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the sunni triangle - tribes & insurgents

The area of central Iraq known as the Sunni Triangle, to the west and north of Baghdad, has been the focal point of violent resistance to the U.S.-led occupation. Long dominated by powerful Sunni Arab tribes and favored by Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, many Sunnis now fear retribution by Iraq's majority Shiites and marginalization under a new democratic government. Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with Col. William Mayville, tribal leader Sheikh Gazi al-Essawi, and Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno.

Jon Lee Anderson
A staff writer for The New Yorker, he has reported recently on Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arabs.

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Can you talk a little bit about the fact that the Shia have a kind of leadership and representation at the top, whereas the Sunni do not, and what that means for the Sunnis?

Well, they have their people on the Governing Council. What has happened, though, is that Saddam had more than 30 years to manipulate and dominate life in this country. And he favored his own constituency. He favored his people ... who were the Sunnis. And these people have been disenfranchised.

He also created a huge bureaucracy ... you know, most people in this country that had a salary worked for the government. Most of the factories were state-owned, the ministries were huge bureaucracies. The security apparatus was all pervasive. So there were millions of people and their families who depended upon that state. That state has ended, it's collapsed.

Who leads the Sunni community? There is no equivalent of a Sistani or a Hakim.

No, there isn't because they're largely tribal.

Which adds to the sense of them being at sea, and at risk?

That's right. It is a real problem because, of course, Saddam was the only Sunni who could be ascendant as long as he was in power. And, therefore, there simply hasn't been the kind of time for a politically mature or savvy Sunni Iraqi with the same pulling power ... and ability to negotiate with the tribes, as Saddam had.


Sheikh Gazi al-Essawi
A Sunni Arab, he is a leader of the Bu Essa tribe in Falluja, the epicenter of the resistance. In late November, his warehouse was raided by U.S. soldiers looking for explosives.

photo of gazi
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We want to talk to you about the situation in Falluja since the war began. ... I understand 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. ... 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. ... They killed innocent people who do not have anything to do with anything, nothing to do with resistance or any other problems. ...

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. ...

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. ...

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]. ...

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. ... 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. ...

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?

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. ...

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. ... 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. ...

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. ... 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?...

Doesn't this have a consequence? In Islamic law, when someone does this to 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.


Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno
Commander of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, headquartered outside Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

photo of odierno
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Who has the power in a tribal society? That's what you're facing, that's what you're dealing with.

I think that's in part what we're dealing with. In a tribal society, it's family-oriented; it's oriented over time. You have leadership that has developed family ties through a lot of years. Then they develop associations based on geographic and family ties. They work together for years and years and years to both promote family orientation, jobs, health and welfare throughout this tribe. It's a society that's formed within each one of the tribes. Then you have several sub-tribes that come out of the tribal system. It's a very complicated system. It's something you have to do a lot of study on to really truly understand what it means.

What sort of challenges does that put before you?

It's first understanding, as you said, a tribal society. It's something that's not natural to Western culture. So you have to first really understand and try to study it. Even after you do that, it's hard to really understand the idiosyncrasies of it. How much power do the tribal leaders really have? What are the sub-clans of these tribes? How do they operate? How much of the tribe does he actually control? That's something we work with every day. We engage regularly with tribal leaders. We engage regularly with sub-tribal leaders. ...

They always hedge their bets. They've been in this society for a very long time, and they understand -- they're survivors. They survive by watching what's going on around them and trying to determine who to support, when to support them, and how much I will support them as they look to the future. So they always are very careful on how much they will support you.

When you meet with them, they will pledge very clearly they support you 100 percent. I think they mean that they want to try to support that. They want to try to support what's best for their tribe members, what's best for their family. They truly mean that. But that then varies based on their assessment from day to day, week to week, month to month.

If you know that some of the guys are causing you trouble, in a certain tribe, you go to the tribal sheikh?


What can he do for you?

Well, first off -- let me give you an example. What we've done is we've gone to the tribal sheikhs to recruit. One of the things they've come to us and said is, "We need to put our men to work. They need to support their families, and we need to get them to work. If you don't get them to work, they're susceptible to being recruited by the Fedayeen to operate against you, just because they need the money."

