Fallujah, Iraq -- Driving through Fallujah, once the most rebellious Sunni city in this country, I saw little evidence of any kind of reconstruction underway. At least 70% of that city's structures were destroyed during massive U.S. military assaults in April, and again in November 2004, and more than four years later, in the "new Iraq," the city continues to languish.
The shells of buildings pulverized by U.S. bombs, artillery, or mortar fire back then still line Fallujah's main street, or rather, what's left of it. As one of the few visible signs of reconstruction in the city, that street -- largely destroyed during the November 2004 siege -- is slowly being torn up in order to be repaved.
Unemployment is rampant here, the infrastructure remains largely in ruins, and tens of thousands of residents who fled in 2004 are still refugees. How could it be otherwise, given the amount of effort that went into its destruction and not, subsequently, into rebuilding it? It's a place where a resident must still carry around a U.S.-issued personal biometric ID card, which must also be shown any time you enter or exit the city if you are local. Such a card can only be obtained after U.S. military personnel have scanned your retinas and taken your fingerprints.
The trauma from the 2004 attacks remains visible everywhere. Given the countless still-bullet-pocked walls of restaurants, stores, and homes, it is impossible to view the city from any vantage point, or look in any direction, without observing signs of those sieges.
Everything in Fallujah, and everyone there, has been touched to the core by the experience, but not everyone is experiencing the aftermath of the city's devastation in the same way. In fact, for much of my "tour" of Fallajah, I was inside a heavily armored, custom-built, $420,000 BMW with all the accessories needed in twenty-first century Iraq, including a liquor compartment and bulletproof windows.
One of the last times I had been driven through Fallujah -- in April 2004 -- I was with a small group of journalists and activists. We had made our way into the city, then under siege, on a rickety bus carrying humanitarian aid supplies. After watching in horror as U.S. F-16's dropped bombs inside Fallujah while we wound our way toward it through rural farmlands, we arrived to find its streets completely empty, save for mujahideen checkpoints.
To say that my newest mode of transportation was an upgrade that left me a bit disoriented would be (mildly put) an understatement. The BMW belonged to Sheik Aifan Sadun, head of the Awakening Council of Fallujah. Thanks to the Awakening movement that began forming in 2006 in al-Anbar Province, then the hotbed of the Sunni insurgency -- into which American occupation forces quickly poured significant amounts of money, arms, and other kinds of support -- violence across most of that province is now at an all-time low. This is strikingly evident in Fallujah, once known as the city of resistance, since the fiercest fighting of the American occupation years took place there.
Today, 34-year-old Sheik Aifan may be the richest man in town, thanks to his alliance of self-interest with the U.S. occupation forces. Aifan's good fortune was this: He was the right sheik in the right place at the right time when the Americans, desperate over their failures in Iraq, decided to throw their support behind the reconstitution of a tribal elite in the province where the Sunni insurgency raged with particular fierceness from 2004-2006.
In the "Construction Business"
Don't misunderstand. This wasn't a careful, strategically laid, made-in-the-USA plan. It was a seat-of-the-pants, spur-of-the-moment quick fix. After all, by the time U.S. planners decided to throw their weight behind the Awakening Movement, it was already something of a done deal.
In late 2006, roughly speaking, months before George W. Bush's "surge" strategy sent 30,000 more American troops into Baghdad and surrounding areas, the U.S. began making down-payments on the cooperation of local al-Anbar tribal sheiks and started funding and arming the Sunni militias they were then organizing. As a result, the number of insurgent attacks quickly began to drop, and so the Americans widened the program to other provinces. It grew to include nearly 100,000 Sunni fighters, most of whom were paid $300 a month -- a sizeable income in a devastated city like Fallujah with sky-high unemployment rates.
The program was soon hailed as a success, and the groups were dubbed anything from The Awakening, to Sons of Iraq (al-Sahwa), or as the U.S. military preferred for a time, Concerned Local Citizens. Whatever the name, most of their members were former resistance fighters; many were also former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party; and significant numbers were -- and, of course, remain -- both.
There was an even deeper history to the path the Americans finally chose in order to tame the insurgency and the home-grown al-Qaeda-in-Iraq (AQI) groups that had spun off from it. In an interview with David Enders and Richard Rowley, colleagues of mine, in the summer of 2007, Sheikh Aifan laid this out quite clearly: "Saddam Hussein supported some tribes and some sheiks. Some of those sheiks, he used their power in their areas. The first support came by money. He supported them by big projects, by money, and he made them very rich. So you see, they can deal with anyone in Iraq with money. The Americans, they made the same plan with all the sheiks."
