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In pivotal Anbar, this guy's the real deal

DISPATCH FROM RAMADI, IRAQ

There are many Sunni tribal sheiks in the Iraqi province, but there is only one Sheik Lawrence.

December 11, 2008|Tony Perry | Perry is a Times staff writer.

RAMADI, IRAQ — Just like in the classic movie "Lawrence of Arabia," the man's eyes are piercing below his tribal headdress.

He looks straight at you with a determined, uncompromising stare. His word is law in his region of Anbar province. He allows no dissent in his tribe and is not opposed to using force to punish those he deems to be threats to him or his tribe.

There are many Sunni tribal sheiks in Anbar, but there is only one Sheik Lawrence. His authority and name are inherited from his great-grandfather, one of the Bedouin leaders who rode beside the Englishman T.E. Lawrence during the World War I fight against the Ottoman Empire.

His tribe, the Anezi, is not particularly large, and the area he controls isn't prominent in Iraqi politics. But as U.S. military and civilian officials have learned, he is a man to be reckoned with.

Sheik Lawrence -- full name, Sheik Lawrence Mutib Hazan -- is said to be connected to the Saudi royal family and has key contacts throughout the Persian Gulf and among the provincial government leadership in Ramadi and the Iraqi national government in Baghdad.

In partnership with the U.S., Sheik Lawrence routed insurgents from his domain in Anbar, centered in the desert village of An Nukhayb. But his deal with the Americans came with a price. The U.S. is funding the reconstruction of the water wells and power distribution in An Nukhayb.

More recently, he has asked for U.S. help in settling the boundary dispute between Anbar and Karbala provinces, a request that the top Marine general in Iraq is trying to fulfill.

When the history of the U.S. involvement in Iraq is written, one focus will be the Americans' relationship with the sheiks of Anbar, the province that was the birthplace of the Sunni-led insurgency. At first, the U.S. military sought to ignore them as cultural anachronisms -- a decision it soon came to regret as the insurgency burgeoned.

Then came the Anbar Awakening, a pledge by some of the sheiks to side with the Americans against the insurgency. Within two years, Anbar went from lost cause to success story in the eyes of U.S. officials, even before the buildup of troops in Baghdad.

Figuring out the pecking order among sheiks has been a challenge for the U.S. military. Some sheiks have great authority; others pretend to. Some are what commanders have come to call "fake sheiks."

Sheik Lawrence, in his mid-50s, has passed all the tests of credibility. He stuck with the Americans even when the founder of the Awakening was assassinated. He has called for continued opposition to the insurgency and cooperation with the national government in Baghdad.

At tribal gatherings, he dresses in the regal robes of a Bedouin chieftain, not unlike his great-grandfather. At other times, he wears finely tailored suits of European design. He needs no interpreter to understand English.

John A. Matel, who until recently was the top State Department official in much of Anbar, says Sheik Lawrence "naturally commands respect."

"The people of his town seemed to love him and spontaneously praised him when I was talking with them," Matel said.

The sheik's area "is relatively peaceful and well-administered, which is a little surprising given its border location and general dismal and dry environment."

His name and the legacy that comes with it is definitely part of the sheik's appeal, particularly with the Americans and British, Matel said.

Matel said he cannot look at Sheik Lawrence without hearing the overture from David Lean's epic 1962 movie.

At a recent meeting of provincial and national officials at the Arar checkpoint to discuss security measures, Sheik Lawrence was among a group of sheiks in attendance. Under the elaborate protocol the sheiks follow, he was not permitted to speak.

When the issue of the boundary dispute arose, Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, the top Marine in Iraq, pressed the group for a peaceful resolution to the dispute and respect for the boundary that separates the two provinces.

Kelly said later that he was glad to speak on the sheik's behalf.

"He's royalty," he said.

--

tony.perry@latimes.com

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