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Iraqi voices: For 'the Sheik,' U.S. pullout is cause for alarm

Editor's note: Photojournalist Kael Alford spent 10 months covering the invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath in 2003-2004. She returned this summer to see what has and hasn’t changed as the U.S. prepared to withdraw its troops. 

By Kael Alford

For many Sunnis in Iraq, including a man I’ll call “the Sheik” to protect his identity, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is no cause for celebration. Rather it is fueling apprehension about basic security and the minority sect’s economic future.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

The Sheik has breakfast while his eldest son and heir Zaindon, 9, sleeps on the couch in their temporary Baghdad apartment. One day Zaindon will take responsibility for mediating conflicts and providing community leadership back in Anbar province.

I met the Sheik in 2003 not long after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when I broke curfew and slipped past the scary Iraqi security forces at the Palestine hotel and, with a driver assigned to me by the Foreign Ministry, ventured out for a glimpse at village life outside Baghdad. A writer I was working with had previously met the Sheik, who invited me to join them. Outside his village, near Ramadi in Anbar province, we encountered another ring of security – this time a checkpoint manned by Baath party regulars in their drab green uniforms. But here, even Saddam Hussein’s power had limits, outranked by an older code of tribal affiliations and family networks, and they let us through.

In my early visits to the village I got glimpses of an idyllic life that residents enjoyed, so far not marred by the invasion -- feasts of fresh foods, wading in the Euphrates River with the Sheik’s family – but that soon changed.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

A photo of Zaindon in the clothing worn traditionally by a Shiek or tribal elder is shown on a cell phone. One day Zaidun will be a community leader following in his father's footsteps.

Village elders had initially given U.S. troops safe passage through their area. That attitude changed within months as civilian deaths and raids on local homes by U.S. troops fueled resentment. By the end of 2003, neutrality had changed to open hostility, and roadside bombs and ambushes on the main road through Anbar earned it the name the “Highway of Death” because it was the scene of so many attacks against U.S. troops.

I visited the area repeatedly to report on the uprising and checked in regularly with the Sheik. While his neighbors and members of his tribe were debating – and in some cases battling -- the U.S. occupation, he was focused elsewhere. The Sheik is a practical man and had many mouths to feed, so he decided to work with the Americans, figuring his construction business could benefit from some of the projects they were planning – building schools and roads or repairing basic infrastructure.

The Sheik made trips to the “Green Zone” to seek reconstruction jobs, but didn’t have any success. He said the contracts were going to American companies, stoking further frustration in Anbar.  When I left Iraq at the end of 2004, the Sheik was still without work.

When I returned in June, I found the Sheik and his family in a rented Baghdad apartment, very comfortable by Iraqi standards but nothing like the vaulted ceilings and marble floors of the family home in Anbar, with its vast garden and palm trees.

Within a half hour of my arrival, the food started coming – roasted chicken, salads, bread -- only this time it arrived in plastic bags from a nearby restaurant rather than on platters from the kitchen, because the army of women in the family who used to prepare the meals were back in the village.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

Zaindon, 9, climbs through a window between the laundry room and his bedroom in the family's temporary Baghdad apartment while his younger sisters and a cousin watch. The children typically play indoors for safety reasons while their father has business in the busy capital. At home in Anbar, they had plenty of room to play safely outdoors.

The Sheik told me had finally landed some reconstruction contracts related to a water treatment plant outside of Ramadi, but he moved his family to Baghdad because most of his business was in the capital and it wasn’t safe for them in Anbar.

But he said he was concerned that his business contracts would be terminated after the American withdrawal, when the fractured and corrupt Iraqi government will take complete control of infrastructure projects and contract procurement.

“I was given a chance to apply for an American visa, but I can’t leave Iraq” he said. “Too many people depend on me here.”

