US Cash Squads 'Buy' Iraqi Tribes


By Jason Burke

December 15, 2002

Dozens of teams of elite American soldiers and intelligence specialists have been sent into Iraq with millions of dollars in cash to woo key tribal leaders away from Saddam Hussein.

The secret campaign, based on tactics used successfully in Afghanistan last year, has been under way for several weeks and is a critical part of the military and political strategy being pursued by the US and its closest ally, Britain, to strip Saddam of weapons of mass destruction and, if this is not possible, to bring about a 'regime change'.

The tribal leaders command the allegiance of millions of Iraqis and have historically supported the Iraqi dictator for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons. US and British strategists hope they can now be persuaded to revolt or to stop co-operating with Saddam, fatally weakening his regime.

Similar tactics were used against the Taliban when teams from the CIA carrying briefcases full of money bought off key power-brokers, accelerating the hardline Islamic regime's collapse in the face of American bombing and the advance of local opposition troops.

The specialist teams in Iraq are thought to be concentrating on the rural areas of central Iraq around Baghdad, where Sunni Muslim tribal leaders are strongest. The Shia Muslim tribal leaders in the south are worried by a repeat of 1991 when, after being encouraged to rebel, they were abandoned by Washington. Kurdish tribal leaders in the north have made it clear they would back an American invasion of Iraq.

Last week American and British officials said that Baghdad's 'full and final disclosure' of its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programme was 'incomplete'. Iraq was responding to a UN resolution demanding that Baghdad end any production of weapons of mass destruction, declare its research and re-admit UN inspectors. A failure to comply with the resolution could be used by Washington to justify an invasion to oust Saddam and replace his government.

The bid to woo tribal leaders indicates that US and British planners believe elements among the ruling groups will be retained even if Saddam is deposed. The CIA and the US State Department are also known to be keen to encourage defectors from the regime, possibly by offering key individuals in the army or security establishment posts in a new administration.

'Tribal leaders have acted as a parallel authority in Iraq for many years,' said Daniel Neep, of the Royal United Services Institute. 'Prising them away from Saddam certainly has the potential seriously to weaken him.'

Saddam has showered many tribal 'sheikhs' with gifts and has played off tribes against each other. Some sheikhs have been sidelined, some restored to favour, others marginalised. There are reports of clashes between tribal militias and security forces. Last year members of the Bani Hasan tribe clashed with troops in the south of Iraq. In 1999 members of the al Dulaimi tribe staged a rebellion in the north-west.

In recent years Saddam has given the tribal sheikhs a degree of autonomy, allowing them to dispense justice among their own people. Loyal leaders are rewarded by subsidies as well as roads and other public works built for their followers. 'The logic is, if Saddam can buy them, then so can the Americans,' said one tribal leader who fled to the UK. The CIA was recently given more than $200m (£130m) to pay for covert operations in Iraq.

British officials and specialists, mainly from the Foreign Office, are understood to be supporting the American initiative in a variety of roles. The British, with a tradition of covert operations in the Middle East going back to the days of Lawrence of Arabia and the First World War, have a wealth of experience and expertise that the Americans have been anxious to tap. British special forces units operated behind Iraqi lines, with mixed results, during the Gulf war of 1991.

There is still no indication of whether or when there will be war. Though one American aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, headed out of the Middle East last week, another carrier and accompanying battle group is still stationed in the region and two others are en route.

Exercises have been held at a mobile US military command and control base set up in the Gulf state of Qatar, slated as a possible headquarters for any attack on Iraq.

The return of the George Washington to the US East Coast makes a large-scale attack on Iraq less likely in the near future, analysts say.

'That's an indication that a full-out invasion is less likely to occur in the next several months,' said Stephen Baker, a navy chief of staff for operations in the Gulf war.

More Articles on the Threat of US War Against Iraq
More Articles on Iraq Crisis

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.