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.
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.