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Iraq's Sunni tribes fight Al-Qaeda

by Paul SchemmFri Sep 29, 10:16 AM ET

Western Iraq's powerful sheikhs have launched an offensive against foreign Al-Qaeda extremists on their territory, they have said, in an important victory for the US-backed government.

"The operation is on!" said Sheikh Abdel Sattar Baziya, head of the Abu Risha clan and chair of the Anbar province tribal council.

"The sons of Anbar's tribes today captured three Saudis, two Syrians and three Iraqi teenagers and turned them over to police," he told AFP Friday.

This is not the first time that Anbar province's Sunni tribes have pledged to turn over the Sunni insurgents in their midst, but US officers are privately delighted that they now seem to be making good on their promise.

The supposed leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Muhajer, tacitly confirmed this Thursday in an Internet plea for Iraqi tribesmen to rejoin his forces in their battle with the "infidels".

"I tell those who stood by the betrayers and sold out their religion and honor in this blessed month: today we offer you a full amnesty," he said, inadvertently revealing the effectiveness of the new tribal coalition.

Anbar province's fractious tribes have in the past often assured US forces that they could take care of the Sunni extremists and foreign fighters ravaging the desert province -- thus far to little effect.

Baziya told AFP that they had lost their patience with the "killing and corruption in the province which is unequalled in the rest of the world".

On Wednesday, the tribes met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and agreed to cooperate on security in lawless Anbar, the province which accounts for the majority of US casualties in Iraq.

"We agreed to enroll as many of the tribesmen in the police and army as possible," said Baziya. "We proposed to the government projects to save the province."

US military officials are careful not to damage the tribal leaders' credibility by publicly hailing their contribution, but are privately crowing about the alliance which they say has already made a difference.

While US forces in Ramadi have declined the tribes' request for more arms, they do welcome their members into the Iraqi police.

Baziya gave a litany of Al-Qaeda crimes in Anbar, including robbing banks, driving out humanitarian organizations, killing journalists, preying on travelers and interrupting oil supplies.

According to Captain Travis Patriquin of the 1st Armored Division, stationed in Ramadi and involved in talks with the tribes, what really tipped the scale, however, was the assassination of a tribal sheikh in August.

"Their decision to confront those who don't want any good for Anbar province evokes the admiration and appreciation of all Iraqis," said the prime minister after Wednesday's meeting.

There was similar excitement in government and coalition circles in December when a similar tribal council came together and made similar promises to oppose as Al-Qaeda and sending recruits into the police services.

That particular alliance received a massive blow in January when a suicide bomber killed 70 tribal police recruits in Ramadi and was finally put to rest when one by one the more vocal tribal leaders were intimidated or killed.

Recruits to the police forces evaporated, Al-Qaeda returned in force and violence soon hit new levels.

"These initiatives have failed to date because of the tribes' unreliability and ambivalence," Peter Harling, an expert on Anbar's tribes with the International Crisis Group, told AFP at the time.

Coalition forces in Anbar, however, are convinced that this time is for real with a new, more aggressive US army unit now in Ramadi and many more Iraqi troops, said Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Salas, the marine public affairs officer in Anbar, who described it as "irreversible momentum".

One coalition intelligence official said that the difference now is that the tribesmen realize that they cannot confront Al-Qaeda on their own.

He too, however, acknowledged the fickle nature of Anbar's tribes, which tend to put their own interests well above those of any particular nation or ideal.

"Let's face it, there are Anbar tribes that are settling old scores. There are Anbar guys who are basically looking to re-establish order," he said.

"There are folks who are out there basically looking to basically rearm themselves for a variety of purposes," he added. "The motivations here are not pure and you've got to work your way through this process."

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