American forces too soft on terrorists, says Iraqi sheikh
* Indeed. They are.
AFP Photo: Sheikh Hamid al-Hais, head of the Anbar Salvation Council, the paramilitary wing of a coalition…
The key to saving Iraq from the scourge of Al-Qaeda is to subject captured fighters to the swift and deadly rule of tribal justice, according to the leader of a powerful new armed movement.
Sheikh Hamid al-Hais leads the Anbar Salvation Council, the paramilitary wing of a coalition of Sunni tribes from Iraq’s western desert, and he has a simple message for his new American allies in his battle with the insurgents.
“I always tell the Americans ‘Why detain the enemy? Leave him to me, don’t detain him,'” he chuckled during an interview with AFP in a Baghdad hotel.
“We have our own tribal legal system and this is constant and cannot be changed. Murderers must be killed under tribal law and unless we use this force against terrorism, terrorism will continue to rise.”
The Salvation Council is part of a movement called the Anbar Awakening run by Sheikh Abdulsattar Abu Risha, whose alliance of tribal leaders united against the threat posed to Anbar province by Al-Qaeda’s militants.
Anbar’s mainly Sunni population once largely supported attacks on US forces and Iraq’s Shiite-led government.
Many, however, have become sickened by Al-Qaeda’s attacks on civilians and tribal leaders and are angered by the insurgents’ interference in the region’s traditional ways of life.
Since October, sheikhs have funnelled thousands of tribal fighters into the police and “emergency response units”, which now fight alongside US and government forces while retaining their loyalty to their sheikhs.
The US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, describes the change of mood in Anbar as “almost breathtaking”, and Hais proudly recounted a series of victories won by his fighters in wresting back territory from Al-Qaeda.
To finish the job, he wants more money and weapons and a free hand to impose rough justice on the enemy fighters that fall into his hands.
“We have 500 prisoners right now. We have our own prisons. There are Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians but most of the foreign fighters were killed during the clashes. Most of the prisoners are Iraqis.”
These jails, he said, are guarded by “police units that we have formed from the tribes.”
“We investigate very quickly. We already have all the information. We don’t need long investigations. We have a very well organised security staff. We don’t make any mistakes when we target anyone,” he said.
“Security is our speciality. We have 1,600 officers, graduates of military and security colleges and academies. We have the skills but we still need funds and weapons. We must have authority, full authority, and enough funding.”
After four years of fierce fighting but little political progress in Anbar, US commanders welcomed the rise of the Council with enthusiasm.
No counter-insurgency campaign can ever be successful without winning over the bulk of the local community.
Tribal ties are important to all Iraqis, but most especially to those in rural areas like Anbar, where these traditions govern politics, social relations and business — including smuggling and highway robbery.
Having grasped this and built their own relationships with the tribes, US commanders now have friends and sources of information in a region where once they were despised outsiders subjected to daily attacks.
Hais, however, feels that his new friends still have a lot to learn about how to win a war in the closed communities and harsh landscapes of western Iraq.
“The Americans don’t know the terrorists like we do. A very dangerous terrorist was freed by the Americans and our police captured him,” he said.
“We asked him during the investigation, ‘Why did the Americans release you, you are very dangerous?’ He said, ‘I told them just two lies and they believed me and they set me free’,” Hais recounted.
“We knew him very well, and he couldn’t deny it. We told him ‘You killed this person and that person’. Yes, he had to die. It’s outside the law, but it’s the only remedy for them,” he added, with satisfaction.
“There’s no way to cure them, they have to be killed.”
Hais, who despite his tough talk looks urbane and cosmopolitan in his smart business suit and neat moustache, says he can now field 15,000 armed fighters, most of them now nominally in the police but still under his orders.
How many of these were once in the resistance, fighting the Americans? “Fifty percent and maybe more,” he said.
And why did they change sides? “Because of the behaviour of Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda did not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. They killed the resistance, they killed sheikhs, they killed everyone,”
These fighters would make powerful allies for the Americans, if only they are used properly, he argued.
“We’re all sons of Anbar. The sons of Anbar are different from those from other regions. They have powerful bodies and they strike with iron fists without hesitation,” he said.
“Put 10 officers from Anbar on one side and 10 from other regions of Iraq on the other and you will see that they are the fiercest, because of the desert environment in which they have lived,” he said.
“When they strike their enemy they strike him hard, without letting up.”
Hearing such tough talk, some might wonder whether an Anbar run by this coalition of tribal hard men, most of whom once backed Saddam Hussein, can offer a much more open future than Al-Qaeda’s dream of an Islamic caliphate.
But Hais, who makes no secret of his contempt for the “Taliban-style” attitudes of his enemies, says he dreams not only of peace but of rebuilding Anbar’s shattered cities with nightclubs, hotels and international trade.
“We’ll make Ramadi the Dubai of Iraq,” he said, a twinkle in his eye. “I believe in development. I am very liberal, extremely liberal.
“I wanted to forbid the girls from wearing headscarves in Anbar University. They told me I’m the new Chirac,” he said, in a nod to the outgoing French president whose government banned Islamic dress from public schools.