About In a Volatile Region of Iraq, U.S. Military Takes Two Paths
|September 15th, 2006||#1|
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In a Volatile Region of Iraq, U.S. Military Takes Two Paths info
Byline: Ann Scott Tyson
Date: 15 September 2006
AL-FURAT, Iraq -- With a biker's bandanna tied under his helmet, the Special
Forces team sergeant gunned a Humvee down a desert road in Iraq's volatile
Anbar province. Skirting the restive town of Hit, the team of a dozen
soldiers crossed the Euphrates River into an oasis of relative calm: the
rural heartland of the powerful Albu Nimr tribe.
Green Berets skilled in working closely with indigenous forces have enlisted
one of the largest and most influential tribes in Iraq to launch a regional
police force -- a rarity in this Sunni insurgent stronghold. Working deals
and favors over endless cups of spiced tea, they built up their wasta -- or
pull -- with the ancient tribe, which boasts more than 300,000 members. They
then began empowering the tribe to safeguard its territory and help
interdict desert routes for insurgents and weapons. The goal, they say, is
to spread security outward to envelop urban trouble spots such as Hit.
But the initial progress has been tempered by friction between the team of
elite troops and the U.S. Army's battalion that oversees the region. At one
point this year, the battalion's commander, uncomfortable with his lack of
control over a team he saw as dangerously undisciplined, sought to expel it
from his turf, officers on both sides acknowledged.
The conflict in the Anbar camp, while extreme, is not an isolated phenomenon
in Iraq, U.S. officers say. It highlights two clashing approaches to the
war: the heavy focus of many regular U.S. military units on sweeping combat
operations; and the more fine-grained, patient work Special Forces teams put
into building rapport with local leaders, security forces and the people --
work that experts consider vital in a counterinsurgency.
"This war was fought with a conventional mind-set. The conventional units
are bogged down in cities doing the same old thing," said the Special Forces
team's 44-year-old sergeant, who like all the Green Berets interviewed was
not allowed to be quoted by name for security reasons. "It's not about
bulldozing Hit, driving through with a tank, with all the kids running away.
. . . These insurgencies are defeated by personal relationships."
The real battles, he said, are unfolding "in a sheik's house, squatting in
the desert eating with my right hand and smoking Turkish cigarettes and
trying to influence tribes to rise up against an insurgency."
Under the glittering chandeliers of his newly remodeled salon, Sheik Jubair
adjusted his fine, white cotton dishdasha , or traditional robe, and lit a
As if on cue, the American team sergeant leaned over and handed him an
The 63-year-old sheik is the de facto ruler of the Albu Nimr, a wealthy
tribe whose influence stretches from Anbar's violent capital of Ramadi up
the Euphrates to Haditha. Jubair knows the U.S. military needs his tribe as
much as it needs the military. Shunned in the 1990s for plotting against
Saddam Hussein, the tribe backed the U.S.-led overthrow of Hussein in 2003.
But Jubair now faces threats from Anbar's entrenched Sunni Arab insurgency,
which he said put a $5 million bounty on his head.
Week after week, the team has spent long hours cultivating Jubair -- funding
his projects, buying his son a PlayStation, even holding his hand during
treatment at a U.S. military hospital for an infected toe. In return, Jubair
has supplied hundreds of police and army recruits, as well as intelligence
targeting insurgents in the region.
During a recent visit at his home in al-Furat, Jubair pressed the team
sergeant for a hospital, a gas station, a school, payment for a damaged car
and a mosque. "We don't do mosques," the sergeant replied.
One minute the tough and temperamental Jubair was unbuttoning his shirt to
show off a wound acquired in the Iran-Iraq war. The next, he was pouting
because the American team dared visit his nephew and rival, Sheik Hatem,
a.k.a. the "boy king," who officially heads the tribe and lives in the same
"He's young and doesn't know anything," Jubair scolded the team sergeant.
"If you give him projects, I will close the city council and come here!"
For the Americans, such engagement is as vital as it can be maddening.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm dealing with teenagers," the sergeant said. "They
even do the 'mom' and 'dad' thing with me" and the team captain.
It's also work that involves keen judgment and knowing when to cut deals.
After the team arrived in January, it captured a former police colonel
accused of stealing cars and $60,000 in pay and killing another police
officer. But when the colonel was detained and sent to Abu Ghraib prison,
sheiks Jubair and Hatem pleaded for his release. "They said you will
increase your wasta and all that," the team sergeant said, "so we secured
his release, a controlled release."
