Reporting from Abu Ghraib, Iraq — The room filled with mistrust as more than 70 tribal sheiks arrived Thursday to discuss the problem of violence with some of Iraq's army commanders.
The sheiks, dressed mainly in dark blue robes, had come by bus to the headquarters of the 24th Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Army Division. They were met by soldiers wearing red berets and forest green uniforms.
Tension was unavoidable, as residents of Abu Ghraib see the mainly Shiite army unit in the area as heavy-handed. The army, by contrast, believes the inhabitants of the rural region are actively or tacitly abetting Al Qaeda in Iraq insurgents.
But representatives of the two sides had agreed to at least try to find a way to reduce the bloodshed and suffering in the region, on the western outskirts of Baghdad.
Iraqi Army Maj. Gen. Ahmed Saidi, head of the division, sat at the front of the meeting room on a golden armchair, and looked out on the tribesmen. The time of acrimony between the army and the general population must end, Saidi said.
Although tribal leaders and armed groups turned against Sunni Arab insurgents in 2007, friction continued between the community and the army brigade, known locally as the Muthanna brigade. Commanders past and present have a reputation for mass round-ups in their effort to crush a onetime stronghold of the insurgency. Meanwhile, militants have used the farm region to launch attacks; seven soldiers were killed in the area in the last two weeks.
"We aren't a land of criminals," Saidi said, emphasizing that Iraqis should not be killing each other. "All Iraqis are one."
Saidi brandished a folder of names and shook it in the air. He said it had more than 150 arrest warrants for violence-related acts, but he would forget them, if the sheiks all joined in helping stop the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The sheiks listened politely. It was their first meeting with an army commander in months. They knew Saidi, who took over the division in the first week of March, wanted them to sign a pledge to work with the security forces.
When the time came for them to speak, Sheik Dahir Khamis Dari Zobaie nearly shouted from his seat.
"I listened to your speech. In 2006 and 2007, we fought Al Qaeda," Zobaie said grabbing the air with his fist. "We fought the enemy.… We did protect our communities. This is the truth."
Zobaie then announced his wish for reconciliation with the army. "I will stand with the government," he said. "I am not a terrorist."
The sheiks and commanders talked a bit longer. Satisfied, the 17 most senior sheiks lined up before the seated general, with American officers looking on, and signed a document pledging their help in opposing criminals.
"We will keep a vigilant eye to assist the security forces against any criminals or those who support them by providing shelter in their farming land," it read.
It was mid-day. After the nearly two-hour meeting the army did not invite the sheiks to stay for lunch, a customary ritual for such gatherings.
"I am not optimistic," one of the tribal leaders said, but he hoped for lasting peace.