U.S. Losing Ground Through Tribal Allies

RAMADI — U.S. attempts to win over tribal collaborators in the al-Anbar province have won it more enemies instead.

The U.S. military has launched one of its biggest operations to date to regain control of the province, to the west of Baghdad. It had lost control over the region more than a year back.

The province, which represents a third of the total area of the country and is inhabited by roughly 2.5 million people, mostly Sunni Muslims, has stood firm against the U.S. occupation of Iraq since the early days of occupation that began in March 2003.

Fallujah, the second biggest city in the province after capital Ramadi, ignited fierce resistance to U.S. forces after they killed 17 unarmed demonstrators protesting in front of a school occupied by the military in May 2003.

Resistance then spread to Khalidiya, 80 km west of Baghdad, then Ramadi, 105 km west of Baghdad, and reaching Hit, Haditha and then al-Qa’im on the Syrian border.

Massive U.S. military operations have brought short-term victories, but turned people more and more strongly against the occupation. The province remains the most dangerous for occupation forces, and attacks have continued to escalate.

This year U.S. military authorities worked to firm up a tribal coalition that they said would oppose al-Qaeda terror groups fighting against U.S. forces.

Unnamed officials in the Bush administration have made claims to reporters that the move has reduced violence in al-Anbar, but residents in the area think otherwise.

“The American Army failed to control the situation in al-Anbar province through military attacks that killed thousands of civilians, so they decided to set up local militias,” former Iraqi Army colonel Jabbar Ahmad from Ramadi told IPS.

“It started with the so-called campaign ‘Awakening of al-Anbar’, then it developed into forming ‘The Revolutionary Force for Anbar Salvation’,” Hamid Alwani, a prominent tribal leader in Ramadi told IPS. “This was supposed to be a local fight between al-Qaeda and the local people of al-Anbar, but in fact we all realised the Americans meant us to fight our brothers of the Iraqi resistance.”

Alwani said “most tribal sheikhs opposed the idea” and made it clear to U.S. military commanders that they would never be part of the U.S. plan. “It seems that the Americans have started to realise their mistake now.”

Few tribal groups are backing U.S. forces any more.

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.”

Any Iraqi working with the U.S. military is now opposed by most people in the province.

“Sattar is well known as a former criminal,” a tribal leader in al-Anbar who asked to be referred to as Hatam told IPS. “The Americans are now spoiling him like a favourite child.”

A well-respected leader in Fallujah told IPS on condition of anonymity that “Shia leaders had their doubts about him from the beginning, but the desperate Americans thought he was the best solution to their failure in al-Anbar.”

Abu Risha has been living in Amman, Jordan for several months now.

And there is growing doubt how much influence he has. “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.”

Others see the promotion of Abu Risha as a failed attempt by occupation forces to apply divide and rule tactics in the province.

“I do not see this working amidst the obvious division amongst tribal leaders looking for power,” a professor at the University of al-Anbar in Ramadi, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS. “People here know each other and they knew from the beginning that those warlords would fight over power and money one day.”

But such co-opting has not in any case lessened violence. “All the new militia did was increase tensions among the local community,” local cameraman Fowaz Abdulla told IPS. “Americans are getting killed by the day and these militias are just executing people just like Shia militias in Baghdad and the southern parts of Iraq.”

Policemen loyal to tribal leaders in the Revolutionary Force for Anbar Salvation have told reporters that the U.S. military provided them weapons, funding and other items like uniforms, body armour, pickup trucks and helmets, besides paying loyal tribal fighters 900 dollars a month.

*(Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)