RAMADI, Iraq -- Sunni tribes in troubled Anbar province have begun working closely with U.S. and government forces, contributing nearly 2,400 men to the police department and 1,600 to a newly organized tribal security force, authorities say.
U.S. troops are training and equipping the new tribal forces, which are called Emergency Response Units (ERUs), and are charged with defending the areas where they live, according to the local U.S. commander.
By a U.S. count, 12 of the Ramadi area's 21 tribes are cooperating in the security effort, six are considered neutral, and three are actively hostile. That is almost the reverse of the tribal posture last June, when three were cooperative and 12 were hostile.
For nearly four years, the tribes around Ramadi survived by playing both sides, working with U.S. forces when it suited them, while at the same time helping or tolerating Sunni insurgent groups and al Qaeda in Iraq -- the terrorist organization once led by Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi.
That changed in August, according to U.S. Army Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, which has been responsible for security operations in Ramadi since June.
Al Qaeda in Iraq -- which has also turned its intimidation tactics on the tribal leaders -- kidnapped and killed Sheik Khalid of the Albu Ali Jassim tribe and left his body where it could not be found, preventing the family from burying him within 24 hours as prescribed by Muslim tradition.
"Al Qaeda overplayed its hand," Col. MacFarland said at his headquarters, a dusty base on the west side of Ramadi.
At a meeting that month, several sheiks drew up an 11-point declaration vowing to fight al Qaeda, within the rule of law, and declaring solidarity with coalition and government security forces. It is a movement referred to by the tribes as "the Awakening."
Al Qaeda "assassinated a lot of the sheiks," said Sheik Ahmed Abureeshah, 41, whose brother, Sheik Sitar, is the driving force behind the initiative. "They killed my father. They killed three of my brothers. They killed 14 other sheiks from different tribes. ...
"Then we met the sheiks of the tribe one after one, and we decided that we must put our hands together and fight to defeat these criminals."
The tribes sent hundreds of young men to join the police -- more than 1,000 in December and more than that last month, a record recruiting effort for the province.
The men were assigned to police stations in their own tribes' neighborhoods, giving the tribes a vested interest in their success and contributing to unusually high rates of policemen turning up for work. Others were organized into the ERUs, which operate in the countryside while the police remain in the cities.
Improved security, in turn, made it possible for the brigade to pour in reconstruction money, enabling some $3 million in projects to be undertaken.
As the benefits of cooperation became evident, "the tribes began flipping, like a domino effect," Col. MacFarland said. "Almost every week, we get another sheik knocking on our door."
Ramadi remains dangerous for Americans -- Col. MacFarland's brigade has lost 85 troops in the area -- but the improvement in security is measurable.
From July 2006 to January 2007, the daily average number of attacks fell by 38 percent and roadside bomb attacks dropped by 57 percent to an 18-month low.
The roadside bombs also are getting smaller and less complex, enabling the brigade and the Iraqi police to find more than 80 percent of improvised explosive devices before they detonate.
It is "a very significant indicator that this potent weapon system has become less effective in Ramadi," Col. MacFarland said.
More important to the colonel, attacks are occurring farther from the town center and from the main road -- suggesting that residents are not tolerating insurgents the way they once did, and are tipping off police to suspicious activities.