In Iraq
Exiled tribesmen turns to Marines for help after trouncing by insurgent clan

By Antonio Castaneda

3:44 a.m. March 30, 2006

AKASHAT, Iraq – Just a few months ago, the men of the Albu Mahal tribe were regularly fighting with U.S. Marines. Now they pass along valuable tips to the American military and are flocking to join the Iraqi army.

The reason for the change: A vicious fight with another tribe expelled the Albu Mahal from towns around the city of Qaim, leaving them desperate for friends and turning to the Americans.

Their story shows how the U.S. military has tried to use tribal affiliations – especially in rural areas like this far-western portion of Sunni Anbar province – to control Iraq's violence and keep out insurgents.

The Albu Mahal, exiled to the small town of Akashat, have formed a group called the “Desert Protectors” to patrol the Syrian border for foreign fighters.

“I'll tell you the truth – our relationship was once bad. But afterward, we saw the Americans were trying to help and we built a relationship with them,” said Abu Mustafa, an Iraqi military intelligence officer and Albu Mahal tribesman.

As he received a thick stack of U.S. bills from Marines to pay for water trucks, he added: “They come and ask us what we need all the time.”

Yet even a diplomatic success like winning over the Albu Mahal has its dangers and downsides in the complex world of Iraqi politics.

The U.S. military faces the task of gaining the trust of rival tribes – some with factions loyal to al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or with strong tribal ties to neighboring Syria.

Marines in this region must constantly guard against being sucked into settling old tribal scores. Many say they are fully aware that tribes decide whom to support based on pragmatic factors.

“They picked (al-Qaeda's) side because they were looking to survive,” said Lt. Col. Julian D. Alford, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Regiment that oversees this border area about 200 miles west of Baghdad. “They saw that there was no Iraqi or coalition presence.”

The was before a November raid on Qaim. Dubbed “Operation Steel Curtain,” Marine commanders used the Albu Mahals as scouts to identify insurgents who had blended into border cities.

The tribe's motivations aside, Marines are jubilant about the new ally.

“The beauty of this is that it gave them an indigenous capability,” said Col. Stephen W. Davis, who oversaw the offensive that led to the establishment of several Marine bases throughout the area. “They were clearly good agents.”

The Marines later expedited efforts to train and incorporate the clan into the Iraqi Army, mindful of allegations that they were a rogue militia responsible for brutal vigilante attacks.

“If they saw someone who they thought was Syrian, they'd kill them right there,” said Maj. Louis Caporale of the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance battalion, who helps send supplies to Akashat.

The Albu Mahal's conversion from American foe to ally came when the tribe objected to fundamentalist laws that militants from al-Qaeda in Iraq tried to impose in the Qaim area, Marines said.

That led to months of vicious tribal feuding, especially with the Salmani and Karabila tribes allied with al-Qaeda in Iraq, including reports of beheadings and regular gunbattles.

In the end, nearly 4,000 people, mostly Albu Mahals, were forced out to the Akashat area, about 60 miles miles south of Qaim, Mustafa said.

“The Albu Mahals are the ones that really fought against the foreign fighters. They've really stepped up and taken a leadership position,” said Alford, a native of Rome, Ga.

Since their exile here, about 1,000 Albu Mahal tribesmen have joined the Iraqi Army or police, Mustafa said.

Despite the new friendship, Marine commanders say they're wary of being misled into settling residual anger from last year's tribal fighting. A tour in Afghanistan, where they often had to sift through charges between dueling warlords, has helped give them a feel for misleading tips.

Alford said he refuses to hold tribal meetings if any of the major clan leaders are not present.

“We're the head tribe now – we being the military and the Iraqi Army,” he said. “As long as I'm here, I'm going to make them play nice.”