Editor Query (Iraq)

Editor,

I’ve been living with the Iraqi Army (IA) for more than a month now in a city called Mahmudiya, and last week I stayed with a family of prominent sheiks in the area, the Hamdanis. During that time, a man was shot and killed at their house and the situation paints a picture of the hard realities and strange politics in Iraq at the moment.

The fact is, despite lingering violence, the insurgency has been largely (my gut says completely) vanquished. Though there are exceptions, the IEDs exploding these days are targeting Iraqis; the violence is intertribal, which means it’s not going to end when the Americans go home (though I don’t buy into the idea that the violence is going to spike when the Americans leave, either … largely because there will still be an American presence here). Omar Ahmed, the murder victim, was a young, uneducated Son of Iraq (or Sahawa, those plebeians who carry AKs and man checkpoints for $300/month—a small sum that basically keeps them out of the employ of Al Qaeda or the Jaish Al Madia militia, JAM). The Sahawa program has become a $30-million/month operation—a headache for the government (which is doing the paying)—and a political tool of its handlers.

Similar to trends in Mexico, organized crime networks (which were indissolubly tied up with the insurgency) are putting away guns and bombs and branching into the political realm. There’s a hard play on, in fact, to have the intelligence officer at the Iraqi base I’m on (2nd Bat., 25 Brig., 17 Div.) moved or even removed. The Americans tell me the guy is savvy and effective at his job—maybe too effective. He’s been exceptionally good against JAM (Muqutada Al Sadr’s militia), the most active network locally (once called the Triangle of Death, this area could now be called the Triangle of Yawns). The Americans believe the intel officer’s demise may be realized because of JAM’s influence in the political sphere—they suspect the party representing the militia has leveraged pressure against upper level Iraqi officials.

Four men have been arrested for Omar Ahmed’s murder and they’ve fingered a powerful local figure, Sheik Malik. Lieutenant Hamid, the intel officer, says Malik is a political untouchable. But the Hamdani tribe is powerful, too. It’s one of the largest in Iraq (it ruled all of the region in times past), and the household I stayed at represents almost a million members across the Middle East. The day before I arrived at the Hamdani estate, however, a rocket was launched at it; which was followed, three days later, by the blatant killing of Ahmed. The Americans pulled their hair out trying to figure out what was going on with the Hamdanis. They were frustrated by the fact the Hamdanis, normally amenable allies, weren’t cooperating with their investigation. Al Qaeda has traditionally been strong in the Hamdani’s area and the Americans theorized it may have been trying to muscle in on Hamdani territory, but that didn’t seem right—Al Qaeda isn’t strong enough to mount a significant threat.

Dr. Mizher, one of the Hamdani brothers, has a PhD from the University of Utah. His son is in the MBA program at Oklahoma State University. The family is highly educated, successful, and a key player in the country’s large agriculture sector. It is also heavily involved with the Sahawa program—many of whose members were farmers before 2003. Though it is supposed to end this year, Mizher says the program needs another 2-3 years to allow those farmers what amounts to a subsidy paycheck while they reestablish themselves in the reemerging ag industry. Lt. Hamid says Sheik Malik isn’t happy with the Hamdani’s cozy relationship with the Americans—which likely has to do with his perception of the advantage they’ve derived from the Sahawa program—and his course of action has been violence (which in contemporary Iraq is as natural as raised voices at a pee-wee football game).

Hamid’s investigation (which probably used torture to elicit confessions from the four Sons of Iraq involved in the murder) says it was Malik who sent the man (a fellow Sahawa member) that shot and killed Omar Ahmad at a checkpoint on the Hamdani property. The message: I can touch you in your own home. Despite Malik’s proven connection to the shooter, Hamid says the sheik is too powerful to touch. No judge will swear out a warrant against him. The Hamdanis, meanwhile, have been reticent to work with the Americans, as association with them caused the intertribal strife in the fist place. And the Americans have found themselves in a strange spot.

U.S. authorities lack the judicial flexibility to arrest Malik (at this point in the conflict the military isn’t an offensive entity, but the backer of the Iraqi’s play). And power figures like Malik are aware of that. An American Captain told me it might be time for another measure—a stern talk and a show of force. Time to roll up on Malik’s property, heavily armed—as the U.S. military did more frequently in days past—and remind him the Americans still have overwhelming firepower that can be brought to bear if he wants to play hardball. Lt. Hamid seems unimpressed with that option. He knows that Malik is as resilient as he is politically savvy. And everybody in Iraq knows the American mandate here is limited and running out fast.

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