INDC: What are the biggest problems for Fallujah right now?

Mukhtar: No employment and services. The need for supplies to the government precincts [is significant].

INDC: And specifically, when you talk about services, what services are the worst right now?

Mukhtar: Medicine, food, fuel, water, electricity.

INDC: And as far as employment goes, before the war and now as you develop new jobs, what do Fallujans do? What industry is here?

Mukhtar: Fallujans are teachers, manual laborers, doctors, everything. There are many factories in the industrial area of the city.

INDC: And what will drive the economy from here, because right now it’s American money that’s helping, so for Fallujah to replace that economy with new jobs, what are the services and industries that are going to bring money into Fallujah?

Mukhtar: Why don’t you just give me all of that aid, and I’ll know what to do with it. (laughs)

INDC: The reason I ask is, America will not be here forever and if resources and money from the national Iraqi government don’t continue the support for Fallujah when Americans leave, what will drive the economy here?

Mukhtar: The government workers will need to receive money from the Iraqi government, not from the Americans. But also the Americans need to continue giving support.

INDC: What do you think of the national Iraqi government now?

Mukhtar: I do not believe in this government, and 90 percent of the Iraqi people are just like me.

INDC: Many people who analyze Iraq are worried about whether the government will reconcile with the people of Anbar. What do you think the chances for that are?

Mukhtar: No comment.

INDC: Is there anything else you think the American people should know about Fallujah?

Mukhtar: Fallujans don’t like any enemy who tries to fight or hurt them, because they have traditional values, and they refuse any challenge or change to those traditional values.

INDC: What do you think about Fallujah’s future?

Mukhtar: Things will be much better.


Bill Ardolino also writes about his embed at his blog, INDC Journal. Select reports will be featured at The Long War Journal.

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    This sounds like the classic thug that we used to see in Anbar. Hopefully reports from Anbar are accurate that things are better. I suspect things will not improve in Fallujah based on this corrupt man.

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