Among them is the Sheik’s heir, 9-year-old Zaindon. It will be his responsibility to carry on the family name and traditions – not just a patriarchal euphemism in this culture. One day Zaindon will be a community leader responsible for helping to settle disputes in the village. The Sheik would like his son to learn English so he can study abroad.

“My dream is to open a university in Iraq,” he said, explaining that providing better educational opportunities for young engineers is critical so that the next generation of talented people can stay and help the country to rebuild.

But he was concerned with the deterioration of the security situation in his village and elsewhere in Anbar.

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

The Shiek's wife cuts melon while her two oldest daughters Yehmameh, 7 left, and Tiba, 9, watch.

When what was initially a mostly home-grown Iraqi insurgency became dominated by groups affiliated with militant Islam, many of them made up of foreigners, local leaders in Anbar eventually took security into their own hands. With the backing of U.S. forces, they formed “Awakening” councils – essentially Sunni militias capable of taking on the al-Qaida-inspired groups that had grown powerful in Western Iraq.

The Sheik said most of the radicals arrested early on were released without prosecution, because there was rarely enough evidence for trials and people were too frightened to testify. That's led to a resurgence of the radicals and put pressure on the Awakening councils from two sides – from the radical groups and also from the central government, which is increasing arrests of Sunnis in the region under expanded de-Baathification purges.

“Al-Qaida is distributing fliers again,” said the Sheik, “and although there is no way for them to reorganize like before, they are still active, only using quieter techniques, like sticky bombs that target specific vehicles and silencers on their weapons.” 

Kael Alford / Panos Pictures

The Shiek walks the grounds surrounding his estate along the banks of the Euphrates River in Anbar Province, May 2003.

At the time of my visit, the situation was growing worse. We cancelled a trip to see the water treatment plant his company was working on when we got news that at least seven policemen had been killed in a drive-by shooting at a checkpoint west of Ramadi. Three were relatives from the Shiek’s village and he was occupied paying his respects to the families.

And that incident was hardly isolated. A cursory Internet search for attacks targeting Iraqi police in Anbar province leads to websites of radical Islamist groups like Ansar Al-Mujahadeen, which posts videos, photos and detailed descriptions of operations carried out against Iraqi security forces in English.

In light of the increasing insecurity and purges of Sunnis from government posts, Sunni dominated provinces are reconsidering their relationship to Iraq’s central government. The Awakening councils that reined in al-Qaida in western Iraq that were once on the American payroll are now paid by the central government, but members have been complaining of irregularities and bad treatment under the Shiite-dominated government. They have no official position in Iraq’s formal security structures and weak political representation, leaving them in limbo and even vulnerable to recruitment by Al-Qaida. Governing councils in the Sunni provinces of Salahuddin, where Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit is located, and Diyala have voted for increased autonomy from the central government, sparking demonstrations by Shiites in the latter province and feeding concerns that the tenuous Iraqi state could splinter along political and sectarian lines.

But perhaps the most unsettling development in Anbar province is the resurrection and persistence of local radical Islamist groups that now target Iraqi security forces and Iraqi civilians as readily as they did American forces while they were in the country. These groups were unheard of in Iraq before the war.

Like many Iraqis in western Iraq, the Sheik is convinced that Iran is supporting the radical Islamist groups in Anbar, citing the weapons they use and their choice of targets, including local Sunni shrines.

As the Sheik sees it, that may be a long-term impact of the U.S.-led war and subsequent withdrawal that Washington never anticipated.

“The Iraqi advisers misinformed the Americans when they first came” bringing Iraq closer to the interests of Iran and empowering Al-Qaida, he said. Now, “It’s only the politicians with loyalty to Iran who don’t want the Americans to stay.”

More from the series:

Introduction: As U.S. withdraws, the people speak
Corruption in high places costs widow everything
Patchwork electrical grid a symbol of country's disconnects
A new day for culture and consumer goods
For women, freedoms under fire
Suspicious minds in a squatters' camp

Colonel helped with the ‘Surge,’ then his past came calling