- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

BAGHDAD — Call him Alan of Arabia.

The British empire had T.E. Lawrence, and the American Army has Alan King, a Koran-toting colonel who woos Iraqi sheiks with verses from the Muslim holy book.

Like Sura (chapter) 29, Aya (verse) 46: “‘If you’re dealing with a believer, you should work to resolve your conflicts peacefully,’” recites Lt. Col. King, a 40-year-old Lutheran from Arlington, Va., with a blond crew cut and a sura for every occasion.

The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has been slow to realize the importance of tribal affiliations in Iraq, earning criticism from political analysts and anger from Iraqis.

But on Dec. 4, the CPA approved Col. King’s pet project — a council of tribal sheiks that will meet regularly and dispense advice to coalition forces.

As deputy director of the newly created Office of Provincial Outreach, under a State Department official, he will be the liaison to Iraq’s major tribes.

A reservist who normally works at Fort Bragg, Col. King coordinates political campaigns in peace time.

In 1999, he stumped for Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in the Democratic stronghold of North Carolina’s Cumberland County.

In Iraq, the mother of all swing districts, he’s winning over tribal leaders by learning the Koran and studying tribal history.

“They’re Muslim; I’m Christian,” explains Col. King, who talks more like a multiculturalist than the Special Forces and Psy Ops veteran that he is. “So I try to explain to them that we’re both believers, and I can go to specific verses in both the Bible and the Koran.”

Col. King rolled into Baghdad with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division days after Saddam’s regime fell. As the commander of the 422 Civil Affairs Battalion, he was responsible for advising the military on reconstructing everything — police, hospitals, utilities.

So he started familiarizing himself with the region: he got an old British colonial guide to Iraq’s tribes and began learning their history.

“I realized early on that the sheiks have a place,” says Col. King. “The idea is not to build controlling little warlords, but to use the information that the sheiks have to benefit the country.”

So far, tips from sheiks have helped Col. King’s new battalion capture numbers 23, 62, 85, 91, 97 and 99 on the U.S. military’s list of 300 most wanted, as well as recover 59 paintings looted from the Museum of Modern Art and 24 artifacts from the national museum.

“He’s got a real knack for crossing cultural boundaries and establishing trust,” says Brig. Gen. David Blackledge, the commanding general of the 352d Civil Affairs Command, which is responsible for civil affairs at the national level in Iraq.

“That helps us get information out quickly through the various tribal networks. Some people are willing to turn in bad guys, but it doesn’t happen right away — you have to establish the trust and confidence of the people.”

It’s about time, say the sheiks. “If the Americans heard our advice from the beginning — our repeated advice — all this chaos wouldn’t be happening now,” says Sheik Hussein Ali al-Shaalan, striking the table with his forefinger.

Sheik al-Shaalan was the perfect U.S. ally. A Shi’ite sheik from the southern town of Diwaniya, he had a good relationship with the U.S. State Department.

But when he offered his counsel — and the loyalty of his 200,000-member clan — to the CPA and the military, they ignored his suggestions.

“I noticed something among the officers: They have this arrogance, and this arrogance really hurts them a lot,” says Sheik al-Shaalan, a regal 53-year-old who studied law and political science in London and Baghdad. “Everyone, even a small officer, thinks he’s a big man.”

Then he met Col. King, who told him a centuries-old tale about clans of his own tribe crossing a river. “I noticed that he knew the history of some clans,” says Sheik al-Shaalan approvingly. “So this shows that he is doing his duty.”

Iraq has more than 150 tribes and 2,000 clans, with countless sheiks and sub-sheiks who still settle disputes and command wide influence throughout Iraq.

Some are genuine, others are “fake sheiks” installed by Saddam to replace real ones like Sheik al-Shaalan, who fled the country after the 1991 Shi’ite uprising.

Not knowing the difference can be fatal, so Col. King meets with a tribal scholar every week.

The sheiks appreciate his diligence. Sheik Adnan al-Janabi is a London-trained economist who heads the 750,000-member Janabi tribe.

He’s usually quite critical of American occupation forces, but he has nothing but praise for Col. King.

“He knows a lot about the Koran,” Sheik al-Janabi said, smiling and fingering the string of prayer beads in his hands. “He tells me about verses I didn’t have memorized.”

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