From the Stars and Stripes archives

Battling violence in the heart of darkness

U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Tien hands a stuffed animal to an Iraqi child after calling the father and young children over to the wall of the backyard in Hamdiyah, a section of Jazeera that up to a few weeks ago was too hostile for Coalition Forces to stop and interact with the neighborhood residents. The area recently stood up a police station after the local tribe's sheik reached out to Task Force 2-37.


Tribal leaders in Jazeera join with U.S. forces to fight insurgents, form police station

By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 14, 2007

HAMDIYAH, Iraq — His left arm in a sling as a result of being shot by insurgents a couple of weeks ago, Sheik Jabbar Al Fahad, dressed in a gray pinstripe suit and accompanied by the commander of U.S. forces in Ramadi, walks down a dirt road in his neighborhood.

U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police escort him, their Bradley fighting vehicles and armored Humvees left behind. Their steps rouse only the occasional baritone "moo" from one of the many cows grazing nearby, and for Anbar Province, the pace feels almost like strolling.

Local men come out from their homes and businesses to enthusiastically greet the sheik with kisses and hugs, and to shake the hands of the soldiers.

At one point, Lt. Col. John Tien stops and calls over a stone wall into the backyard of a house, waving a father and his young children to him. As the man lifts his kids one by one, Tien hands each a stuffed animal.

“A month ago we couldn’t even come in this neighborhood,” Tien, commanding officer of 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment out of Friedberg, Germany, said after giving out the toys.

“Then the local men said they were ready to take responsibility. Now we can walk this entire road.”

Hamdiyah is one of eight tribal neighborhoods in Jazeera, a sweeping area just north of Ramadi city that soldiers refer to in part as the heart of darkness — one of the outposts there is named OP Forsaken. Before al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed, Jazeera was his playground, a place where he moved freely and preached violence.

Running along the northern side of the Euphrates, Jazeera stretches beyond Ramadi’s western border, and to the east abuts the outskirts of Habbaniyah, which has been transferred from coalition forces to the Iraqi army.

Until recently, Hamdiyah was “in the enemy’s hands, and they were clearly intimidating the population,” Tien said.

But in early November, the tribes’ leader, Sheik Jabbar Al Fahad, reached out to Tien’s Task Force 2-37. He said he had a list of volunteers and was ready to stand up a police station and needed support, according to Maj. Michael Wawrzyniak, operations officer for the task force.

Within a week there was a large-scale clearing operation, and shortly thereafter Iraqi police were patrolling the area.

That has been the pattern in the heart of darkness over the last four to five months. Much like how dominoes fall, tribes from west to east have turned in rapid succession from hostile to friendly and joined coalition forces in the fight against the insurgency.

Much of the fighting has shifted to the insurgents’ home bases where they once thought they were safe, said Col. Sean MacFarland, the top commander in Ramadi and in charge of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division.

Though much of the surrounding province remains insecure and an insurgent stronghold, things started changing in Jazeera in late August when the insurgents killed a revered and influential sheik. His followers couldn’t find the body for four days.

“That’s really where the insurgents went wrong,” Wawrzyniak said.

Murder intimidation was a regular part of the insurgents’ repertoire, but “al-Qaida overplayed their hand,” MacFarland added.

The sheiks, who according to Tien “had been to some extent neutered by insurgents,” banded together, forming a group called the Anbar Awakening. They decided they had had enough and essentially started to switch sides.

The locals followed their lead.

“The people are tired of al-Qaida. They want another way out,” Iraqi border police Col. Yousef Tariq, who introduced Sheik Jabbar to the task force, said through an interpreter.

“This is what al-Qaida has done for the community: They’ve created widows, stopped colleges and education, stopped the normal machine of life. [The police] are trying to start that engine again.”

Tribal borders are as defined in Anbar as state boundaries are in the United States, so when one sheik would come forward to work with coalition forces, any security developed would literally stop at the line of the next tribe.

But success begets success, Tien said. Once sheiks saw security improving to their west, they extended their hands. When Wawrzyniak went to meet with Sheik Jabbar, he was introduced to Sheik Mohammed, Jabbar’s neighbor to the east in Albu Obaid.

“Sheik Mohammed was staring from the other side, standing on the outside looking in and saying ‘I want some of that too,’ ” Tien said of the security that was rapidly growing in Hamdiyah.

The first Iraqi police station opened in Albu Obaid on Jan. 6 in an abandoned house across from a U.S. patrol base. Until that day, there had been zero Iraqi police presence in the area.

As Tien toured the outside of the station the day it opened, he excitedly whipped out his digital camera to take a photo of two Iraqi police trucks pulling up with their telltale blue doors on an otherwise white pickup.

“This is a first,” he said, grinning.

Police officers from Hamdiyah, barely experienced themselves, came to help out the newest startup station, handing out weapons. They fastidiously recorded the serial number of each AK-47 before turning it over to its new owner, who was also given a blue button-down shirt as a uniform.

Tien met with some of the new officers, giving them what amounted to a pep talk.

“This is the last day terrorists ever come to Albu Obaid, right?” he said to about seven officers lined up across from him. They nodded in stoic agreement.

The officers will be backed by coalition forces as at the other stations in Jazeera, but Tien, like many commanders, stresses the importance of Iraqis providing security for Iraqis.

“There’s a saying that all politics is local. Well, I have a saying here that all security is local,” he said.

Back in Hamdiyah, as the visit between Sheik Jabbar and MacFarland winded down and the soldiers headed back to their Bradleys and Humvees, a siren wailed.

To an American ear it’s a signal that something is going down, but in Iraq — in Anbar, in Jazeera — it’s a comforting symbol.

“That’s a good sound, police sirens,” said MacFarland, turning to the sheik. “It means law and order is returning.”

Sheik Jabbar Al Fahad, left, who is the de facto leader of the Hamdiyah area of Jazeera, greets one of his tribesman during a joint patrol with Task Force 2-37 and Iraqi police. The sheik asked the task force to help him start a police station to rid the area of insurgents. Capt. Thomas Breslin, on the staff of Lt. Col. John Tien, commanding officer of Task Force 2-37, calls the sheik a true Iraqi patriot and “one of the guys that gives you hope.”