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Interviews: sheikh gazi al-essawi

Sheikh Gazi al-Essawi, a Sunni Arab, is the leader of the Bu Essa tribe in Falluja, one of the largest and most powerful tribes in Iraq. In late November, Sheikh Gazi's warehouse in Falluja was raided by soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division looking for explosives. In this interview, he explains how such raids are perceived by members of Iraq's tribal Arab society. "In my view," he tells FRONTLINE producer Martin Smith, "the political solution is better than the military one. ... We know how mighty the Americans are and how tough they are, so they do not need to parade the streets and search here and there. ... They don't need to intimidate us. If they want to prove their strength, they should help me politically." This interview was conducted through an interpreter on Nov. 30, 2003, and translated from Arabic.

I'm not upset at all that they searched my property. This is my only question: Why did they have to destroy things? Do the Americans intend to turn me into a friend of them or an enemy?

We want to talk to you about the situation in Falluja since the war began. It's interesting, Falluja, because this was a place, I understand, where there was no looting in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Yes, thank God, Falluja has been stable since the very beginning, when the American forces came here. The tribes in town, they were in total control of the situation. The people of this town took things in charge effectively, and there were no problems for a period of about a month.

The way society is structured in Falluja is very different than how Americans organize their societies. Can you explain how it is that the tribal sheikhs run the town?

Falluja is made out of few tribes. Three main tribes in and outside the city. There are smaller tribes, but the major ones are three. Al Bu Essa, and I am one of them, the Muhammada and Jumayla. Falluja is made out of all these three in its majority. So the sheikhs lead the tribe members and the leaders of the smaller groups within a tribe. Those are the people who handled the safety situation and secured Falluja.

So, the real power in the city, the political organization in the city is tribal?

Yes, it is tribal, in addition to the religious leaders who do have a tremendous role in raising awareness and in organizing the society.

What does it mean when the Americans come in and start talking about a democracy, a different system? What does it mean to the tribal leaders, both the tribal sheikhs and the imams, the religious sheikhs?

Ever since the American forces came, we started meeting with them, sheikhs and religious leaders, to coordinate things. We have given suggestions to solve both security issues and reconstruction issues, but unfortunately they were not taken into consideration. Only very few got taken into consideration. ...

Even the reconstruction, they are always talking about reconstruction, reconstruction, and reconstruction. Nothing really worth mentioning. ... We talked about unemployment, one of the causes of the security issues is unemployment. So we always tell them about providing jobs and up till now, nothing. ... We talked about the human-rights issues, the raids and the humiliation of the people of Falluja. One of the reasons of the deterioration of the security situation in Falluja is the lack of respect of the citizens of Falluja [by the Americans].

The way things are in this tribal society of Falluja, if someone gets slapped, it's a big deal, it could lead to bigger confrontations, it could lead to killing. That is very different from other advanced cities. ... They did not understand all this about Falluja, they went on humiliating, raiding, arresting. It's unbearable.

This is basically the code of Hammurabi -- an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

"A tooth for a tooth." Precisely. In our tribal society, this principle is applied. ...

A lot of the problems resulted from acts of revenge. Say, for instance, the Americans have humiliated his father or brother, so he would be looking for ways to take revenge, so that is how a lot of the problems started. ... They killed innocent people who do not have anything to do with anything, nothing to do with resistance or any other problems. When they kill on the streets, they would kill anybody on the streets, randomly and not based on guilt. ... Tens and tens were killed and injured like that.

We told them, it is not necessary to enter the city. The city does not have security problems at all. The only security problems are caused only by the Americans and the coalition forces. Do not enter the city, we know how strong you are, we do not need you to prove it.

Who was it that wouldn't listen to you? Was it a specific commander? Who was it?

We go and put forth all our suggestions regarding all the issues related to the city's interest, but no one has taken them into consideration. ... The American commander, there is an American commander for the region of Falluja, the Falluja commander. ... We gave them many plans to improve the security, to better the situation in the city, but no one would listen. ...