The main goal of the Americans was never the reconstruction of devastated al-Anbar Province. That was just the label given to a project whose objective -- from the U.S. point of view -- was to save American lives and to tamp down violence in Iraq before the U.S. presidential election of 2008.
Today, leading sheiks like Aifan will tell you that they are in "the construction business." That's a polite phrase for what they're doing, and the rubric under which a lot of the payouts take place (however modest actual reconstruction work might be). Think of it this way: Every dealer needs a front man. The U.S. bought the sheiks off and it was to their immediate advantage to be bought off. They regained a kind of power that had been seeping away, while all the money and arms allowed them to put real muscle into recruiting people in the tribes they controlled and into building the Awakening Movement.
The reasons -- and they are indeed plural -- why the tribal leaders were so willing to collaborate with the occupiers of their country are, at least in retrospect, relatively clear. Those in al-Anbar who had once supported, and had been supported by, Saddam Hussein, and then had initially supported the resistance became far keener to work with occupation forces as they saw their power eroded by al-Qaeda-in-Iraq.
AQI proved a threat to the sheiks, many of whom had initially worked directly with it, when it began to try to embed its own fierce, extremist Sunni ideology in the region -- and perhaps even more significantly, when it began to infringe on the cross-border smuggling trade that had kept many tribal sheiks rich. As AQI grew larger and threatened their financial and power bases, they had little choice but to throw in their lot with the Americans.
As a result, these men obtained backing for their private militias, renamed Awakening groups, and in addition, signed "construction" contracts with the Americans who put millions of dollars in their pockets, even if not always into actual construction sites. As early as April 2006, the Rand Corporation released a report, "The Anbar Awakening," identifying America's potential new allies as a group of sheiks who used to control smuggling rings and organized crime in the area.
One striking example was Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, who founded the first Awakening groups in al-Anbar and later led the entire movement until he was assassinated in 2007, shortly after he met with President Bush. It was well known in the region that Abu Risha was primarily a smuggler defending his business operations by joining the Americans.
Not surprisingly, given the lucrative nature of the cooperative relationship that developed, whenever an Awakening group sheik is assassinated, another is always there to take his place. Abu Risha was, in fact, promptly replaced as "president" of the Anbar Awakening by his brother Sheik Ahmad Abu Risha, also now in the "construction business."
Dreaming of the New Dubai
When George W. Bush visited Iraq in September 2007, my host on my tour of Fallujah, Sheik Aifan, was delighted to meet him. Bush, he claimed, was "very smart and a brother." During the summer of 2008, he would meet Barack Obama as well. When asked what he thought of Obama, he told Richard Rowley, "U.S. foreign policy tends not to change with a new president." A photo of him with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is proudly displayed, among many others, at his home in Fallujah.
To fully understand why tribal leaders like Aifan began working so closely with American forces, you also have to take into account the waves of staggering sectarian violence that were sweeping across Iraq in 2006. As Sunni suicide and car bombings slaughtered Shiites, so, too, Shia militias and death squads were murdering Sunnis by the score on a daily basis.
Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, Sunnis had been nearly a majority in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. By 2006, they were a rapidly shrinking minority, largely driven out of the many mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods that dotted the city and some purely Sunni ones as well. Hundreds of thousands of them were displaced from homes in Baghdad alone.
At his Informed Comment blog, Juan Cole reports that Sunnis may now make up as little as 10%-15% of the population of the capital. No wonder their tribal leaders, outnumbered and outgunned on all sides, felt the need for some help and, with options limited, found it by reaching out to the most powerful military on the planet. With their finances, livelihoods, and even lives threatened, they resorted to a classic tactic of the beleaguered, summed up in the saying, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
The result today? Sheik Aifan is a millionaire many times over. And his dreams are fittingly no longer those of a local smuggler. He wants to "make Anbar the next Dubai," he told two of my colleagues and me as we powered down the battered streets of Fallujah.
His house is a fittingly massive, heavily guarded mansion complete with its own checkpoint near the street, two guard towers, and even two heavy machine guns emplaced near the door to his office. A bevy of guards surround him at all times and live in the mansion full time for his protection.
During our first visit to his home, my companions and I ended up spending the night, since we had not completed our interviews by the time the sun began to set. It was just days ahead of the recent provincial elections in which the list of Awakening members he was a part of would take second place. As we munched on delicious kebabs, he proudly discussed his own campaign that he hoped would land him high in the city council. "I'm running," he insisted, "because if I don't, the bad people will keep their seats. We can't change things if we don't run."
