Baghdad tribes close to fighting al-Qaida
May 21, 2007
TAJI, Iraq — Mirroring a nationwide trend, tribes near Baghdad are on the verge of banding together against al-Qaida and have met with U.S. military officials seeking aid and guidance in fighting the terrorist network.
Acceptance of — if not outright support for — al-Qaida among the tribes eroded after the strict Islamic law imposed by insurgents clashed with the authority of the sheikhs, according to U.S. military officials.
On Saturday, a group of local chieftains met with military commanders and a representative of the State Department at Camp Taji, about 20 miles northwest of Baghdad, and tentatively agreed to form a council that would oversee the creation of a provincial security force similar to the tribal militia created in western Iraq.
“I think we all agree that our common enemy are extremists and that’s who we must defeat,” Col. Paul E. Funk II said to the roughly dozen sheikhs at the gathering. Funk, commander of the 1st “Ironhorse” Brigade Combat Tam, 1st Cavalry Division, presided over the meeting.
With the fledgling alliance still in its early stages, the gathering at times resembled a negotiation. Several sheikhs asked for improvements in water treatment and electricity service as well as for inquiries into the detention by Iraqi security forces of relatives and tribal members.
“Are you going to support us, or do we have to go knock on someone else’s door,” one sheikh asked.
But even while U.S. commanders courted tribal support, they were wary of creating a new, separate fighting force and potentially further complicating the crowded battlefield around Baghdad that includes not only al-Qaida, but also Shiite militias.
“We are not here to build another militia,” Funk said. Volunteers from the tribes must cooperate with the Iraqi government’s security forces, he said.
The fragile, emerging alliance is being handled carefully by the military. No photographs were allowed at Saturday’s meeting, a nod toward security concerns and possible retaliation against the sheikhs.
Lt. Col. Kurt Pinkerton, who commands the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment in Abu Ghraib, has been on the forefront of the military’s outreach to the tribes in the area. He said that the turning point in the struggle for the sympathies of the region came last September when al-Qaida in Iraq declared the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq.
The shadow government clashed with the centuries old tribal system, establishing Islamic sharia courts and often punishing dissention with kidnappings and death sentences.
“Throughout history the tribes have been seen as a challenge and have been targeted. At one point Saddam tried to put them down, al-Qaeda tried, and now we need to keep the coalition from making the same mistakes,” Pinkerton said. “If you understand the [tribal] culture, you can understand the country better. Why not use tribal influence to meet your goals and objectives?”
Tribes in western and northern Iraq have previously joined together to battle al-Qaida.
The al-Anbar Revolutionaries have claimed to have killed dozens of insurgents, while after a meeting in the northern city of Hawijah near Kirkuk earlier this year, tribal heads and other community leaders issued a “declaration” against al-Qaida.