Ramadi's chief of police gazed at his latest graduating class of officers. Three months ago they had been recruited for the force by the leaders of their desert tribes--and now, the chief declared, the newly minted cops were no longer tribal members: they were his men. The cadets nodded solemnly. Their sheiks, watching from the audience, were outraged. Maybe they had finally agreed to lend some of their gunmen to the provincial government, but they never intended to give up actual power. The U.S. forces' liaison, Lt. Col. Jim Lechner, had to spend the next two hours calming them down. "I used a metaphor," he says. "I told them, 'You can't tear the house down and build a new one. But you can help fix this one'."
No part of Iraq needs fixing more desperately than insurgency-ravaged Anbar province and its capital, Ramadi. And U.S. forces are increasingly sure it can't be fixed without the help of tribes who have always been more loyal to their sheiks than to the government. Before the 2003 invasion, Saddam Hussein had to buy the sheiks' support with wealth and special privileges, and Anbar's tribes fought fiercely long after he was gone. Then Al Qaeda muscled in, claiming the Sunni-dominated region and killing sheiks who dared to challenge the jihadists' aims. After one well-known tribal leader was assassinated this summer, a group of 15 Ramadi sheiks banded together for survival's sake. They called themselves Sawa--Arabic for "the awakening"--and cut a deal with the Americans: in exchange for protection against Al Qaeda, they would bring local police ranks up to strength.
They've lived up to that end of the bargain at least. Monthly police enlistments in Ramadi have soared from the low double digits before the deal to the full Coalition quota of 400 a month. Recruits keep pouring in: the Americans had to set up a special 3,000-member Emergency Response Unit to accommodate the flood of volunteers. Elders of the Abu Soda tribe recently helped U.S. forces find IEDs that had been planted by their own tribesmen, and they have identified kidnappers and other local bad guys for the Americans to arrest. Their effectiveness against Al Qaeda is another question: while the Americans say attacks by local resistance fighters in Anbar have dropped by 40 percent, U.S. deaths there have continued at a rate of more than two dozen a month.
Still, Sawa's membership has risen to some 60 tribal leaders. Its founder, Sheik Abdel Sittar, does TV spots to encourage more police recruits. "All the honest people follow me," he says. "The good people. Even some tribes that were with the insurgency follow us." The sheik, who wears alligator shoes beneath his traditional robes, is building a marble-lined council meeting hall (funded by Sawa) inside his compound.
Some lawmakers in Baghdad fear that Sawa could become one more sectarian militia, but Lechner scoffs at such worries. "We would turn that off in a heartbeat," he says. All it would take is a threat to withdraw police protection from the offending sheik's neighborhood. Can Sawa restore law and order in Anbar? The Americans can only hope so. No one seems to have a better plan.