With most Sunni groups boycotting the 2005 election, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), a heavily religious group, took control of the seats of power in Fallujah. While I was with Aifan, he was visibly anxious and angered by rumors that the IIP was attempting to pressure voters and rig the elections. "We will fight with any means necessary if they win by fraud," he said adamantly -- and, as I would soon find out, he was already taking the fight to the IIP.
John Gotti in Iraq
As the night grew late, Aifan suddenly decided that we should accompany him on a quick visit to the provincial capital, Ramadi. He wanted to consult with a compatriot, Sheik Abu Risha, in order to file a joint letter of complaint about the alleged fraud the IIP was conducting in the run-up to the elections. It was interesting to note that, only two years and a few months after the Awakening Movement was formed, the two sheiks feared a Sunni electoral party far more than al-Qaeda-in-Iraq.
En route he proudly showed off the BMW's extras, including its two-inch thick bulletproof windows (so useful if you fear assassination), the handy flip-out whiskey compartment that held Johnny Walker and some sodas, and a top-of-the-line music system. As he drove, his cell phone in one hand and a walkie-talkie beside him a constant link to his security guards in SUVs which had us sandwiched front and back, he continued to talk enthusiastically with us. Riding in the front, I couldn't help but be exceedingly aware of the pistol that rested conveniently near him on the seat. In the back on the floor were a shotgun and an AK-47 assault rifle.
Abu Risha's compound in Ramadi was even larger than Sheik Aifan's mansion -- and even more heavily guarded. We arrived to find an election official already waiting to take Aifan's written complaint on the rigging charges. The chief of police for the province was in attendance too, a sign of the power and influence of these two men who share a bond of power and money. (Abu Risha even owns a camel farm.)
Once the visit was concluded, we headed back for Fallujah and had a late night snack at Sheik Aifan's place before settling in for a night's sleep as his guest. His daughter, a shy girl of perhaps seven years of age, sat beside him as we ate. At one point, he suddenly peeled a crisp U.S. $100 bill off a wad of bills that would have stunned any movie mafia boss, smiled benevolently, and added that she shouldn't let her mother know about the gift.
The sheik, of course, had $100 bills to spare, as millions of dollars for so-called construction projects have been funneled his way. It's how he pays the roughly 900 men that he estimates make up his private militia. For all of this he can thank the U.S. military, which delivers regular installments of money -- shrink-wrapped bricks of those $100 bills -- because post-invasion Iraq remains largely a cash-only economy.
Before our journey to Ramadi, a patrol of U.S. Marines had paid Sheik Aifan a visit. As the soldiers climbed the stairs to his meeting room, they took clips of ammunition away from the sheik's security team, and kept them until they left his compound. It was a gentle reminder of who still has the final say in this part of Iraq and of just how far the trust extends between these partners of necessity.
Sheikh Aifan offered a warm greeting to the Marine commander, and the two men sat down to talk. Each was visibly distracted, anxiously looking around. Sheik Aifan toyed anxiously with his prayer beads, wiggling his legs like a nervous schoolchild, while telling his guest how well everything was going. The meeting was repeatedly interrupted by cell phone calls for the sheik who, at one point, left briefly to welcome another visitor.
After the meeting, platters of food were brought in and everyone feasted. As they were leaving, I asked one of the Marines if meetings like these happened regularly. "This is our job," he replied. "We visit sheiks. And this guy is like John Gotti." (Gotti, labeled "the Teflon Don," ran the Gambino crime family in New York City before being jailed.)
I wasn't eager to stay the night, but the alternatives -- at least the safe ones -- were nil. Though in luxurious circumstances, we caught something of the newest Iraqi dilemma: we had "security" of a sort, but no freedom.
Outside the gates of Sheik Aifan's well-guarded compound, generators hummed in the night providing electricity in a land where, if you can't pay for a generator of your own or share one with your neighbor, you are in trouble. In Fallujah, like Baghdad, four hours of electricity delivered from the national grid is considered a good day. Generally, a self-imposed curfew kept the streets relatively traffic free after total darkness settled in.
The city in which Sheik Aifan lives, of course, still lies in rubble, its people largely in a state of existential endurance. The Awakening groups have earned the respect of many Iraqis by providing "security," but at what price?
Reconstruction has yet to really begin in Sunni areas and the movement, sheiks and all, only works as long as the U.S. continues funneling "reconstruction funds" to tribal leaders. What happens when that stops, as it surely must with time? Will the people of Fallujah be better served? Or has this process merely laid the groundwork for future bloodshed?
Note of thanks: Bhashwati Sengupta, Richard Rowley, Jacqueline Soohen, and David Enders contributed research to this article.