As tribal leaders from Iraq’s troubled Al Anbar province met last week with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, pledging their support to clean out Al Qaeda insurgents, it soon became clear that they were as good as their word.
That day, at a mosque in the town of Ramadi, armed tribesmen seized four men -- two Iraqis and two non-Iraqi Arabs -- whom the tribesmen believed to be Al Qaeda fighters. The men pleaded for their lives, “for the sake of Islam, and for the sake of the prophet,” according to a man who witnessed the incident during group prayers.
Their bodies were found a few hours later in a dumpster.
Abdul Jabber Hakkam, spokesman for a coalition of 11 tribes that have pledged to fight insurgents in Al Anbar, said that despite what apparently happened in Ramadi, the tribes’ plan was not to dispatch suspects on the spot. Instead, he hopes his fighters will arrest suspects and take them to court or shun them until they leave.
“People have done this with their own personal weapons,” he said. “Now each house that hosts a terrorist, they will force all the residents of the house outside, so they’re on the streets,” he said. When that is done, he predicted, the insurgents will “have no one to keep them, and they will withdraw.”
“We are not just targeting Al Qaeda, but terrorists in general, because people miss real stability and freedom,” Hakkam said.
Getting support from the tribes to fight insurgents is one element of the Maliki government’s plan to reconcile Iraq’s dozens of disparate factions -- ethnic and religious, political and geographic. In the last few months, Maliki has made the effort a top priority, setting up a government ministry in charge of dialogue and reconciliation and convening a series of public meetings with the tribal leaders that began this month.
Enlisting help from Al Anbar’s tribal leaders may be essential if U.S. forces hope to ever leave the province, a region that accounts for almost a third of Iraq and includes the cities of Fallouja and Ramadi. Al Anbar is an important stronghold for Al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgent group that was headed by Abu Musab Zarqawi until he was killed by U.S. forces in June.
In some parts of the province, insurgents appear to be in charge. A total of 14 U.S. and allied soldiers died in Al Anbar in September; more than 900 have died in the province since the beginning of the war.
But despite the recent pledge by tribal leaders to raise an armed, uniformed force of 1,000 fighters to tackle insurgents, the effort to forge ties between the Shiite-majority government in Baghdad and the largely Sunni Arab tribes in Al Anbar faces many barriers. Some of those were evident when officials from Maliki’s new reconciliation ministry met with tribal leaders from around the country.
The list of 15 demands that the tribal leaders put forward included canceling all plans to divide the country into federated regions, proclaiming Iraq as an Arab nation, an equitable distribution of oil income, the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, and the release of all Iraqi “political” prisoners.
The first item on that list conflicts with a top priority of several of Maliki’s fellow Shiite leaders. The Kurds also favor dividing Iraq into federated regions, and they have objected to demands to label Iraq an Arab country. The division of oil revenue is also a point of contention for all of Iraq’s warring groups.
Government officials say they plan to look at recruiting into the government and military former army officers and Baath Party members who are no longer loyal to former President Saddam Hussein and will consider offering amnesty to insurgents not affiliated with Al Qaeda or guilty of major crimes.
The government has sent envoys to Jordan, Syria, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in an attempt to end support of the insurgency from those Sunnimajority Arab countries.
“We need to know what the demands of the insurgents are, and what their red lines are. And we have to move these red lines and bring the parties together on this common ground in the middle,” said Saad Yousif Muttalibi, international affairs director for the reconciliation ministry.
U.S. officials say the decision of some tribal leaders to begin going after insurgents reflects growing public anger over attacks that have killed or injured more than 8,000 Iraqis, according to local government figures. They also say there has been growing alarm on the part of some tribal leaders over insurgents’ demands for adherence to strict Islamic law. U.S. military leaders say that alarm has inspired a sense of partnership that didn’t exist earlier.
“It’s only frankly been the last six months that they’ve recognized two things: One, they can’t do it themselves, and two ... they had much more in common with the coalition than they do with Iran,” said a senior U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But he said it was not clear whether the tribes would be able to mount an effective operation against the leading insurgent groups.
“The difference between targeted killings and a deliberate campaign that is successful in removing folks from the area, I have not seen,” he said.
For many tribesmen, support for the government’s efforts may be motivated as much by revenge as by hopes for reconciliation with the government: A car bomb in January killed more than 70 police recruits, many of whom were tribesmen, and a local clan leader was assassinated a month later. A popular cleric, Sheik Ayad Izzi, was shot to death in December in a killing that was later blamed on a fatwa, or religious edict, from a young Al Qaeda imam.
Sunni and tribal militiamen have waged retaliatory attacks against Al Qaeda targets for much of the spring and summer, apparently stepping them up in the last few days as plans for the organized tribal force gathered steam.
Last week, Al Iraqiya television reported that the reputed head of Al Qaeda in Al Anbar province, Khalid Ibrahim Mahal, was killed in a joint operation by U.S. and Iraqi forces. Tribal leaders took credit for assisting with the operation.
“The insurgents are controlling everything. In many cases, we can’t even reach the governorate building to work, and people have been left to solve their security problems themselves,” said Arif Dulaimi, a tribal leader who is deputy governor of Al Anbar province.
Ultimately, the job of the reconciliation ministry will be to bridge the divide between the people of Iraq -- tribal and urban -- and the insurgents who eventually may be offered amnesty.
“This is not a sign of weakness on the part of the government. We know eventually we will defeat them on a military basis. But that is not the solution,” Muttalibi said. “We think that to have a lasting peace and the power to rebuild the country, we need the will to coexist, and a signed agreement that you and I are here to share this land.
“We completely understand there are a great deal of concessions that have to be made, but people feel they’re courageous enough to stand and make these concessions,” he said.
“And in the end, we’re not making concessions to some foreign country. We’re making concessions to the Iraqi people.”
Times staff writer Solomon Moore and a special correspondent in Ramadi contributed to this report.