In Shia Baghdad, a Sunni tribe recalls weathering the storm

BAGHDAD, IRAQ: It is a story that played out across Baghdad in 2006 and early 2007, in dozens of mixed and Sunni-dominated neighborhoods: the militias intimidated, and then attacked. What is different about the Ghaydat tribe’s story is that, in this small Sunni corner of the Kadhimiya district, they held their ground, not just against the intimidation but against full-on attacks.

It began, according to the Ghaydat leaders, in late 2005, after a campaign of suicide bombings by al Qaeda in Iraq. “After that, Jaysh al Mahdi began to treat all Sunnis in our area as terrorists who could endanger the Shia people,” said Muhammad Abu Faris, the sheikh of the tribe, referring to the Shia militia group answering to Muqtada al Sadr. “At that time, the people in the government, at the top, we believe that they supported that, and called for that, to displace the Sunnis, keep them away from Shia.”

“You can see Kadhimiya, Hurriya, Shula, Washash, and then one small Sunni area,” Abu Faris detailed, pointing on a map of Baghdad. “We were in the center of the storm, and the big leaders for the militias, they said, ‘We can’t believe all those Sunnis live in that neighborhood and nobody can move them.’ But our neighborhood is just like a castle – it is good for defense.”

Four leaders of the tribe – a group of affluent Sunni families living in the Salaam-Fajr area – told their story last month through an interpreter, in the presence of American officers from Task Force 1-502 Infantry, who said they generally believed the Ghaydats’ version of events. Except for the sheikh of the tribe, Muhammad Abu Faris, the four declined to give their full names, citing their distrust of the Iraqi central government and continuing fear of Shia militias. Instead, they gave the abbreviated names Abu Kutayba, Abu Azzam, and Hajji Ali.

The first stage of the Mahdi Army’s push against them, according to the four, was a campaign of intimidation, beginning in late 2005 and continuing for nearly a year. Working out of Sadrist political offices as well as out of local police stations, the militia verbally harassed Sunni residents of mixed neighborhoods in Salaam and Fajr before escalating to kidnapping: “Then they kidnapped some of our young men, and they started torturing them by cables, and beating them, and they would bring them back. They brought everybody back except one man.”

That man, named Muhammad Khalaf Mahmud, was kidnapped by a local militia leader called One-Handed Alwan, a claim that Captain Chris Bowers confirmed.

In the late summer or early fall of 2006 – the Ghaydat representatives could not agree on the month – the militia attacked in strength. According to Abu Kutayba and Abu Faris, the attackers, who numbered in the hundreds and were armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and machine guns, came in two waves, separated by a lull of several hours. When they were repulsed by rifle fire from the Ghaydats’ rooftops, they turned to mortar and rocket fire. Finally, in a climactic attack “soon after the rains started,” or in the fall, another force of Mahdi fighters massed under the direction of the Sadr City-based commander called Abu Dara. “When they were going for the last attack, Abu Dara himself was there, and his headquarters was at the Butterfly Ice Cream Store,” said Abu Faris. “On that day we figured out that they would never turn back until they were faced with something strong, so we started shooting from every single roof with very thick gunfire, and then we pushed them back.”

The most controversial of the tribal leaders’ claims is that personnel and equipment of the Iraqi Security Forces not only turned a blind eye to the militia attacks, but materially supported them. At one point, they said, commandos belonging to the Ministry of Interior set up checkpoints in the mixed areas to the southwest, took down the names and addresses of Sunni residents, and “came back the next day and took them all, thirty-one men, and even now we don’t know where they are.”

Just as troubling, Hajji Ali and Abu Azzam recalled that ambulances and trucks belonging to both the local police and the Ministry of Interior’s National police helped the Mahdi fighters transport weapons and supplies and evacuated casualties during the main fight for the neighborhood.

The senior American officer now in the area, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph McLamb, does not dismiss the claims, although his unit did not arrive in Kadhimiya until late 2007. “The situation when we arrived with the Iraqi forces was that they were widely, almost universally seen by the local national population as a pawn of Jaysh al Mahdi,” he said. “And the word ‘complicit’ was thrown around quite frequently.”

Despite their success in fending off the militia’s attacks, the Ghaydat leaders said, the Shia threat from the north and west and did not disappear until March 2007, when more American troops arrived in the area, paratroopers from the first of the five “surge” brigades. Based to the north at Camp Taji, Task Force 1-325 Airborne Infantry, led by Lieutenant Colonel Mike Richardson, had spent months supporting secretive Special Operations Forces across Iraq, and had a reputation for relentless pursuit of enemy targets.

“Throughout their deployment, their focus was on kinetic operations to deny Jaysh al-Mahdi the ability to mount their own kinetic operations,” like the push against the Ghaydat tribe, said McLamb, whose battalion replaced Richardson’s.

“When we arrived in late 2007, 1-325 had really cracked the code on how you do this time-sensitive targeting piece, and how you go after these guys,” McLamb said. Asked to confirm this, one of the Ghaydat spokesmen, who called himself Abu Kutayba, agreed vigorously. “The Americans took them apart,” he said. “They started with Abu Bakr, who was the battalion leader, and then the other leaders. When the big fish disappear, the small fish are lost, and don’t know what to do.”

Privately, some American officers with the unit that has patrolled this sector for the last year, Task Force 1-502 Infantry, express skepticism at the Ghaydat leaders’ claims. “So did they tell you about how they fought off ten thousand JAM without taking a casualty?” one staff captain asked after the meeting. “Numbers aside, I don’t doubt what they say,” he added. “But I’d like to know what parts of the story they’re leaving out.”

An artillery lieutenant who sat in on the meeting in which the Ghaydat leaders told their story expressed discomfort with the American relationship with the tribe, saying: “They held out against JAM, sure. But now they’re milking it for all it’s worth.”

For their part, the Ghaydat leaders make no secret of the relationship they have built with the American troops of Task Force 1-325 and Task Force 1-502 since the militia threat fell back. “Before 2007, all the Americans, they were Shia. Now they are Sunni,” said Abu Kutayba. “How the Americans before were Shia and now they have become Sunnis, please make sure you publish that.”

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1 Comment

  • anand says:

    Good article Wes. Many similar anecdotal stories have been reported by many other Iraqis.
    Could you discuss how the Iraqi Army is percieved in this neighborhood (both by the Ghaydat tribe and other residents of Kadhimiya district)? I wonder how the IA 22-6 is regarded by the locals compared to the INP and local IP. Are the INP percieved as less sectarian now than they were?

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