Samarra, Iraq — “You were an American soldier here in 2006?” asks Abu Saif.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Then you remember the Al Bazzi tribe,” he slyly posits. “We were one of the groups shooting at you,” he winks.
“Oh, yes, I remember,” I recall, now wearing my own grin. “And we shot back.”
With that, we part ways — but not before memorializing the moment with a photo.
The guys would not believe this. The Abu Saif I met today — leader in the Samarra Rescue Council — is not the Abu Saif we knew in 2006. Same goes for Abu Faruk, Abu Anis, and others in the room. All were High-Value Targets just two years ago — men we tried our damnedest to kill or capture — and today they are our partners.
For a soldier, it’s tough to square this circle — as I’d rather have avowed enemies six-feet under than six-feet in front of me; especially those who may have killed or injured a brother-in-arms. But today — embedded with a new unit in Samarra — I can more easily forget the memory of old enemies than the present threat of enduring ones. The friends of my brothers are — I suppose — my friends, and I’m witnessing the awakening I thought possible in 2006.
The story of the Samarra Rescue Council (Samarra’s “Sahwa,” or Awakening Movement) is complex, with every aspect of its development deserving detailed explanation. Yet I am certain of two things after witnessing the “Sons of Samarra” (SOS) firsthand: One, they would not be in existence today were it not for the persistence and foresight of brave Americans; and two, they are the single most important factor in Samarra’s dramatic, and quite sudden, turnaround. The brilliant counterinsurgency strategy I wrote about yesterday serves primarily to support this indigenous movement.
Ironically, the realization that an awakening movement was necessary came via our enemies’ actions. Am Muhamed, the provincial representative for the Samarra Rescue Council (SRC), says “after years of violence, we finally realized that al-Qaeda was only here to destroy our city.” That same realization is personal for the SRC chief, Sheik Khalid. He has lost 19 members of his family at the hands of al-Qaeda (and the affiliated Al Badri tribe), including his wife and eldest son. Al-Qaeda itself laid the groundwork for Sahwa.
Today, 2,200 SOS are paid to secure Samarra’s streets — with another 1,100 working as unpaid volunteers outside the city. Six months ago there were zero. The patrols I shadowed this week couldn’t go two blocks without seeing AK-47-toting SOS members in fluorescent vests alongside Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Two years ago — and, I presume, six months ago — we could patrol for hours without seeing any Iraqi Police.
This cooperation between the SOS and both ISF and American forces — primarily “No Slack” Infantry battalion — is what makes the Samarra Sahwa movement work. Despite a great deal of initial resistance (heck, they were shooting at each other six months ago) the SOS work alongside formal ISF — Samarra police, national police, and the Iraqi army. They hold weekly coordination meetings, and even man joint checkpoints.
In most parts of Iraq, cooperation between so-called “Sunni militias” and conventional ISF is unheard of. In fact, Samarra’s top security officer — Major General Rasheed Al Hilfi — told me yesterday “the relationship between the SOS and ISF in Samarra is the best in all of Iraq.” This may be a stretch, but nonetheless, the predominately Shia National Police have had little trouble working alongside the Sunni SOS inside the city.
On the American side, cooperation has existed from the beginning. Unable to get support from the Iraqi government, the Samarra Sahwa movement’s six founders (two imams, two former Baath-party intelligence officers, one businessman, and one Saddam-era army colonel) — four of whom I met — eventually approached No Slack at their patrol base in the city. It was a risky proposition, but as they told me repeatedly, “from the beginning, the Americans were very serious about it.”
Initial meetings started in October of 2007, and quickly accelerated when they were synched with a parallel effort by U.S. Special Forces to facilitate the return of key leaders from Syria. Without No Slack’s initiative and Special Forces’ backroom handiwork, the movement would never have taken off. The Sahwa leaders were scared to face al-Qaeda, divided amongst themselves, and inherently skeptical of their former adversaries.
Negotiations continued in secret until mid-February, after which the SOS received four days of training at an American base and then were promptly dispatched to man checkpoints throughout the city. The first few weeks were tense, but al-Qaeda hadn’t seen it coming, and they were knocked off their feet. In the first 16 days of its existence, the SOS uncovered 19 massive weapons caches. The real power brokers had taken back their streets, and the Americans had their back. Almost immediately, attacks throughout Samarra died off, and today show no sign of resuscitation.
The movement’s founders admit that many — if not most — of their members are former insurgents. Yet they stress that most were never hardcore fighters, and their current participation in the SOS centers largely on the $250 they receive each month. Not a bad chunk of change in a city boasting a staggering unemployment rate. That said, the SRC seems to keep close tabs on their men, as I witness the council agree to expel 21 SOS members suspected of having continued al-Qaeda ties.
The events of March 28, 2008, provide the most glaring example I found that SRC leaders are not the shady back-stabbers our media has made them out to be. On this day, Am Muhamed and another former insurgent spent the afternoon briefing the entire No Slack officer corps. The topic: “Tactics of Samarra insurgents and how to defeat them.” The class included personal insights on how insurgents attack, how they escape, where they hide their weapons, amongst other tips. If only the guys could see this.
This is all great stuff, but will go for naught if Samarrans don’t abide. So how do the people feel? Everyone I spoke with reveres the SOS as “the heroes of Samarra.” One local shopkeeper summed it up thus, “With all due respect to the Coalition Forces, it was the Sahwa movement that brought the most security to the city. Today is the safest Samarra has been since al-Qaeda arrived in 2004.”
When I sat down two days ago to interview SRC leader Am Muhamed, he concluded the interview with a statement: “Please pass along a message to your government from me. Tell them to do everything they can to get my boys hired into the Iraqi Security Forces. If they don’t get hired, they will go back to being jobless . . . and we go back to the starting point.”
This is the future challenge of the SOS. Nearly all 2,200 want to join the ISF; and while General Rasheed al-Hilfi and other ISF leaders vow to do what they can to integrate them, the process will be slow, and will end in disappointment for many. On top of this, the Maliki government is suspicious of the program and the American military is hell-bent on reducing the “bridging mechanism” that is the SOS. The later point, however, we can control.
A general policy of reducing the “Sons of Iraq” rolls is correct, as they were never meant to be a permanent force. But some thought must be given to the security implications of radically reducing their numbers. To me, this arbitrary administrative “goal” smells eerily similar to the choreographed battle-space “handovers” many units hastily executed with Iraqi security units from 2004-2006, only to see the territory fall back into enemy hands.
Today, we have al-Qaeda five feet under, and yet could still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The SOS — and equivalent groups across Iraq — have transformed the entire war; and without them, Samarra, and all of Iraq, would not be where they are today — closer to self-sufficiency than they’ve ever been. Success, not speed, must remain our lodestar. And transferring Iraq’s Sons into the legitimate Iraqi Security Forces must be dictated by temperance, not administrative timelines.
– Captain Pete Hegseth of the Army National Guard served in Samarra, Iraq with the 101st Airborne from December 2005 to July 2006 and has returned there as an embedded correspondent for NRO as part of Vets for Freedom’s “Back to Iraq” effort.