Anbar sheiks ‘feel deep sense of abandonment’


US Marines escort Fallujan sheiks to a meeting in January 2007. Photo courtesy of Captain Jason Brezler.

This article on US disengagement from Anbar by Anthony Shadid is interesting and informative, if one views the generously applied “grand theme” in context.

In Shadid’s presentation, a reader might shake his head at the idea that the US is mismanaging withdrawal from the province and perhaps unethically leaving some allies in the 2006-2007 tribal Awakening to their fates, some of which will invariably be grisly. An alternate theme, one more casually mentioned in the story and probably endorsed by the majority of the Americans working with said Iraqis, is that we all knew this day would come and the Sheiks need to stand on their own. Many former allies will clamor for handouts as long as they are available, others will flourish via their own revenue streams and security arrangements, and there will be winners and losers in the byzantine machinations of Iraqi tribal society.

The corollary is that the local gadflies, losers, or “not huge winners” will rush to be quoted prominently in any news story documenting the ironic mismanagement of something by the US military. This bit offering negative comparisons to the former British occupation is particularly amusing:

“The British had foresight and, we can’t say credibility, but they had more patience than the Americans. They understood how to take time to win someone to their side,” said his great-grandson, Ali Hatem Sulaiman. “The Americans, no. With them, it’s either shoot you or give you money, it’s either hire you or beat you up.”

Beyond the ironic nostalgia for British colonialism, the source is Ali Hatem Suleiman, who is a bona fide quote factory for Western journalists, by virtue of his ability to blend good English with Arabic rhetorical style to particularly dramatic effect. For merely one example, here he is back in June 2007, saying the armed vanguard of the Awakening would dissolve:

Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, leader of the Dulaim confederation, a tribal organisation in al-Anbar, told reporters recently in his Baghdad office that the Revolutionary Force for Anbar Salvation would be dissolved because of increasing internal dissatisfaction.

Opposition has grown against one of the council leaders, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, who Suleiman called a “traitor” and someone who “sells his beliefs, his religion and his people for money.”

Of course, the Anbar Salvation Council endured and Sattar gained dramatic levels of popularity before and after his death. Also ironic about Ali Hatim’s comparative approval of the British occupation is an Anbar historian’s appraisal of his clan, from that same 2007 story:

“The Suleiman family who were called the princes of al-Dulaim tribes have no power in Iraq,” Mohammad al-Dulaimy, a historian from al-Anbar told IPS in Ramadi. “They were assigned leaders by the British occupation (during the 1920’s) and everyone in Iraq knows that.

Al-Dulaimy added, “As soon as the British left Iraq, those guys lost power and went abroad. They then found a chance to return under the American flag.”

Even taking that opinion with a grain of salt, it’s no wonder Ali Hatem pines for the extended British colonialism of yore.

This is not to suggest that the US military hasn’t made plenty of big mistakes, or that mistakes aren’t being made now. It’s just that maintaining more active engagement will be locally (and internationally) denigrated as colonialist meddling, whereas disengagement is bemoaned as abandonment.

I’m personally for extensive and extended US engagement in Iraqi society and politics, in order to help shepherd Iraqis away from unfortunate cultural dynamics like institutionalized corruption as they move to mesh the tribal system with elections. But overt long-term involvement is apparently contrary to the policy of the current Administration and the wishes of the American and Iraqi electorates. Thus, the lower profile and current disengagement are both expected and probably about as responsible as one might anticipate. And American influence exists in less public ways, as US advisors continue to serve as arbitrators and enablers of the Iraqi political process.

Shadid mentions two of the biggest winners out of the tribal engagement with Americans: the Albu Risha tribe (led by Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha) and Sheik Aifan Sadoun al Aifan of the Albu Issa tribe (he is named “Affan al-Issawi” in the piece). The Albu Risha were an historically minor tribe that has exploded into prominence after the charismatic and famously-martyred Sheik Sattar (Ahmed’s brother mentioned above) led the bleeding edge of the Awakening against al Qaeda (AQI). In a slightly different parallel, Sheik Aifan Sadoun al Aifan hailed from an important tribe, but was a lesser son within the clan who catapulted himself into greater prominence (and a career in politics) via his early willingness to engage the Americans in order to fight al Qaeda.

These and other individuals parlayed the relationship of convenience with the US into sustainable success, assuming they aren’t assassinated. Through whatever combination of poor luck, mismanagement, and lesser support, others in the story probably did not. And now that the US money and protection are drying up, many are understandably unhappy and nervous.

The men I’ve spoken to within some of these tribes are indeed fearful of abandonment by the Americans and a resurgence of al Qaeda. But ironically, the popularity of Americans only gained traction in larger quarters of Anbar when the citizenry realized that the US was “not after the oil, after all” and going to leave, soon. Thus, there is simply no solution that will inoculate any American strategy from criticism, be it levied by former allies, those who missed out on American contracts, the media, or the man on the street.

Finally, I’ll disagree with this formulation by Shadid and Marine Colonel Matthew Lopez:

“It’s not normal for a coalition presence to be injected into the Iraqi cultural system and the sheiks’ system,” Lopez said, sitting in his office at Camp Ramadi. “Without extricating ourselves from the equation,” he added, “it can’t return to normal.”

A Sheik Speaks His Mind

Postwar Anbar is anything but normal, whatever normal might mean here. By virtue of its money, arms and prestige, the U.S. military — like its British predecessors — has indelibly remade the province’s landscape. One ally, Ahmed Abu Risha, whose clan was little known before the occupation, is on a trajectory to become Anbar’s most powerful man. Other allies have gathered fabulous wealth. Yet others deem themselves dead men walking, having courted too few friends while they occupied the U.S. limelight.

As Shadid mentions, Iraqi history is littered with a series of occupiers and central governments – Ottoman, British, American – fighting with, manipulating, and being manipulated by the tribal system. And when there were no foreigners, Saddam Hussein did the exact same thing by creating “fake sheiks” and slyly distributing patronage to empower certain individuals and weaken others. This lessened the cohesion of the tribal confederations and kept them internally competitive enough to pose no collective threat to his regime.

So if there is anything that is “normal” over the past century and beyond in Anbar, it is exactly the situation of shifting patronage and rivalry the author describes. The latest iteration has merely distinguished itself with a new set of winners and losers in the great tribal game, the politics of which often resemble a mix of the Sopranos and Days of Our Lives. With the enthusiastic entry of many of the sheiks into Democratic politics, the unique American contribution may wind up as the addition of a little West Wing into that dramatic metaphor.

Actually, the Wire with occasional car bombs might be a better parallel.

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1 Comment

  • Mr T says:

    Great article. Fascinating reading. This dynamic will be seen over and over again around the middle east.


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