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Colonel reaches out to Iraqi sheiks

With a `spider sense,' he tries to discern who can be trusted and who will help U.S. `It's a way to not just fight the war, but shape it,' he says.

July 10, 2007|Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writer

BAQUBAH, IRAQ — The U.S. commander meets with the former general in Saddam Hussein's army over lunch, promises weapons, wishes him a return to high office. For both men, the conversation comes at great risk, and neither knows whether the other is an ally or an enemy.

For Army Lt. Col. Morris Goins, his "spider sense" tells him to keep talking, even after the general, a Sunni tribal leader, tells him, "If you see me shooting at you, you should shoot back."

Goins is unfazed. It is a potentially deadly complication he will endure to press the tribes to quell the violence here in Diyala province, the nation's deadliest for U.S. troops on a per-capita basis.

Some tribal leaders have sworn allegiances against the United States, but they are believed to hold the most powerful sway over Diyala's vast terrain.

Months before the sheiks drew U.S. attention as potential allies against Al Qaeda in Iraq, Goins began to spend most of his time on the strategy. "It's a way to not just fight the war, but shape it," he said.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has made such efforts with tribal sheiks a top priority throughout Iraq, citing the "breathtaking" success Sunni Muslim sheiks in Al Anbar province achieved by banding together to drive Al Qaeda in Iraq out of their region.

That success, however, benefited from an overwhelming Sunni majority that is uncommon in Iraq, and the tribal coalition was originated by the sheiks themselves. The efforts by Goins, therefore, may present the most realistic picture of how the strategy may play out in the rest of Iraq. It is being initiated by an American commander rather than the sheiks, and Diyala contains large numbers of all three of Iraq's major groups: Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

The meetings are often held clandestinely, and the Sunni sheiks are not named out of fear that they would be killed by members of the Sunni-led insurgency. For those who agree to help, Goins offers protection, money, weapons. He's never sure what he will gain in return.

"It's complicated, man," Goins said. "The danger is that you just become one of these guys' militia."

Soldiers have faith in him

Over three tours in Iraq, the tall, skinny Army lieutenant colonel from Southern Pines, N.C., has been known for commanding with a focus on relationships as much as on firepower.

Goins' subordinates say he has won their trust in a war of heavy losses partly because he expresses the kind of strong emotions that lets soldiers know he understands their sacrifice.

At the halfway point of its tour, his 1,000-strong 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, has seen 26 men killed and 99 injured. At a recent memorial service for a 21-year-old father of two young boys, Goins told his soldiers that the difference between them and the so-called "greatest generation" of World War II is, "We say, 'I love you' to each other more often."

For him, the devotion to his troops meant sitting down for tea with sheiks who, in some cases, he privately hated and believed to have aided the Al Qaeda-linked operatives who killed his men.

"What's hard for me is irrelevant, though," Goins said. "What's personal and professional are two different things. Nobody gives a damn what your feelings are. You have to go where the information and the intelligence drive you."

Ever since he lost the first three soldiers of the tour in November, he has pursued the sheiks in earnest. His preparation was a two-week military course and a few books he "thumbed through."

He also relies on the counsel of a handful of people who gather in his dusty office to strategize beside a big-screen television and a bucket of bubble gum.

One of them is Dean Jones, a retired Denver police investigator who works as a Defense Department contractor. In an interview, he said he was happy to see the commander take a holistic approach to the province's myriad problems.

"Where is the CIA? The State Department? Or anybody else? They're not here. It's just us. We have to play all those roles," Jones said.

Another counselor is Sheik Adnan Tamimi, a first cousin of the Shiite provincial governor and a leader of a tribe with roughly 200,000 members. Tamimi and Goins talk most days on the phone, and Goins visits the sheik's compound about once a week for lunch.

In between intelligence help on militants and tips on how to approach other sheiks, Tamimi talks about his hopes to visit Goins in the United States and the changing family dynamic as he prepares to marry a second wife. Goins says he hopes to bring his own wife on a trip to Iraq one day.

A tribal hero

When Tamimi suffered a heart attack last month, Goins personally rushed him to U.S. military doctors, who brought him back to stable health. As Goins drove Tamimi home a few days later, women burst out the front door and tossed candy as they wailed in celebration.

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