On a weekly basis we do meet with them. Every week we meet with the commander, as sheikhs and religious leaders, and I am one of them. Every week we meet with him.

We are looked at as collaborators. Some say, "You go and meet with the Americans. What did you achieve?" We did get death threats. ... While someone like me is only interested in the safety and the economic well-being of the city. I am a businessman and I have lots to do, but it is my city and I have to serve it. So what we are asking for is to straighten out the security and the economic situation of the city.

On November 8, there was a meeting in which General Abizaid came to Falluja and spoke to you. Can you describe that meeting for me? What happened?

I met with Abizaid in Al Ramadi some 20 days ago in that meeting. We presented many ideas. He listened to us, and he had many demands that we cannot fulfill. ...

What demands was Abizaid making of you?

For Abizaid is always asking for security. All the Americans are asking for security. They want us to protect them instead of them protecting us. ... Meanwhile, people that are causing problems are from outside the cities, nobody knows them. Us, as sheikhs, we do not know the people that are executing those attacks against the Americans. Some are Arabs, some are foreigners, some are from out of town, it could be that some people from the city are harboring them or helping them. ...

There is great sympathy within the community for some of these attacks, correct?

Probably the section of the society that was harmed, Baathists that are harmed, yes, they probably have sympathy towards them [the attackers].

I understand, though, that when Abizaid came here he was very tough and he demanded that you take control of the people and get them to stop the attacks on the Americans ... and that he warned you.

Yes, yes, indeed it was a tough warning. We asked for more security to be provided by the police and the national army. ... He asked ... he promised for a small army, some units. And he asked to meet some of the officers.

If the army and the police are not reinforced with arms, equipment and cars ... usually the police weapons are small -- the gangsters have heavy weaponry. For example, there was a state-owned factory here in Falluja that was subject to looting. The police came and they shot a few bullets and then they were out of ammunitions. We asked the Americans to provide more ammunitions and no one would listen to us.

So how can we protect the city without weapons and without ammunition? I, for instance, I have asked for a permit to bear arms more than a month ago, for me personally as sheikh, a tribal leader, and I have to protect myself from the thieves and from the carjackers. I was given a permit for only one machine gun and another for my brother and they retrieved it from him. If I cannot protect myself, how can I protect the other citizens?

With all due respect to you, sir, the Americans say that you are responsible for some of the violence. That's what the Americans are saying.

No, that is not true, to the contrary ... I meet with the Americans for the purpose of safeguarding the city, to protect the people. ... Me, trying to kill the American commander! That is not true. I want to kill an American commander! [laughter]

Listen, this is animosity, everybody has enemies, they go and tip off the Americans with things about everybody who is prominent and who wants to benefit the city. They would say that such and such person is supporting the resistance, that they are harboring somebody or bring somebody or that they have arms. I cannot possibly commit such mistake.

They must believe, though, that you're an enemy. They must believe these informers, these tip-offs, or they wouldn't come and do the kind of raid they did in this factory.

But they should be able to differentiate who is with them and who is against them. They should sort through their information, not all of the information is believable and should be acted upon. ... Our group owns some 15 companies, inside of Iraq and outside Iraq. Our group, me and my brothers alone. ... Is it then believable that with one small mistake, we would sacrifice our properties -- and I am a tribe leader -- I would sacrifice my tribe, my reputation, my companies to support resistance or encourage such thing?

There are Americans who believe that the tribal system is a threat to democracy, that the power that you hold as tribal sheikhs is not something that can co-exist with representative democracy?

This situation cannot be changed overnight; this goes very far back, to thousands of years ago in Iraq. So it is very difficult that someone come and change it in eight months. It needs time and an awareness campaign. ... This I think would require tens of years. It is difficult to come to a country such as Iraq ... It's true that they have such intentions. ... It needs time, it needs public awareness campaign, it needs American support, it needs sacrifices.

