- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2008

Of all the tactical moves Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made in March to wrest control of southern Iraq from Shi’ite extremists, none was more important than his government’s meetings with tribal sheiks.

Behind the scenes, as his troops fought street by street to gain control of the city of Basra, Mr. al-Maliki reached out to Bani Tamim.

Tamim is one of the largest Arab tribes in the Middle East. Its Shi’ite-Sunni mix is especially influential in southern Iraq, where Iranian-backed bands of militants regularly launch attacks on allied forces and impose their will on much of Basra.

Mr. al-Maliki’s strategy, U.S. sources said, was to meet with tribal leaders at the same time he was ordering troops into Iraq’s second-largest city. He wanted to persuade the tribal leaders to join his risky counterterrorism campaign in which a Shi’ite-dominated government was moving against Shi’ite fighters, some led by firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

“They have been working with the Tamim tribe, one of the largest tribes in that area, in terms of strategic engagement. And they’ve been helping them,” said retired ArmyGen. Jack Keane, an adviser to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq. Gen. Keane was meeting with Gen. Petraeus and other leaders in Iraq as the al-Maliki government was planning its surprise offensive in Basra.

Maliki worked directly with the Tamim leader,” Gen. Keane told The Washington Times. “He worked with him in terms of providing Iraqi security forces to assist them and also some financial support.”

Gen. Keane added, “They are getting people to turn in the militias. That was the purpose of it, just like we did with the Sunnis in Anbar and Diyala provinces and other places.”

Critics in the news media initially met the al-Maliki offensive with broad skepticism, but later reports acknowledged that government forces performed relatively well in taking control of much of Basra.

Gen. Keane credits the outreach to Tamim, some of whose members lobbied their sheiks to let them fight the Americans. Now, it appears they are on the government’s side.

“The security situation has improved dramatically in Basra,” said the retired four-star general who helped conceive the troop surge strategy begun in February 2007. “The people are out on the streets. The [Iraqi Security Forces are] clearly in charge. The various factions of militia are no longer in charge.”

Gen. Keane added, “The most significant strategic objective in 2008 is to stabilize the south and counter the Iran influence in the south. Maliki began that somewhat impulsively, as we all know, but that was the beginning of a campaign that is going to last well into the fall and it’s doing fine. Basra is coming along. Maliki is probably the strongest politically he’s ever been because he’s taking on the Shia extremists.”

Critics of the postwar planning say the Bush administration did not place enough emphasis on engaging Iraq’s millions of tribesmen, whose loyalty to their sheiks often trumps allegiance to the government.

In his new book, “War and Decision,” Douglas J. Feith, who was undersecretary of defense for policy during the Iraq war planning, concedes, “The crippling disorder we call the insurgency was not anticipated with any precision, by either intelligence analysts or policy officials.”

Mr. Feith also recounts how the Joint Staff, the planning arm of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, regularly complained that U.S. Central Command under Gen. Tommy Franks spent a lot of time on invasion plans, but little on postwar policy.

Because the insurgency was not anticipated, no comprehensive plan was in place to engage tribal leaders after the 2003 invasion, military officials say.

“A key to ending the insurgency is getting Iraqi tribal leaders to decide that it’s better for them to join the political process than to engage in anti-government or anti-U.S. violence,” Mr. Feith said in an interview.

James Russell, co-director of the Center for Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif., is writing a book on the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.

After interviewing commanders and reading their internal reports, he concludes, “There was no national-level plan to conduct a counterinsurgency in 2003, including no plan for engaging tribal leaders.”

Mr. Russell told The Times that Marine Corps and Army commanders, largely on their own, began grass-roots overtures to sheiks and their followers in 2005. Troops moved out of forward operating bases and started living in the neighborhoods.

The Marines, Mr. Russell said, went so far as to bring American police officers to Anbar province to show them how to impose security, street by street.

Begun in Anbar, the on-the-fly doctrine spread to places such as the northern border town of Tal Afar, which the Army freed of extremist control in 2006.

By 2007, the sheiks of Anbar were renouncing al Qaeda and ordering young Sunnis to fight the terrorist group.

Maliki is applying some of the same lessons in Basra,” Mr. Russell said, ” ‘I’m sending in troops. The troops are going to stay there and I’m engaging the local people, the tribal leaders.’”

In 2007, the U.S. command began the troop surge and brought the Anbar experiment to Baghdad. It authorized unit commanders to negotiate on their own with Sunni insurgent leaders. Up sprung the ad-hoc Sunni counterterrorism units known as the Sons of Iraq.

“We have to rely on the Sons of Iraq program to help us because they are extraordinarily valuable, particularly if al Qaeda or extremists start to move back in,” said Gen. Keane, noting that al Qaeda now has been largely pushed to northern Iraq. “They’re the first guys to know it and they finger it. They have to get paid. They have to be provided for. They have to be part of the team.”

Said Col. Steven Boylan, Gen. Petraeus‘ spokesman: “General Petraeus has, since his days as commander of the 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq, recognized the importance of the tribes and their sheiks. He consistently sought to engage them and to ensure that they are part of Iraqi efforts to resolve the various problems that their country faces.

“The past year’s progress appears to have validated such an approach. Indeed, Prime Minister Maliki has reached out to tribal leaders repeatedly in efforts to help make them part of the solutions he has sought to forge in Iraq.”

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