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Buy The Tribes


From my amateur’s perspective, I’ve been eagerly looking for suggestions for how we can improve the security situation in Iraq beyond the truism that “we need better intelligence.” The one that seems most convincing is buying off the tribes in the Sunni Triangle. The Wall Street Journal has an excellent report along these lines today (excuse the long post, but I think it’s an important story).

The story tells of Col. Hector Mirabile, who captured Kurdi Rashid for his anti-coalition activities. But Mirabile released Rashid to co-opt his brother, an influential sheik in the region: “The price of Mr. Rashid’s freedom was a stop to the daily roadside bomb attacks on the colonel’s troops. So far, the bargain is holding. ‘All of a sudden, there is miraculous peace in my little area. I haven’t had a bomb in a week,’ Col. Mirabile said, sipping sweet tea. ‘Here, it’s not like a Western system… It’s all bartering and favors.’”

Mirabile is operating in a long tradition, the Journal reports: “It’s how the Ottoman and British occupiers kept peace, and it’s how Saddam Hussein operated, too, often freeing political prisoners at the request of powerful Sunni tribes and rewarding chieftains with cash and gleaming limousines.

The Sheiks here in Anbar can be unsavory characters. Many owe their fortunes to smuggling with Syria and Saudi Arabia, as well as to outright extortion and thievery. Bolstering their power goes against the grain of the occupation government’s longer-term effort to transform Iraq into a showcase of Western-style democracy and civil society.”

The story continues: “As Col. Mirabile spends his days going from sheik to sheik, he’s making progress figuring out tribal etiquette and Iraqi eating habits. He’s adept at compressing rice and meat into a ball with his fingers at the standing tribal banquets, where there are no forks or plates. And, as a sign of progress, he points out that when he is offered tea now the tiny glasses overflow and stand in a saucer full of spilled liquid. ‘If it’s just barely full, it’s a sign of disrespect,’ he said. That’s how the glasses often looked in the beginning.

Above all, Col. Mirabile says, he has learned that cash is king. Discussions with tribal leaders quickly turn to requests that reconstruction contracts be steered the tribe’s way . . . Using a special cash fund the U.S. military puts at the disposal of units, Col. Mirabile has spent $700,000 on projects in the city. ‘Since ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ not a damn thing here has changed.’”

By all means, let’s get more sheiks on the payroll. It seems an alien tradition, but I’m not sure it’s that different from how the House Transportation Committee operates….


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