Global Policy Forum

Iraqis Lament a Call for Help


Tribesmen say last week's huge US operation near the Syrian border caused too much destruction.

By Hannah Allam and Mohammed al Dulaimy

Philadelphia Inquirer
May 17, 2005

When foreign fighters poured into villages with jihad on their minds and weapons in their hands, some Iraqi tribesmen in western desert towns fought back. They set up checkpoints to filter out the foreigners. They burned down suspected insurgent safe houses. They called their fellow tribesmen in Baghdad and other urban areas for backup. And when they still could not uproot the fighters streaming in from Syria, tribal leaders said, they took a most unusual step: They asked the Americans for help. They now say they wish they hadn't.

While the U.S. military hailed last week's Operation Matador as a success that killed more than 125 insurgents, local tribesmen said it was a disaster for their communities. They now say they are leery of ever again assisting U.S. or Iraqi forces. In interviews, influential tribal leaders and many residents of the remote border towns said the 1,000 U.S. troops who swept into their territories in the weeklong campaign that ended over the weekend did not distinguish between the Iraqis who supported the United States and the fighters battling it.

"The Americans were bombing whole villages and saying they were only after the foreigners,' " said Fasal al-Goud, a former governor of Anbar province who said he asked U.S. forces for help on behalf of the tribes. "An AK-47 can't distinguish between a terrorist and a tribesman, so how could a missile or tank?" Goud was the only tribal leader who spoke on the record. Two others reached by phone in western villages expressed similar views but said they did not want their names published because the foreign insurgents were still holding some of their tribespeople hostage.

Long before the U.S. offensive, trouble had been brewing in and around the town of Qaim. Two Iraqi tribes, the Albu Mahal and the Albu Nimr, resented the flood of foreign Islamic extremists who were crossing the border and trying to turn their lands into an insurgent fiefdom. Like the fighters in the formerly insurgent-controlled city of Fallujah, also in troubled Anbar province, the foreigners brought a puritanical brand of Islam and began intimidating villagers who refused to follow their commands, residents said. The foreign fighters found followers among some members of another large tribe in the area, the Karabla.

Although there were small-scale clashes among the tribes for months, the killing of a popular soldier from the Albu Mahal tribe early this month escalated the violence, according to several accounts of the unrest that preceded Operation Matador. The Albu Mahal, with the help of the larger Albu Nimr, formed a vigilante group called the Hamza Forces to help keep the foreign fighters at bay. Those forces, which included some men suspected of attacking U.S. troops in the past, began battling the religious radicals known as Salafis, who were allied with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of the group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The overwhelmed tribal villagers were at a loss to defeat the better-armed and better-funded foreigners and their allies from the Karabla. With nowhere else to turn, tribal leaders decided to call the Iraqi Defense Ministry. That is when Goud, the former Anbar governor and a sheikh of the Albu Nimr, said he called American officials at the Marine base Camp Fallujah to ask for help. Goud had met the officials during the siege of Fallujah, he said.

Bruska Nouri Shaways, Iraq's deputy defense minister, at first could not believe the request for help from the traditionally rebellious province. Shaways, who took several calls from tribal sheikhs, said he immediately alerted the U.S military about their willingness to share information on Zarqawi followers. Operation Matador began with the Marines sweeping into the Qaim area in armored vehicles, backed up by helicopter gunships. They pummeled suspected insurgent safe houses, flattening parts of the villages and killing armed men. Nine Marines died in combat and 40 were wounded, according to the military.

When the offensive ended, angry residents returned to find blocks of destruction. Men who had stayed behind to help were found dead in shot-up houses. Tribal leaders have not counted their dead; several families had not yet returned to the area. "We ran away because you didn't know who was fighting who," said Ahmed Mohammed, who works at a hospital north of Qaim. "Americans were fighting. The Albu Mahal were fighting. And Tawhid and Jihad [Zarqawi's group] were fighting."

Capt. Jeff Pool, a Marine spokesman in Iraq, confirmed that Iraqi informants contributed to intelligence-gathering for Matador but said there was no effort by the U.S. military to incorporate local tribes in its assault plans. "We have no knowledge of any local efforts" to reach out to the military before the operation, he said in an e-mail response to questions.

Pool and other military spokesmen did not respond to questions about whether U.S. troops had tried to contact any of the area's feuding forces. Deputy Defense Minister Shaways said it was extremely difficult to distinguish friend from foe in the midst of battle. He called Operation Matador a success but acknowledged that some tribal leaders were upset by it. He said tribal leaders were expected to travel to Baghdad this week to discuss the aftermath of the campaign.

Still, he said, vigilante justice does not fit into the new Iraq. He said the Defense Ministry would try to recruit the tribesmen for Iraq's security forces. "We cannot allow anyone who feels he's not secure to just set up checkpoints and kidnap people," Shaways said. "This is not the Wild West."

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