Friday, May 11, 2007

soldier and sheikh are like brothers against al qaeda

By Moni Basu Sunday, April 29, 2007, 11:22 PM The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Lt. Col. Miciotto Johnson has found an ally in Sheik Ahmed al-Rishawi in Ramadi, Iraq. Many formerly suspicious locals have rallied to the U.S. side after enduring terrorist atrocities. Ramadi, Iraq — One man is an African-American who grew up in south Atlanta, graduated from Washington High School and joined the Army after college. The other is a powerful Sunni sheik who reached adulthood in Ramadi and lived the bulk of his life under Saddam Hussein’s rule. One lost eight of his soldiers in Tameem, a western Ramadi neighborhood where rocket-propelled grenades, improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings were part of the daily vocabulary. The other lost his father and three brothers. They were assassinated by al-Qaida terrorists. A friendship between the two men, both in their early 40s, would have been unimaginable a few months ago. But Lt. Col. Miciotto Johnson and Sheik Ahmed al-Rishawi have learned to rely on each other to quell the insurgency in this part of the city. Though no one will openly admit it, it’s believed that the Anbar sheiks lent tacit support to insurgents operating in the restive province just west of Baghdad. But now Johnson, commander of the Army’s Task Force 1-77 Armor, makes himself at home on the sheik’s property. A burly man in a tan Army fire-retardant jumper, Johnson plops down on an oversized couch in an upstairs office in al-Rishawi’s vast compound, as much at ease here as he is in his battalion headquarters down the road at Camp Ramadi. That’s because last September, al-Rishawi’s younger brother, Sheik Sattar al-Rishawi, launched the “Anbar Awakening,” a movement to stop the extreme violence here. Since then, the al-Rishawi tribe has been America’s ally in the attempt to break al-Qaida’s firm grip. This afternoon, the elder al-Rishawi greets his American friend. “We are brothers,” al-Rishawi says. “We fight as one hand.” Johnson’s battalion has been responsible for neighborhoods in western Ramadi including Tameem, where earlier this month a suicide bomber driving a truck laden with TNT and chlorine gas smashed into a police checkpoint, killing 12. Task Force 1-77 has been working closely with the al-Rishawi sheiks to build up security. Johnson says the sheiks’ cooperation has been key. Violent attacks in Tameem, as in the rest of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, have decreased significantly. “A lot of times we say we want to capture hearts and minds,” Johnson says. “How can you capture hearts and minds if you don’t understand the people and what is important to them? The only thing you understand is what you want to achieve.” Outside al-Rishawi’s mansion, tall date palms sway in brisk winds. Camels graze in a nearby pen. Security guards stroll the grounds carrying automatic rifles, and a U.S. tank sits outside the main gate. Al-Rishawi’s assistants serve rounds of chai tea in gold-rimmed glasses. The Iraqi and the Georgian talk as though they have been lifelong friends. Though the sheik speaks some English, the two rely on a translator except for simple pleasantries. Johnson depends on the al-Rishawi tribal leaders for information and cultural awareness. They have told him things, he says, that no counterinsurgency manual could ever teach. A while ago, the sheiks pinpointed on a map a Tameem apartment building that harbored terrorists. They told Johnson that if he could control those apartments, he would own the entire area. The sheiks were right. “They helped me understand my operating space through Iraqi eyes,” he says. One recent morning, before the sun has fully risen, 1-77 Armor assists Iraqi police in “Operation Kangaroo,” a land, air and water assault to clear an area south of Tameem known as al-Tash. Once again, Johnson is relying on the sheik’s tip that insurgents have fled south from Tameem. Johnson’s soldiers provide security as Iraqi police search houses, question residents and detain 30 suspects. The second phase of the mission aims to set up a joint American-Iraqi security station in al-Tash. A palatial house belonging to a man arrested 18 months ago is tactically and geographically ideal. It was believed to be empty, but a woman related to the al-Tash mayor has moved in recently with her children. Johnson must make a decision on whether to kick the woman out or look for another place. He needs sound advice so that he doesn’t end up angering residents and, most importantly, the mayor. Johnson could call his brigade commander on the radio. Or seek out other officers — both American and Iraqi —in the area. But he reaches instead for his cellphone. From the center of the battle space on the banks of Lake Habbaniyah, Johnson dials Ahmed al-Rishawi’s number. He respects the sheik enough to rely on him in mid-mission. The U.S. military often touts its partnership with the Iraqis, but a relationship with this kind of depth is rarely seen. Al-Rishawi says his district would still be a butchering ground had the Anbar Awakening not opened the door to a new alliance with the Americans. The people of Tameem, Al-Rishawi jokes, would elect Johnson police chief if an election were held today. And to the people of Atlanta, the sheik asks: “Where did you guys come up with a hero like this?”

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