The compromise helped win the tribe's backing for a local police force. But
it also heightened frictions with the U.S. Army battalion, whose convoy
transporting the detainee had hit a roadside bomb.
A Clash of Cultures
Every night like clockwork at the U.S. military camp -- known as a forward
operating base, or FOB -- outside Hit, a loudspeaker atop the Special Forces
team house blasts an alert that the Army battalion is about to shoot off
"Attention on the FOB! Attention on the FOB!" a male voice boomed one recent
night. "There will be an illumination mission in 10 minutes. Go Cowboys!"
"I've tried to figure out a way to cut that wire," the team sergeant
muttered as he stood on the roof, bemoaning the battalion's predictable
The clash of military cultures was apparent from the start in late January,
when the Special Forces team captain, scruffy after days in the desert,
arrived at the Hit camp and introduced his team's mission to Lt. Col. Thomas
Graves, commander of the 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment. Graves, a
close-shaven West Point graduate from Texas, said nothing and walked away,
according to team members.
"We grow our hair a little longer," the team sergeant said. "We wear
mustaches, and the conventional Army doesn't want to deal with you because
they look at you as undisciplined. We're the most disciplined force in the
To Graves, the problem boiled down to communication and his battalion's
limited, or "tactical," control over the Special Forces. "It's not that they
have long hair. I don't care if they're frickin' from Mars," said Graves in
the camp's chow hall. "They have a responsibility to tell us what they were
doing, but they refuse to do it."
Graves said the Green Berets and their Iraqi army scout platoon once shot at
his tanks; he said he never investigated the incident but declined to
explain why. Concern over his troops' safety led him to initiate steps to
remove the team, he said, adding, "I don't care if you're frickin' naked,
just don't shoot at my tanks!"
Training Iraqi Forces
At a desert firing range outside Hit, a squad of Iraqi army scouts attacked
a line of silhouetted targets, emptying their AK-47 assault rifles and then
switching effortlessly to pistols. Next, they practiced sweeping a room,
pivoting through the doorway and shouting bursts of Arabic.
Training foreign military forces is a core Special Forces mission -- and the
top priority of the U.S. command in Iraq. The Iraqi scout platoon, recruited
from the Albu Nimr tribe and coached by the team in Hit, displayed an
agility and confidence unusual among Iraqi soldiers. And the Americans
fostered loyalty in the platoon.
"We've been to their homes, we've treated their children. They are our
partners," said the team captain, an energetic officer from Los Angeles.
"We walk with them as brothers," said Mokles Ali Muklif, the Iraqi platoon
But last spring, when the scouts spotted a roadside bomb during a solo
mission and warned U.S. forces about it, they were detained by Graves's
battalion, blindfolded and forced to sit in bitter cold for seven hours
before the team could secure their release. "I was livid," the team sergeant
Later, when the Special Forces team offered to give advanced training to the
entire Iraqi army battalion, Graves rejected the idea. Morale continued to
drop in the Iraqi battalion, its manpower down to 60 percent after hundreds
of soldiers quit over lack of pay, poor food and duty far from home. "We
could have had the battalion conducting unilateral ops, and 1-36 could be
sitting back at the firm base," the team captain said.
Instead, the team threw all its energy into mobilizing the Albu Nimr tribe
behind a police force -- first in its territory of al-Furat, then in the
broader region including the contested town of Hit.
A Recruiting Drive
Col. Falah Salah Shimra, 41, a portly tribesman with an imposing demeanor,
examined the charred shell of a police station destroyed by a bomb planted
on the roof.
Chief of al-Furat's growing tribal police contingent of several hundred men,
Shimra minimized the attack on his fledgling force. "Basically, within our
area we have no threat at all," he said. "The threat is from outside."
Nearby, tribal police manned a checkpoint, wearing blue shirts as uniforms.
None had body armor. Most used their own rifles and ammunition and patrolled
in their own vehicles. Many had gone for months without wages until the
Special Forces team helped cut through red tape and graft to secure their
full pay in July.
Once they get more equipment, Shimra said, he plans "to extend our security
all around Hit and get rid of the insurgents."
Indeed in July, backing from tribal leaders led to Hit's first successful
police recruiting drive.
"We knew there would be no people in Hit, so to facilitate success we put
out word in al-Furat," the team sergeant said.
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