But whose country is it? It seems to me -- what do you think of this idea? -- that the Americans have [a vision] of coming here and changing the system to, they say, to create an example in the Middle East of an alternative form of government. What do you think of this type of thinking?

This cannot be relegated to one person's opinion; whether they should stay or not. ... I think the Americans should secure the place, straighten out the economic situation in the country, and then they should leave the country. Otherwise the problems will only increase. ... Because occupation is not accepted by all peoples, not only the people of Iraq. The occupation situation, the pressure … are not welcome. ... I have presented a security plan to the commander, the commander of the western region, a plan to improve the security situation in Falluja. I hope that the commander will meet me to discuss this plan.

So this talk that I am supporting [the resistance], or that I want to kill the commander, is just plain defamation. I never had such intent and I refute these claims. ... All that I try to do is to calm things down, to get more safety in the city, and I call for leaving a chance for the Americans. Because in this situation they [Americans] are not given a chance to build. Because if the regime was toppled and the Americans were not given a chance to build, we are losing everything.

Many of the imams have been outspoken here about encouraging their followers to confront the Americans. Have you talked to the imams? Have you tried to use your power and influence to affect that situation?

Yes, I met with some of the religious leaders. I asked them to be more self-conscious of what they say in the Friday prayer sermon and to calm things down.

They should promise if they calm things down there will be reconstruction and then they [Americans] leave as soon as possible.

The Americans say they cannot reconstruct the city as long as the people in the city are hostile or violent to the Americans.

OK, so let them reinforce the police, and the security, and give the construction work to the Iraqis ... [and] they would supervise them. If reconstruction is the issue … that is easy to solve, they would stay in their base, they would give maps and direction on what should be built and supervise, and the Iraqis would execute.

You mean give you the money and give you the power?

They would simply contract out, there are construction companies around. They want such and such built, with given conditions. And they would be the supervisors. You know the way things get contracted out ... the usual. ... And as an Iraqi company they could bring their tribe members to safeguard the construction site. If that is the problem.

I understand that in this meeting, the meeting with General Abizaid, I understand that the imams said, "We cannot stop calling for jihad," that this is the responsibility of Muslims to resist the occupation. ...

No, that issue was not raised. The calling for jihad or the stopping of jihad. The religious leaders are not -- maybe a few, only a few of them are worked up about it. But the religious leaders in general, they are not calling for jihad or to kill Americans, that is not happening at all. And Abizaid did not raise this issue. He called for the improvement of the security situation, and for people to collaborate with him, otherwise there will be a lot of problems in the cities.

Big problems, meaning, it was a threat that they were going to get tougher on you?

Yes, it was a threat. It was a threat, that's true.

And how do you feel taking that kind of warning from this army that is occupying your town?

"It's all in God's hands." What do you want us to do? We have no say over the mujahedeen and the resistance, so we can't ask them. We don't know. All we could do is talk to people in public functions and try to calm them down, tell them about the threats: "Brothers, if you don't calm down we will get harmed." We don't know of anybody among us who is involved in the resistance. The father wouldn't know if his son is involved in the resistance.

Do you see any good that has come from this American invasion?

Up until now we have not seen the benefits, only harm to people.

What do you think of the Americans?

They are a superpower, that no one can deny. Ideally, they should solve the problem politically and not militarily. Because the military action only calls for reactions. In my view, the political solution is better than the military one. I ask the Americans to deal with things politically, to calm things down politically better than militarily. As Iraqis and as the rest of the world, we know how mighty the Americans are and how tough they are, so they do not need to parade the streets and search here and there. We know how strong they are, they don't need to intimidate us. If they want to prove their strength, they should help me politically. ...

Haven't you met with some of the leaders of the resistance, privately? Have you not had any contact with some of the financiers of the resistance?

I've never met or been introduced to any of them. Although, I may have met or spoken to one of them without being aware of their participation in the resistance.

And the Americans have not asked you to intercede, to involve yourself, to mediate?

No. They didn't ask me to do so. I don't know how to contact any of those people anyway.

