U.S. Colonel Reaches Out to Iraqi Sheiks
July 10, 2007
By Garrett Therolf, LA Times Staff Writer

 

 

BAQUBAH, IRAQ The U.S. commander meets with the former general in Saddam Hussein's army over lunch, promises weapons, wishes him a return to high office. For both men, the conversation comes at great risk, and neither knows whether the other is an ally or an enemy.

For Army Lt. Col. Morris Goins, his "spider sense" tells him to keep talking, even after the general, a Sunni tribal leader, tells him, "If you see me shooting at you, you should shoot back."

Goins is unfazed. It is a potentially deadly complication he will endure to press the tribes to quell the violence here in Diyala province, the nation's deadliest for U.S. troops on a per-capita basis.

Some tribal leaders have sworn allegiances against the United States, but they are believed to hold the most powerful sway over Diyala's vast terrain.

Months before the sheiks drew U.S. attention as potential allies against Al Qaeda in Iraq, Goins began to spend most of his time on the strategy. "It's a way to not just fight the war, but shape it," he said.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has made such efforts with tribal sheiks a top priority throughout Iraq, citing the "breathtaking" success Sunni Muslim sheiks in Al Anbar province achieved by banding together to drive Al Qaeda in Iraq out of their region.

That success, however, benefited from an overwhelming Sunni majority that is uncommon in Iraq, and the tribal coalition was originated by the sheiks themselves. The efforts by Goins, therefore, may present the most realistic picture of how the strategy may play out in the rest of Iraq. It is being initiated by an American commander rather than the sheiks, and Diyala contains large numbers of all three of Iraq's major groups: Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

The meetings are often held clandestinely, and the Sunni sheiks are not named out of fear that they would be killed by members of the Sunni-led insurgency. For those who agree to help, Goins offers protection, money, weapons. He's never sure what he will gain in return.

"It's complicated, man," Goins said. "The danger is that you just become one of these guys' militia."


Soldiers have faith in him
Over three tours in Iraq, the tall, skinny Army lieutenant colonel from Southern Pines, N.C., has been known for commanding with a focus on relationships as much as on firepower.

Goins' subordinates say he has won their trust in a war of heavy losses partly because he expresses the kind of strong emotions that lets soldiers know he understands their sacrifice.

At the halfway point of its tour, his 1,000-strong 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, has seen 26 men killed and 99 injured. At a recent memorial service for a 21-year-old father of two young boys, Goins told his soldiers that the difference between them and the so-called "greatest generation" of World War II is, "We say, 'I love you' to each other more often."

For him, the devotion to his troops meant sitting down for tea with sheiks who, in some cases, he privately hated and believed to have aided the Al Qaeda-linked operatives who killed his men.

"What's hard for me is irrelevant, though," Goins said. "What's personal and professional are two different things. Nobody gives a damn what your feelings are. You have to go where the information and the intelligence drive you."

Ever since he lost the first three soldiers of the tour in November, he has pursued the sheiks in earnest. His preparation was a two-week military course and a few books he "thumbed through."

He also relies on the counsel of a handful of people who gather in his dusty office to strategize beside a big-screen television and a bucket of bubble gum.

One of them is Dean Jones, a retired Denver police investigator who works as a Defense Department contractor. In an interview, he said he was happy to see the commander take a holistic approach to the province's myriad problems.

"Where is the CIA? The State Department? Or anybody else? They're not here. It's just us. We have to play all those roles," Jones said.

Another counselor is Sheik Adnan Tamimi, a first cousin of the Shiite provincial governor and a leader of a tribe with roughly 200,000 members. Tamimi and Goins talk most days on the phone, and Goins visits the sheik's compound about once a week for lunch.

In between intelligence help on militants and tips on how to approach other sheiks, Tamimi talks about his hopes to visit Goins in the United States and the changing family dynamic as he prepares to marry a second wife. Goins says he hopes to bring his own wife on a trip to Iraq one day.


A tribal hero
When Tamimi suffered a heart attack last month, Goins personally rushed him to U.S. military doctors, who brought him back to stable health. As Goins drove Tamimi home a few days later, women burst out the front door and tossed candy as they wailed in celebration.

Goins was emotionally embraced as a tribal hero, and a sheep was slaughtered at the sheik's feet in thanks for his return. Two days later, Tamimi held a lunch for more than 100 people to honor Goins, and he passed more information to him about militants in the region.

It was confirmation of a relationship already shaded with life-and-death consequences.

On April 23, when a U.S. Army captain declined to take Tamimi's advice that a tribal round-table was not safe, two car bombs struck the U.S. caravan traveling from the meeting. Nine soldiers were killed.

"The captain was such a nice guy that he thought the sheiks were sincere," Tamimi said. "Not all Iraqis are sincere, not all Iraqis are liars."

Goins' central goal, repeated with nearly every contact with tribal leaders, is to bring Sunni and Shiite sheiks to the same negotiating table with leaders of the provincial government and Iraqi security forces.


Offering tea and trust
It was again the topic when Goins invited the former general for tea at a small U.S. military outpost outside Baqubah, Diyala's capital. To coax him out of the shadows, Goins had invited three other Sunni sheiks who were friendly with the ex-general but did not know he had been talking to the Americans.

Going into the meeting, Jones, the Pentagon contractor, said, "When we talk to this guy, we know we are talking directly to a moderate member of Al Qaeda. His family is Al Qaeda, the people around him are Al Qaeda, he's Al Qaeda."

Jones said the military believed the sheik could turn against Al Qaeda, however, and cooperate with American forces if he was promised a high-profile role in the province. "He was a big deal around here once, and now that's gone. He'd like to be a big deal again," Jones said.

When the former general arrived for his meeting, he saw that he had been ambushed with unexpected attendees. He shook hands cautiously as he moved around the cramped room.

He complained of the meeting location, saying the trip to visit Goins had been dangerous. Goins countered that every time he had gone to visit the sheik's home, his caravan had been hit by a makeshift bomb in the road. "I didn't put those bombs there," the sheik said with a wide smile.

The meeting ended with the sheik's request to meet with Goins for two minutes outside.

The sheik said he was still waiting for the weapons Goins had promised, and Goins said, "I'm going to get the weapons to you soon. You'll get some AK-47s."

That's when the sheik made his enigmatic comment about not holding fire: "If people shoot at you from my house, you shoot back. Even if you see me shooting at you, you should shoot back."

Back at Goins' office, he was still trying to parse the meaning of those final words. He told Jones, "I took that as him saying, 'I'm surrounded,' or,  'There are dudes in my own camp who are out to get me.' "


'He's up for grabs'
When Goins and the others considered the meeting as a whole, they said they worried that the sheik's demands did not mention the welfare of other tribal members but centered on his own protection and power.

Goins' interpreter said he believed the demands signaled that his allegiance would go to the highest bidder. "You can say he's up for grabs. You can either bring him into your fold or he'll go into their fold," said the interpreter, Kamali, who uses only one name.

No one was able to say how much influence the sheik held with members of his tribe, though, or even how much of the tribe remained in Diyala.

Jones asked what procedures would be put into place to manage the sheik. "If we can't manage him, we have to consider him our enemy," Jones said.

Goins nodded in agreement, but said, "My spider sense says he has the ability to be a power Imesbroker. He has the look, the stature, the voice."

At the very least, a bundle of AK-47s would be delivered to keep the conversation going, Goins said.

 

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