So we've gone to them for the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, for the police. We go to the tribe leaders and we say, "Give us your men who are interested in doing this. We want them to be trustworthy." And they want to be supportive to us. We hold them somewhat accountable for that.

So what we'll do is, if we find one that in fact turns out not to be trustworthy, we bring them back to the tribe leader and we say, "You told us this individual would be a good recruit, and he's turned out not to be, for these reasons." Or they'll say, "We have no one in our tribe that's conducting operations against coalition forces." Then we'll capture some of them that have bombmaking materials and other things. We'll bring them back. After he's arrested, we'll bring pictures and show him the proof and say, "OK, this guy was involved, and this is what he did." What they'll say is, "Well, he got off track, we don't support that. ... I didn't know about it." I think they'll take some action, though, within their tribe, because it becomes an honor thing with them.

You've got to be careful how you do it, because if you dishonor them, then that does in fact have an effect on them. So it's a very fine line. All our commanders work that very closely. I've found the best relationships are battalion commanders, company commanders on the ground, working every single day with these tribal leaders. ...

It seems to me that when you describe tribal society, it's not exactly an easy fit for a democracy.

Right, I agree. It's going to take hard work. First you've got to teach them what democracy means.

But they don't want that. I mean, they've got a tribal system that has worked for them for hundreds of years.

It has worked to an extent. Remember, they've been in a tribal system, but they've also been under a dictatorship. I think that has not been that great of a life for them, and they're all looking for a better life. So as we continue to educate them and they understand what's available to them, I think democracy can work.

I will say, though, tribal leaders might not necessarily benefit from a democracy. In fact, they could lose power and influence based on democratic values. So we've got to move through this understanding that, and move through this with education and a pace where they will accept that. We've got to understand that as we continue to build a new government. And it's going to take some time. ... It won't be easy. But I think it can be done. ... We can't just say we're going to have a democracy next month. ...

We have to figure out, where does the tribal influence play in a democracy? It could be like a political party. Maybe you have tribal councils that are developed, that becomes a political party that then can participate in a democracy, for example. So I think those are the kind of things we have to look at and see how it'll work. They have to figure out some of this for themselves. I mean, we can't tell them; they've got to figure it out for themselves. That's why it's going to take some time.


Col. William Mayville
Commander of the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, he was based in Kirkuk from April 2003 until February 2004.

photo of mayville
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You've got an operation tonight.


Tell me about it.

It's in a specific area of the former region known as the Sunni Triangle. ... The city is called Hawija. ... [We have] a city government. We have a police force. We even have a business symposium set up two days from now. But it is an area where there are constant attacks against the coalition forces. Mortar rounds, the IEDs, the improvised explosive devices that hit our vehicles.

As we have worked the area for a while, and this region, there is a reluctance among the people to come forth and talk to us about it. There is an inability of the police force and the city government to really be able to do anything about it. ... What we have found in these cases is that we have got to go in there with a heavy hand and find these thugs -- and that's what they are. They're just schoolyard bullies.

This is a recent change in our strategy?

Actually, it isn't. ... We have been doing this every night in this province for eight months. We have been going there -- and with very, very careful intelligence -- surgically finding these guys and dealing with them. ... We probably average two to four operations every night.

This is a big one tonight?

This one's big. But this one is where we pulled ourselves out of the city. We went into a forward operating base, consolidated ourselves, and waited as a kind of a 911 for the police. That relationship has not helped the police at all. In fact, their ability to provide for the public safety of that region has deteriorated.

So what we're doing is coming in with a large force and redressing the balance a little bit. [We're] saying, "At any time, anywhere, we can do these kind of operations at a moment's notice," and to let everybody know, one, the bad guys, "We're going to find ya," 'cause we're going to get a bunch of them tonight. Those that get away, they know we're going to find them.

You're going to kill a bunch of them today?

We may. We may capture them. But we could kill them; have killed them. At the same time, for those folks who are depending on us and depending on their police, we're sending a message that we haven't left. I think that you're going to see this kind of an operation going on throughout Iraq, certainly throughout this province, back and forth until finally everyone gets to realize that there's a new order in place.



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posted february 12, 2004

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