I assume, though, that you are much smarter about who is who in a place like Falluja than any American will ever be.

I don't know anyone on a personal level. As a matter of fact, about 20 days ago I was stopped on the bridge by two gunmen who threatened to kill me. I have a factory that manufactures bricks and they thought that I provide bricks to the Americans.

So they threatened that they will kill me if I didn't stop the factory from manufacturing. ... and if I didn't stop providing the American army with bricks.

I got their license plate number and tried to find them but couldn't. I had a gun in my car when I met with them but we didn't shoot at each other. I held one of them and tried to keep him in the car but his friend managed to help him escape by using his gun.

And I have filed a complaint against them at the police station. So as you can see, those people don't trust me or any one that meets with the American Army. They won't talk to me about the resistance, because they are afraid I would tell the Americans about them. If the Americans ask me to help in controlling or improving the security situation, I would start doing that by talking and advising people.

Members of your tribe were involved in Saddam's military, is that correct?

Yes, many from all the tribes served in Saddam's army.

And some of these men are the very people that the Americans are fearful are behind some of the attacks?


That could be true. There are always rumors about that issue but one can never know the truth.

I imagine the Americans are asking you to control your tribe, your men, those men they believe are behind some of these attacks. Is that true?

I can't solve the problem by myself. It would help if [you were] giving me names of some people from my tribe that [you think] are participating in the resistance. Neither of us can tust rumors. I have no evidence against anyone from my tribe. How can I accuse anyone without any evidence?

If [you] had provided me with a name of someone that [you] wanted me to watch, I would be glad to do so.

The Americans did the same thing to me. Somebody told them that I supported the resistance, that I had weapons, invited Saddam to my house, etc. ... They believed those false informers and confronted me. They couldn't find any evidence to support what they have been told. They surrounded my house. I'm a member of the Anbar council -- five people represent from Falluja there, and I'm one of the five. They didn't respect...

They've accused [you] of having Saddam to [your] house?

Yes, they accused me of inviting Saddam to my house, even though he imprisoned me for seven years. He even confiscated my property. He also imprisoned my bother. He tortured and destroyed us. Would it be possible that Saddam would do all this to me and still visit my house?

I met him two or three times. That happened before he lost power and it was at a public meeting and not a private one.

You never met privately with Saddam?

No, I never met with Saddam privately. ..

I want to ask a question: Why did they do this to me? Why did they search my property? I'm not upset because they searched my house or my company. What upsets me is that they vandalized my company. I'm not upset at all that they searched my property. This is my only question: Why did they have to destroy things? Do the Americans intend to turn me into a friend or an enemy?

How can I convince the people here that the aim of the Americans is to improve security when they did the opposite to me? The people are going to tell me: look what they did to you! Look how many computers they destroyed. What did the computers do? They ripped off and smashed all the doors of the building and the factory. They destroyed everything. They even destroyed the food that was there.

The food stuffs, they were trying to look inside to see ... I don't know what they were trying to do, I'll ask them. Is some of this damage still evident in the factory, in the storage rooms?

We started to repair the destruction

But I wonder if [you] could take me, if [you] would be so kind and take me and show me some of the damage. ...

OK. No problem. I'll show [you]!

Doesn't this have a consequence? In Islamic law, when someone does this to you, what do you, what does this require of you?

According to Islamic law -- first, they have to reconcile with me. Second, they have to pay for the damage they did. All this has to be done to my satisfaction.

Have they apologized to you?

They apologized to me recently.

Have they offered compensation?

If it happened and they had found something against me they won't have showed me mercy. But, thank God, I hadn't been involved in any illegal acts.

Before his death, my father asked my brothers and I to follow two rules in life: The first was not to upset God. The second was not to anger the authorities.

But whose country is this? Who does Iraq belong to? When [you say] the authorities, do the Americans have any business here?

I'm talking about the authority. And the current authority is the American authority.

But is this right? Do you believe that the Americans should be the authority?

They are the authority now and no one can dispute that. ...

 

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posted february 12, 2004

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