Keeping Iraqis from killing each other
Stars and Stripes June 5, 2007
Mideast edition, Tuesday, June 5, 2007
ABU GHRAIB, Iraq
The soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 7th Artillery Regiment maintain a tiny strip of farmland just outside the western wall of Camp Liberty, part of the massive U.S. base that surrounds Baghdad International Airport.
It’s a place where Sunnis and Shiites reside, worship together at mosques, intermarry, tend fruit orchards, and educate their kids in war-torn schools.
It’s also a place where the various tribes in the area routinely kidnap and murder each other.
“It’s not about Sunni-Shia,” Lt. Col. Michael Griffith, 42, of Tooele, Utah, says about the violence outside the wire. “It’s more like the Sopranos.”
Keeping that violence at bay in the area is vital because of its close proximity to coalition forces. And Griffith believes he has found a common denominator among the warring factions: M-O-N-E-Y.
In the past few months, Griffith has spent about $1 million in the area on generators, food drops, crop seed, school renovations and canal-clearing projects. Griffith believes pumping money and jobs into the community can stem the violence by giving poor farmers another way to occupy their time and earn a living.
Griffith doesn’t direct the projects himself. He contracts with the local tribe leaders to do the work, pass out the food, and give jobs to the men in the area, in the hopes that a busy man won’t have time to murder his neighbor.
The leaders, sheiks and high-ranking family members make a profit that ranges from nothing to 15 percent depending on the project, Griffith says.
“Have we bought them off? No,” Griffith says. “But if I could give each one of them $100, I would.” In the grand scheme of the war’s budget, he thinks it would be a wise investment.
To some degree, it is working. A roadside bomb last hit the area in January, and the battalion has lost only one soldier, Griffith said.
To some degree, it is not working. Kidnappings and murders have continued among the tribes in recent months, including three murders late last month.
Griffith’s main ally, the leading sheik in the area, knows some of his tribe members are involved in the recent killings. As a result, both the sheik and Griffith walk a precarious line when it comes to meting out justice.
The sheik is helping the U.S. soldiers hunt down one of his own tribe for committing one of the three murders in May, a retaliation hit that the sheik says violates tribal law.
But he also wants Griffith to help him appeal four life-sentences for four of his tribe members. They were convicted in Iraqi court for holding two men for more than two months in an underground cell, torturing them in response to a previous murder against the kidnappers’ tribe.
In that case, a lifetime of prison is too much, says the sheik, whose name Griffith asked to be withheld for the man’s safety. Griffith says it’s their right to appeal, and he’s agreed to show them the proper paperwork.
Since then, another sheik has been gunned down in his driveway for working with the Americans to rebuild a school. The man’s brother took over the $123,000 project and cut the ribbon on the school re-opening on Wednesday.
Griffith estimated the brother probably made about $5,000 profit on the project, which included new wiring, tiling, painting, refitting the bathrooms and adding school supplies.
“It’s more than just profit margin,” Griffith said. “All those dollars are going into the community.”
Money is a powerful argument. On Wednesday, the commander met with another community leader who has successfully led a small food giveaway for the community, which Griffith funded. The man wants another contract with the military, but both he and Griffith are wary of each other.
The battalion has checked up on the previous contract, making sure the man bought the food for a fair price from local vendors and that local families benefited from the giveaway. Both, so far, have happened, and Griffith is considering sending more business to the man.
Griffith is starting to trust him for another reason. Griffith found out about the three murders late last month because the man called the commander’s translator, even though one of the suspected murderers is a member of the man’s tribe.
“That’s a success story so far,” Griffith said.