SAMARRA, Iraq: A few days after insurgents killed two of his bodyguards, Asaad Ali Yaseen sat in his living room with a pistol beside him and pondered the challenges of running this city. As if on cue, a U.S. soldier burst in to announce that a sniper’s bullet had just struck a military vehicle parked outside. Mr. Yaseen and his guest, U.S. Army Maj. Steven Delvaux, barely stirred. “It would be good if you had a deputy,” Maj. Delvaux volunteered.
“I already have two deputies, but they stay at home with their women,” replied Mr. Yaseen, who is president of Samarra’s city council, which rarely meets. “There must be somebody in the city who can help you,” the major continued. “I haven’t found anyone yet,” Mr. Yaseen said.
– Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2006
Samarra was a troubled city when I was last there in 2006. Three years into the war, scarcely a local government structure existed in Samarra, with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) targeting every local official and scaring off promising prospective leaders — save for Asaad Ali Yaseen. Besieged yet defiant, Asaad risked his life, and the lives of his family, to try and restore local governance, reconcile warring tribes, eradicate AQI, and rebuild a ravaged city.
He was, in many ways, a man before his time — or, dare I say it, a man before our
time. A dynamic personality and a businessman by trade, Asaad had the rare combination of sheer courage and social connections needed to lead a fractured city. Before taking the reigns of Samarra’s city council, Asaad had not previously sought public life. He was a reluctant warrior, finally compelled to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq through sheer revulsion at their violent ideology.
Asaad pioneered an “Anbar awakening” mindset in Samarra, providing some of the indigenous leadership — that is, leadership with an actual following — necessary to tip the scales against the insurgents. Some insurgents came to him begging for amnesty, vowing to change their ways. Numerous rival tribal leaders allied with his powerful Al Abassi tribe against AQI-affiliated tribes. And local Iraqi Security Forces, which included solid and squishy leaders alike, rallied behind Asaad.
Yet as the human terrain shifted in Samarra, our unit (save for some outstanding officers like Major Delvaux) did not have the right military approach in place to detect those changes and adjust their strategy. Asaad implored our unit to exploit the human intelligence of his extensive tribal networks to dismantle the local insurgency and simultaneously accelerate local reconstruction and reconciliation — a double-pronged plan that never jibed with our outdated and unsynchronized military approach.
Asaad was the right man at the right moment, yet the American military watched largely from the sidelines, more concerned with PowerPoint briefings and high-profile operations than the tedious work of building relationships and rebuilding neighborhoods. In retrospect, we watched a potential awakening movement pass us by.
Later that year, when the real “awakening” occurred in neighboring Anbar Province, it was this very combination — Iraqi initiative coupled with an American commitment to on-the-ground security — that provided the tipping point. In Ramadi alone, as the tribes banded together, Americans and Iraqis occupied over 65 combat outposts throughout the city to squelch the insurgency. No such cooperation materialized in Samarra.