Tea and tribal conflict in Iraq

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The meeting between the Marines and the power brokers of this border region began with pleasantries, an exchange of gifts, and the drinking of small cups of tea, very hot and very sweet.

But within a few minutes the subject turned to one of crucial importance to both sides: the possible rise of militias among Sunni tribes who feel disrespected and shut out of the mild economic upturn the region is enjoying.

The power brokers -- the mayor, the sheiks, and the local Iraqi army general -- are from the Albu Mahal tribe, the most powerful in the region.

The Mahals were the first of the tribes to join with the U.S. in fighting the insurgency while lesser tribes stayed neutral or assisted the insurgents.

Now that the insurgency has been largely suppressed, Mahal leaders feel it is their right to share in the benefits of peace, such as the flourishing downtown market in Husaybah and the recently opened port of entry that allows a free flow of goods to and from Syria.

Other tribes played "an invisible" role when the Americans and the Mahals were fighting the insurgents, Farhan Fetekhan Farhan archly reminded the Marines.

Farhan picks his words carefully and has a knack for a phrase that will resonate with the Americans. He acts as mayor for the Qaim region and as the top administrator of Husaybah, its major city. As a sign of respect, the Marines came to his office there.

The mayor, the sheiks and the general are particularly suspicious that their archrivals, the Al Karbuli tribe, may be trying to form a militia by creating all-Karbuli units within the Iraqi security forces. The Karbulis have denied it, but Brig. Gen. Ayad Ismael remains unconvinced.

"Those people never tell the truth," he said through an interpreter.

It has fallen largely to the Marines, particularly to Lt. Col. Peter Baumgarten, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, to deter the Karbulis. He spends much of his time in a kind of shuttle diplomacy among the four major tribes, trying to assure them that they will share in the construction contracts and job creation.

Baumgarten's troops have been the beneficiaries of the current peace. "We haven't shot our weapons at bad guys since we've been here," he said.

The possibility of tribes morphing into militias has been a concern from the beginning of the alliance between the U.S. and the sheiks in Anbar. It is particularly acute here in Qaim, where the pro-U.S. movement called the Anbar Awakening has its roots.

"What goes on here sets the example for all Al Anbar," said Col. Stacy Clardy, commander of the 2nd Marine Regiment.

As the 2nd Regiment is relieved by the Camp Pendleton-based 5th Regiment, one of Clardy's proudest boasts is that no militias arose during his tenure.

Col. Patrick Malay, commander of the 5th Marine Regiment, is determined to continue that record. "We will put our feet in their slippers," said Malay, leaning forward and looking into the mayor's eyes.

The mayor suggested that Qaim's tentative step toward democracy may depend on it.

"We have 20 tribes but only two make trouble," he said. "Those two think they are right, but now we live in democratic times."

The Mahals also believe that the Karbulis have ties with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad that will allow them to bypass the government in Qaim in securing favors and contracts.

Near the end of the meeting, the older of the two tribal leaders, Sheik Kurdi Raffa Farhan, warned that animosity between tribes runs deep and will not be easily overcome.

The Mahals have a land dispute with the Karbulis that stretches to the era of Saddam Hussein, when the Karbulis allegedly used their friendship with the dictator to seize prime farmland.

"This is the tribal problem for a long time, not one or two years," the sheik said.

Malay, who has extensive combat experience, said later that he does not underestimate the difficulty of an American trying to referee Sunni tribal disputes that stretch to the days when the tribes were nomadic. But he prefers this task to a return to the fighting that marked the first three years of the U.S. effort to bring stability here. "It's a lot better than killing," Malay said.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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