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Teaming Up With Tribes to Try to Quell Insurgents

Army commander works with influential local leaders who pledge to keep kinsmen in line in return for a lighter American presence.

June 21, 2004|Ashraf Khalil | Special to The Times

ABU GHRAIB, Iraq — As the convoy of buses rolled out of Abu Ghraib prison, the freed inmates hung out the windows, flashing victory signs to the large crowd of relatives who had gathered since early morning.

Such scenes have been repeated outside Abu Ghraib several times in recent months -- more frequently since the prisoner abuse scandal exploded in April. But this time, instead of being released to their families, the prisoners were driven east to a U.S. base near the Baghdad airport. There, they emerged into the embrace of arguably some of the most powerful men in Iraq: tribal and clan leaders.

The release last week was the result of a fledgling relationship between Iraq's largest tribal association and a U.S. commander in the town of Abu Ghraib -- for which the infamous prison is named.

Both sides believe the arrangement -- in which the highly influential leaders guarantee the good behavior of their tribe members, former prisoners and regular Iraqis alike -- may hold the key to blunting Iraq's persistent insurgency.

It remains to be seen whether tribal leaders can ensure the long-term cooperation of their kinsmen -- and there's no clear agreement on how noncompliant tribe members will be handled. What's more, the accelerated prison releases could create a newly embittered pool of recruits for the insurgency.

But for now, the Abu Ghraib model serves as a new approach for the U.S. military.

The key is a "truce" brokered by the National League of Sheiks and Tribal Leaders and U.S. Army Lt. Col. Tim Ryan, the 1st Cavalry Division officer responsible for Abu Ghraib -- a Sunni Triangle town west of Baghdad and a hotbed of the insurgency.

Under the agreement, Ryan now meets regularly with tribal leaders and provides them with lists of residents suspected of taking part in attacks. The sheiks and their subordinate local clan leaders then promise to keep their kinsmen in line. Newly released Abu Ghraib prisoners are similarly turned over with a tribal assurance of good behavior.

"We tell them that these guys are your responsibility now," Ryan said. "They do have a lot of influence. To ignore that is to ignore 6,000 years of the way business has been done here."

In return, Ryan has drastically reduced the amount of anti-insurgent raids and house searches -- essentially trusting the sheiks to police their own.

"If there's any kind of information about somebody, the Americans have to come to the local leader. He'll go personally to the suspect and say, 'Stop -- this is your last chance,' " said Sheik Mohammed Khamis Saadi, national head of the Saadi tribe and vice president of the league of sheiks. "We have the same blood. I'm responsible for them. It's my duty to give them another chance."

Ryan actually has little say in which prisoners are released from Abu Ghraib prison, apart from limited special requests. Instead, he receives notification of which men are to be released and notifies their respective tribal leaders. But Ryan said it's convenient for all sides to allow the league of sheiks to take credit for the releases, increasing their own stature and enabling them to claim influence over U.S. military decision-making.

Ryan said the alliance with the sheiks -- and the accompanying reduction in raids -- has produced a measurable drop in roadside bomb attacks in the Abu Ghraib area. Between early February, when the 1st Cavalry Division arrived, and April 10, when a small uprising in the town ended, two men in Ryan's 2nd Battalion were killed and 28 injured. Since then, he said, there have been no deaths or injuries in attacks.

Saadi, whose tribe includes an estimated "200,000 mature men able to bear arms," credits Ryan with understanding the true power of Iraqi tribal society.

"We are the real leaders of Iraq," he said, "more powerful than any of the political parties."

After the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's government, Saadi said, the Americans made a fundamental mistake by interpreting Iraq's societal dynamics along purely religious and ethnic lines. "They came and saw the society as Kurds, Sunnis, Turks, Shiites and Christians," he said. "They didn't understand the tribal culture."

As for the newly released prisoners themselves, many don't seem to share Ryan and Saadi's optimism. When asked whether the tribal commitment would help reduce attacks, one young prisoner waiting on a bus, who declined to give his name, rolled his eyes and muttered, "Just get us out of here."

The prisoners and Saadi say the arrests have been largely unjustified anyway. All of the prisoners interviewed by The Times said they were picked up in indiscriminate sweeps or were the victims of informants seeking profit or settling personal vendettas. A recent Red Cross report lends credence to those claims, saying that as many as 90% of Iraqi detainees have been wrongly imprisoned.

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