On the Ground: ‘Dances’ With Strongmen

Building trust in Iraq, with chai and R-E-S-P-E-C-T

In a dim, chilly tent, illuminated only by a single fluorescent tube and the gray winter light creeping in through the front flap, Lieutenant Colonel Mario Diaz sits across the table from sheik Hussein al-Tamini, an influential Shia sheik in the rural region northwest of Baghdad, sipping Pepsi and trading pleasantries.

Diaz made the drive to combat outpost Courage for this meeting from his headquarters at Camp Liberty, which is part of the staggeringly vast Baghdad airport military complex southwest of here. The string of camps that surround and abut the airport house a number of different American bases that are kept running by an army of civilian contractors who are protected by Ugandan guards, all of whom live in a world carved into shape by rows of high concrete T-walls that separate the complex into discrete cells of activity. The place is so cut off from the country that surrounds it that it could be anywhere—Kosovo, Korea, Afghanistan, or Alaska—but out here, at Courage, there’s no such separation. Plopped down in a farm field and ringed simply by a row of T-walls no more than the size of two city blocks, Courage is unmistakably part of today’s Iraq.

Diaz and Sheik Hussein are still feeling each other out, performing the slow dance that Arab culture dictates strongmen perform with each other—complimenting, then pushing, declaring friendship, then starting all over again. “I purposefully have met with very few people in the first couple weeks,” Diaz tells him, “because I first want to meet with important people.” The sheik, this implies, is one of these important people. It’s a nice gambit in this year-old counterinsurgency campaign that places emphasis on building relationships at the local level, in hopes that each new brick will build a strong enough wall to keep law-abiding Iraqis on one side, and insurgents, terrorists, and foreign fighters on the other. Mainstream press coverage of this new reality in Iraq has been seriously limited, with fewer reporters in Iraq generally, fewer out in the field embedded with troops, and, frankly, overshadowed by the U.S. presidential campaign back home.

Diaz is the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion “Gimlets” of the 21st Infantry, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. At the time of this meeting in late January, the 2nd SBCT had only been in country for a little over a month, and was still going through the arduous process of getting to know the local power players—something that takes many meetings, gallons of tooth-achingly sweet chai, and lots of expressions of mutual trust, admiration, and respect.

Sheik Hussein, involved in the Sons of Iraq [SOI] movement, as all sheiks are, informed Diaz that some SOI checkpoints had recently been fired on by people he says were Shia fighters, part of a rival “awakening” movement that had been infiltrated by al Qaeda, and that his people were investigating the incident and would turn over the names of suspects soon. Unconfirmed rumors to be sure, but I heard enough rumblings among some officers that the Sunni al Qaeda had started to team up with elements of the Shia Madhi militia, a development that has the potential to sow chaos in the mixed region.

No officer or NCO on the ground I spoke with had any illusions about who it is they’re dealing with when working with the sheiks or the SOI. “In my mind,” Captain Glen Helberg, commanding officer of Charlie Company at Courage told me one afternoon, “the biggest challenge for me is that we’re not able to hold together this very loose coalition of IPs (Iraqi police), IAs (Iraqi Army), SOIs, and us. If we’re not able to maintain that, then the SOI guys can take their weapons, go home, pull their IEDs out of the garage and go back to what they were doing. We know that there are guys in the SOI who were attacking IPs and coalition forces a year ago. So in my mind the biggest fear is that we can’t integrate these guys into the government and into society quick enough.”

But they’re trying, and finding some success. In my few days at Courage, I accompanied Captain Helberg to several fruitful meetings with SOI leaders, local sheiks, and the area IP commander, all in the name of building trust among the groups.

But there’s always the matter of the Iraqi government. “Abu Ghraib has been left behind,” Sheik Hussein says, noting that the Iraqi government has done nothing to help with water, electricity, and rebuilding projects in the area. The government, he says, is corrupt, and is like a “a human body, but they have cancer everywhere.”

Diaz artfully sidesteps this one, saying that the area had only recently become secure enough for the government to begin moving in. He then lays out some complaints of his own. He tells the sheik that many of the SOIs manning the checkpoints haven’t been wearing the tan uniforms the American military supplied them, and he wants that changed immediately so American forces can better recognize them. He says that he’ll start docking pay come the next pay cycle for any SOIs not in uniform. He’s also heard reports that some of the SOIs have been spotted carrying heavy machine guns, and mounting guns on trucks, and that’s not allowed. He says that any heavy weaponry—anything more powerful than an AK-47—found at the checkpoints will be confiscated by the Americans.

Sheik Hussein promises action, and quickly moves the discussion to the topic on everyone’s mind: the Muthana brigade.

One of the major issues in this Sunni-dominated region is the Iraqi Army’s 3rd Battalion, 6th Division, known as the Muthana brigade, and stories that they’re planning a push into the area from camp Constitution. Even though the unit is headed by a Sunni, General Nasser, it’s comprised mostly of Shia foot soldiers. Muthana had previously operated in the area, and reportedly treated the local population brutally, so much so that the local Sunni sheiks threaten to move if the unit comes back.

Sheik Hussein says that the Sunnis prefer the Americans to the return of Muthana, and argues that general Nasser doesn’t think that the SOIs are legitimate, making him worry that they will attack the checkpoints. The SOI “brought security here,” Hussein says, “but we are being misjudged by the IA.” Diaz tries to assure him that when the brigade comes back, whenever that may be, they’ll only patrol jointly with American forces, and for the time being won’t be able to act on their own. Sheik Hussein isn’t very satisfied with this answer, but it’s the only one he’s going to get. Like it or not, the Iraqi Army at some point is going to take over from the American military as the dominant security force in the region, and the SOI—or at least SOI other than the 20 percent of them incorporated into the Army or police—will have to find other employment. As Captain Helberg would tell me later:

This is all about a power play. There are some in the SOI movement who believe that they’ll be responsible for security in the area, and that’s absolutely not the case. I don’t know when the Muthana brigade is gonna come in here. It could be tomorrow, it could be six months from now—it could be six years from now—but these guys need to start preparing themselves for it because at some point, Iraqi security forces are going to take over responsibility for security in this area, and my hope is that we get the police up and running at some point and the MOD [Ministry of Defense] and MOI [Ministry of the Interior] sit down and look at it and say, ‘We don’t need to send Muthana brigade in there,’ but I don’t know if that’s gonna happen at this point.”

Over the next several days, I watched as he tried to add more bricks to the wall.

This is Part Four in an ongoing series.

Part One, “Up Close With the Counterinsurgency,” is here.

Part Two, “Meet the Sons of Iraq,”is here.

Part Three, “Fact From Fiction,” is here.

Part Four, “Dances With Strongmenm,” is here.

Part Five, “The Rejected,” is here.

Part Six, “Men With Guns,” is here.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.