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© Photo courtesy of Eric Nelson


The Lost Tribes

by Eric Nelson
April 5, 2018

The rise and fall of ISIS in Iraq is the latest chapter of a struggle that began in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion led by the U.S. and Great Britain. During the occupation, many influential Sunni Muslims in Iraq were barred from the government and security services. Fearing persecution, they led their tribes in an armed insurgency against the occupying powers and the new Shia-dominated government. There has been sectarian strife ever since. The conflict has waxed and waned, but it has never ended. With the apparent defeat of ISIS in Iraq (if not yet Syria) this former U.S. soldier in Iraq is hopeful that the peaceful gains made during my time there, help to bring an end to the sectarian strife that has uprooted, maimed, and killed so many.

I commanded a company of soldiers in 2008 during the “surge” of American forces in Iraq. My small base was in an area known as the “Triangle of Death”, in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley south of Baghdad. In a movement that became known as the Sunni Awakening, many Sunnis who were fed up with the terrorism and brutal tactics of Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups, turned against them and agreed to work with U.S. forces to provide security. One of the first missions my soldiers and I received was to meet a sheik, the leader of one of these tribes, and discuss the initial terms of our new partnership.

We knew that he had authorized attacks that had killed U.S. soldiers in the past. We also knew that U.S. forces had killed one of his brothers while he was fighting for Al Qaeda.

It was not a great context in which to start a relationship. Many of my fellow soldiers and I had lost friends to insurgents, and I think all of us had strong reservations about working with these former enemies.

On a hot and hazy day, a group of us set out in our armored vehicles to the meeting location in tribal territory, past the sturdy date palm trees that stood like columns alongside the road. The area had been a hotspot for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and ambushes in the past. The lack of hostility en route to the meeting seemed promising. However, when we arrived and I got out of my truck, a tribal fighter brandishing an AK-47 approached me, yelling. My interpreter:

"he says you are not welcome here, get out of here".

Soldiers fanned out around me as the vehicle gunner cranked his turret around to zero in on him. More tribal fighters gathered behind my interlocutor, AKs at the ready. For an instant, I was seriously wondering whether to fire the first shot or not. Then the sheik appeared, rebuking at his tribesmen and motioning for them to lower their rifles. I felt a chill run down my spine when I saw the sheik. I had seen his picture in an intelligence file, which detailed some of his dealings with Al Qaeda in the past, including his involvement in attacks on U.S. soldiers. Also, he just looked like an enemy—he had the classic look of the Sunni sheiks against whom I had grown used to fighting, complete with elaborate headdress and aviator sunglasses. It was my duty to set our partnership off on the right foot if possible, so I offered my hand, and he did the same. The handshake felt dirty—I wondered if I had any hand sanitizer in my chest rack.

Over the next few months, we delivered payments to his tribesmen and they manned outposts throughout their territory. Attacks in the area dropped to zero, and I got to know the sheik a little bit, no longer keeping my hand quite so close to my pistol when meeting with him. But it wasn’t until his surviving brother’s hands were badly mangled by an explosion that I came to understand the sheik’s perspective better. This brother also had a file checkered with involvement in terrorist groups, including strong evidence that he had been an IED builder. Ostensibly, at least, the brother was now part of the Awakening. I went to the sheik’s house with a medical team to evaluate and treat his brother, who was convalescing there. The pattern of injury on his hands and arms was classic for a bomb victim—one who had been building a bomb that accidentally went off. These accidents happened not infrequently, and the injuries were stigmata that identified a person as a bombmaker. My first instinct (as well as that of our intelligence officer) was that the brother was back to his old games and had been hoisted by his own petard. The sheik’s story was that his brother had been attacked by Al Qaeda in retribution for joining the Awakening. Seeing the sheik without his headdress and aviators, taking care of his wounded brother, and asking for help for the first time—there was something sincere about it all that made me wonder if his story was true.

Fortunately, we had a forensics expert in our company who examined the scene of the attack and concluded that the sheik’s story was true. Beyond any reasonable doubt, the brother had been attacked as punishment for our partnership and turning against Al Qaeda. We helped him recover from his injuries with all the medical resources we had available. I remember thinking back to the pugnacious tribal fighter I encountered the first day I met the sheik, yelling and waving his AK-47 around. Like in my own infantry company, surely there were grumblings in the sheik’s tribe about working with their former enemies, and I thought for the first time about how much he must have been staking his tribal authority on making the partnership work.

A few weeks later, the sheik warned me of an attack that might have killed me or one of my fellow soldiers. Some soldiers wondered whether the attack had been set up by the sheik himself so that he could play the savior, but I doubted it. When a squad from a paramilitary unit—part of the Iraqi government—that was sabotaging the Sunni Awakening tried to arrest the sheik, we sped out to his defense and sent the squad home.

I remember feeling outraged on the sheik’s behalf, that a person who was risking his life for peace was being targeted because of politics.

It was not until I returned to my base and was typing up a report that it hit me—

we were protecting a former Al Qaeda member from the government we had helped to create.

On my last day as commander of my small base in Iraq, the sheik gave me a ring off his finger as a keepsake, one I had noticed when I first shook hands with him. It is a cheap ring, but it is my favorite object from the deployment.

While I was home from Iraq on my two-week R&R leave, I met up with some friends from my hometown at a bar. When a drunk guy there heard I was home from Iraq, he said, “oh yeah, we’re handing them bags of money now so that they won’t attack us.” His characterization of the Sunni Awakening as craven and purely material pissed me off. In my experience, personal sacrifices were made by U.S. soldiers and Sunnis in forgiving one another and making our partnership work.

Iraqi news coverage of a gathering in 2008 in which two formerly warring tribes (one Sunni and one Shia) agreed to make peace as part of the Sunni Awakening.

Because of the intense effort put in by Iraqis, my fellow soldiers, and I to make up for mistakes made in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, the rise of ISIS in Iraq was particularly disappointing. However, the so-called caliphate has been beaten back into Syria and (hopefully) seems to be in its death throes.

There's a misconception among some that most Sunnis supported ISIS. Most took no part in supporting the hideous movement, and though all religious and ethnic groups suffered because of ISIS’s conquest through Iraq, the majority of Iraqis displaced from their homes by it were Sunni. Iraq’s current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is popular among Sunnis (although he is Shia) and seems to be a unifying figure. The upcoming parliamentary elections in May will be a test of the government’s ability to bring back and keep Sunnis in its fold. It's my hope that my former enemies in Iraq find safety and security in Iraq after ISIS.