Sunni sheik’s war on the insurgency

Times Staff Writer

At 35, he is younger than many sheiks. And his Sunni Arab tribe is not one of the largest in Al Anbar province. But Sheik Sattar Bazeaa Fatikhan projects the aura of power and seriousness that comes to a man who has taken a stand.

After Sunni insurgents killed his father and four of his brothers last year, Fatikhan declared war against the insurgency.

He convened a summit of about a dozen prominent sheiks. From that meeting came a document called “The Awakening,” in which Fatikhan persuaded all but one sheik to join him in opposition to the insurgency.

The sheiks pledged to encourage young men to join the police force and even the Shiite-led army. The document states that killing an American is the same as killing a member of their tribes. Since the gathering, Fatikhan said, the sheiks have “eliminated” a number of insurgents.

U.S. officials regularly visit Fatikhan, seeking his counsel, showing him the kind of deference one might expect for a leading government official. When a British general visited recently, Fatikhan, the sheik of the Abo Resha tribe, noted that his great-grandfather had fought against the British in the early 1940s.


Still, he said, “The British respected the sheiks.”

In a two-hour interview in his large, carpeted meeting hall, a stream of underlings whispered to Fatikhan or handed him messages. He nodded or spoke a few words, and they hurried off. Later, he allowed himself to joke about the duties of being a sheik.

“They give me a headache,” he said through an interpreter.

Drinking tea and smoking Marlboros, Fatikhan listened to questions and then gave an unvarying response: The U.S. military and Iraqi tribes must unite to rid Sunni-dominated Al Anbar province of men who would “try to engineer our future with mortars and roadside bombs.”

For U.S. forces, Fatikhan’s stand is a significant boost in a bitter fight with insurgents who, until recently, controlled large segments of Ramadi, the provincial capital.

Army Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, credits Fatikhan and other sheiks for an increase in police enrollment, a decrease in insurgent recruitment and new courage among Iraqi forces.

A year ago, insurgents blew up every police station in Ramadi, and officers were afraid to return to duty. The U.S. military rebuilt many of the stations. During a recent attack, Iraqi police officers stood their ground.

“They would not be intimidated,” MacFarland said. “Why? Because their sheik, whom they respect, told them, ‘You must do this.’ ”

Fatikhan ordered his followers to “adopt” the U.S. Army’s liaison to the tribes and give him an Arabic name, Wissam, which means warrior. After the officer, Capt. Travis Patriquin, was killed by a roadside bomb, the sheik ordered that one of the new police stations be named in his honor.

This month, Fatikhan was host of the first Ramadi reconstruction conference, held behind the high walls of his family compound. Contractors, sheiks and others met with U.S. officials to discuss projects to pave roads, rebuild schools and improve electrical, sewer, phone and water systems.

Fatikhan, who wears tailored suits when not in traditional clothing, understands U.S. politics. He told a visiting journalist, “Please take a message to the Democrats: Let the American forces stay until we can hold Iraq together. Then we will have a party when American forces go.”

Outside Fatikhan’s meeting room, other sheiks, some much older, waited to talk to him. So did Iraqi police officials. The sheik’s bodyguards were nearby.

He offered his American and British visitors sweet tea and insisted that they stay for a lunch of goat, rice and sauces.

“The terrorists are not here for the interests of Iraq,” Fatikhan said. “We don’t need them here to say they’re here to defend us. If Iraq was in danger, the real people of Iraq would stand up and defend Iraq.”

He referred to the U.S. and Britain as “the two great nations.”

British Lt. Gen. G.C.M. Lamb was quick to return the compliment.

“Baghdad was once considered the center of the civilized world, so I believe we have three great nations engaged in a great purpose,” Lamb said.

“The British had an empire and lost it,” he added, “and so we have learned that we do not know everything, that there is wisdom in many places.”

Fatikhan is not above criticizing the U.S.-led forces.

“The coalition forces made many mistakes,” he said. “That led a lot of people to accept [Al Qaeda’s] offer: ‘We will get rid of the coalition forces.’ That was a mistake the people made.”

Fatikhan said he didn’t fear being killed. He has many bodyguards, and a U.S. tank is parked outside his compound.

“They killed my father and brothers,” he said. “I have a different spirit.”

His surviving brother lives in the family compound with him and his wife and five children.

The sheik has not traveled outside the Middle East but said he would like to visit Germany, Britain and the U.S.

He joked, without smiling, “When there is peace, I will learn English.”

The alliance between U.S. forces and the sheiks is a marriage of convenience. The sheiks are rivals of the elected government in Al Anbar that the U.S. supports, but there is no functioning government in Ramadi.

“Their interests align with us -- none of the tribes is making any money during the war,” MacFarland said. “Many, like the mafia, own construction companies. There are limits on how far down their path we can walk together, but today it’s a very good relationship.”

Fatikhan is looking beyond the present toward posterity.

“Let history mention a hero, a man who brought the tribes together to fight,” he said. “Let history show that a sheik stood up.”