TARMIYAH, IRAQ: A “keystone moment” in the recent turnaround to a relative calm in Tarmiyah was the February release of local tribal leader Sheikh Sa’ed Jassim, held for 11 months in US detention.
US Army Captain Christopher Loftis helped make the decision to free Jassim, but only after Jassim’s son persuaded Loftis that his father would improve the relationship between Americans and Iraqis in this area 25 miles north of Baghdad.
Letting Jassim go home was a risk. It appears to have paid off.
Loftis’ unit, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion/14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, arrived in Tarmiyah in December 2007. Jassim’s son Imad had stood up the local Sons of Iraq security group in October, but he told Loftis, unless his father was released, he didn’t think he could or would much longer lead the group. The Sons of Iraq are one of several such civilian town watches patrolling Iraqi communities against al Qaeda and other threats. For about $300 a month, paid but not armed by the US, these local Iraqis man small checkpoints across the city.
“Imad tried to strong-arm me,” Loftis recalled. “He was using a lot of ultimatum language. I pushed back, and there was a lot of back-and-forth.”
Although the unit that preceded Alpha Company also supported Jassim’s release, Loftis was initially unsure of Imad’s assessment of his father’s influence in the area, and how significant his release would be. He certainly was not eager to help release a man caught financing the local activities of al Qaeda in Iraq and detained by the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior in late 2006.
“He financed al Qaeda in Iraq,” Loftis said. “He took US money for civil contracts and some of that money went to al Qaeda in Iraq.” It can be seen in black-and-white, but in Iraq nothing ever is.
Before that, two of Jassim’s sons were murdered by al Qaeda, which controlled the area in 2007. The money given was, in every way that matters, protection against further violence to his family. It didn’t keep him from detention, but mitigated the circumstances enough for the US to help secure his release.
Loftis wasn’t sure Imad would have given up the influence and money that goes along with a Sons of Iraq contract, but one can’t be sure. More significantly, as he did his research, he discovered the son seemed to be correct.
“We could have pressured [Imad], told him there’s always another guy,” Loftis said. “But after my doing my initial evaluation, I discovered [Jassim] really did have a lot of influence. He really was ‘the guy.'”
Some of Loftis’ research included asking local residents about Jassim during patrols across the city. Not meetings with the “sheikh’s cronies,” he said, but regular Iraqis not expecting the questions. Many said he was an important leader, whose release would help a great deal.
“We made big points when we got him released,” said Loftis, who called it the “keystone moment.”
While some might blanch at the release of an al Qaeda financier, Loftis said it’s merely part of the gray area of reconciliation that rules Iraq. Two years ago, there was little to no relationship with many of the local tribal leaders, other than a mutual distrust.
There were some questions about Jassim, prior to his release, and the US civil affairs officers here at the time felt he might be a destabilizing influence on the community. Now, the trust is to the point where Jassim himself can vouch for former insurgents currently being held at Bucca Prison or Camp Cropper, and can sign a guarantor letter that the man has turned away from active insurgency, and Jassim’s word is believed. On June 11, four detainees were released at the sheikh’s personal behest. These would not be detainees with known Coalition or Iraqi “blood on their hands,” Loftis said, but perhaps caught with some lesser degree of participation in IED, or other operations.
It doesn’t mean the prisoner Jassim vouches for suddenly is a fan of the US, but the insurgent group he once worked for might now be one providing men to a local Sons of Iraq group. Not an ally, perhaps, but not exactly an enemy anymore.
Jassim’s release was an emotional event, Loftis said. At first, there was difficulty securing it, with various yes’s and no’s going back and forth. Loftis said 1st/14th Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Boccardi, on his advice and that of others, personally went to Baghdad to petition the Iraqi justice system for Jassim’s release.
“I finally found out for sure one night, and had a letter saying he was acquitted of all charges,” Loftis said. He walked down to Imad’s house, and told him the news. “He started crying, and everyone was crying, throwing candy in the air. Got ‘man-sugar’ [the ceremonial Arabic cheek kisses] from about 20 guys. It was pretty cool.”
Set free in town out of the back of a Stryker, Jassim walked down the ramp to an adoring crowd of more than 2,000 people, Boccardi said. Lambs were slaughtered for feast, and the crowd cheered, Loftis said. Since then, Jassim has been a powerful and significant local figure, with his son an important Sons of Iraq leader.
Jassim’s influence is clear. At meetings, he takes the head seat, and groups pause to give him honorifics when he walks in. He acts like a sheik, visibly confident in movement and behavior.
However, he does sometimes go too far. Walking around a cluster of buildings near Bhukary Hall, the compound in Tarmiyah where American and Iraqi soldiers stage from to man a nearby checkpoint, Jassim tries to give an Iraqi Army officer orders about cleaning the area. The soldier is unmoved and unimpressed.
“He [the Iraqi officer] doesn’t work for the sheik,” Loftis explained. He is not a king in the area, just a man with powerful and significant local influence. To the Iraqi Army, Jassim is a notable local leader, but just one of many. The Army’s job is overall security, not worrying about every local citizen, no matter the man’s tribal power.
“They respect him, and they’ll be polite. But they don’t take orders from him,” Loftis said.
That doesn’t stop Jassim from making his opinion clear, both to the Iraqis and to the Americans.
“Sheikh Jassim is a realist,” Loftis said. “He’s taking a stand for Sunni rights in Iraq. Working with the US is not a problem for him.”
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.