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.
While substantial security, economic, and political gains have occurred in strategically significant places like Anbar, Baghdad, and throughout Iraq since 2006, I remain inherently skeptical of the situation in Samarra. Asaad’s remorseful words echo in my head: “I haven’t found anyone [else] yet”; and I can still see his tired — yet determined — eyes appealing to us to stand beside him. I have no idea what Samarra looks like today, and I won’t believe true progress has occurred there until I see it.
To that end, I’m returning to Iraq. On this trip, I’ll be taking a close look at the local political situation, the status (and stature) of Iraqi security forces, and the posture of American military units in the city. How do Samarra residents feel about upcoming provincial elections? Has Samarra found another leader — or leaders — capable of rebuilding the city and expelling al-Qaeda? Have her local security forces stepped up their role in the city? And have American forces finally employed the basic principles of counter-insurgency? Not a day has passed in the last two years that I didn’t think about Samarra — her people, her situation, and the sacrifice of our troops there.
As the Wall Street Journal reported in May 2006:
The challenges are huge. Along Samarra’s unpaved avenues, wind blows rags and plastic bags onto coils of razor wire, where they hang resembling bizarre Christmas decorations. By night, a city that was once the capital of an early Muslim empire is devoid of street life. Roadside bombings, sniper fire and mortar attacks targeting U.S. troops occur almost daily, and anti-American graffiti frequently appear on walls.
In assessing Samarra today, it will be important to keep in mind the long history of this ancient Sunni city — which has always been restive. Even during Saddam Hussein’s reign, the city was a den of thieves — crawling with criminals and dissidents alike. The lesson in Samarra has always been: expect the unexpected. No one expected the Golden Mosque to be destroyed. No one expected someone like Asaad to step up and fight, even after his entire house was destroyed. I still don’t know what to expect in Samarra.
When I arrive there tomorrow — I will be expecting the unexpected, whatever that may be.
– Pete Hegseth served in Samarra, Iraq with the 101st Airborne from December 2005 to July 2006 and will return there as an embedded correspondent for NRO as part of Vets for Freedom “Back to Iraq” effort. Pete is a captain in the Army National Guard.