BAGHDAD, Iraq—When foreign fighters poured into villages with jihad on their minds and weapons in their hands, some Iraqi tribesmen in western desert towns fought back.
They set up checkpoints to filter out the foreigners. They burned down suspected insurgent safe houses. They called their fellow tribesmen in Baghdad and other urban areas for backup.
And when they still couldn't uproot the terrorists streaming in from Syria, tribal leaders said, they took a most unusual step: They asked the Americans for help.
The U.S. military hails last week's Operation Matador as a success that killed more than 125 insurgents. But local tribesmen said it was a disaster for their communities and has made them leery of ever again assisting American or Iraqi forces.
The battle, which pitted some Iraqi tribes against each other, underscored the complex tribal politics that compound the religious and ethnic tensions plaguing Iraq.
In interviews, influential tribal leaders and many residents of the remote border towns said the 1,000 U.S. troops who swept into their territories in the weeklong campaign that ended over the weekend didn't distinguish between the Iraqis who supported the United States and the fighters battling it.
"The Americans were bombing whole villages and saying they were only after the foreigners," said Fasal al Goud, a former governor of Anbar province who said he asked U.S. forces for help on behalf of the tribes. "An AK-47 can't distinguish between a terrorist and a tribesman, so how could a missile or tank?"
Al Goud was the only tribal leader who spoke on the record. Two others reached by phone in western villages expressed similar views, but said they didn't want their names published because the foreign insurgents were still holding some of their tribesmen hostage.
Long before the American offensive, trouble had been brewing in and around the town of Qaim. Two Iraqi tribes, the Albu Mahal and the Albu Nimr, resented the flood of foreign Islamic extremists who were crossing the border and trying to turn their lands into an insurgent fiefdom.
Like the fighters in the formerly insurgent-controlled city of Fallujah, also in troubled Anbar province, the foreigners brought a puritanical brand of Islam and began intimidating villagers who refused to follow their commands, residents said. The foreign fighters found followers among some members of another large tribe in the area, the Karabla.
Although there were small-scale clashes among the tribes for months, the killing of a popular soldier from the Albu Mahal tribe early this month escalated the violence, according to several accounts of the unrest that preceded Operation Matador.
Sunni Muslim clerics in Baghdad were asked to intervene, but the bloodshed continued: Houses were razed, men from both sides were killed, and the governor of the province was kidnapped with his son.
The Albu Mahal, with the help of the larger Albu Nimr, formed a vigilante group called the Hamza Forces to help keep the foreign fighters at bay. Those forces, which included some men suspected of attacking U.S. troops in the past, began battling the religious radicals known as Salafis, who were allied with Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of the group al-Qaida in Iraq.
"Hamza Forces are mostly from the Albu Mahal and they are said to be from the resistance," said Youssef Lahij, a tribesman and shopkeeper in Qaim. "They're the ones fighting now against the Salafis."
The Salafis replenished their ranks with a new batch of recruits who crossed over from Syria. Zarqawi's group, known locally as Tawhid and Jihad, flew its trademark black banners in local villages, antagonizing the residents.
The overwhelmed villagers were at a loss to defeat the better-armed and better-funded foreigners and their allies from the Karabla. With nowhere else to turn, tribal leaders decided to call the Iraqi Defense Ministry.
That's when al Goud, the former Anbar governor and a sheik of the Albu Nimr, said he called American officials at the Marine base Camp Fallujah to ask for help. Al Goud had met the officials during the siege of Fallujah, he said.
Bruska Nouri Shaways, Iraq's deputy defense minister, at first couldn't believe the request for help from the traditionally rebellious province. Shaways, who took several calls from tribal sheiks, said he immediately alerted the U.S military about their willingness to share information on Zarqawi followers.
"They said, `We are citizens of Qaim and we are now being attacked by non-Iraqi people coming from Syria,'" Shaways said. "Until this time, they had never asked the Iraqi or the American forces to help them. It's a good sign."
The American military already had planned a campaign to cleanse the Qaim area of foreign fighters, according to the military. With the calls from sheiks, it appeared they had the support of prominent local tribes for the offensive.
Tribesmen said they evacuated women and children to outlying camps and stuck around to set up checkpoints and prevent the foreign fighters from escaping to neighboring villages.
Operation Matador began with the Marines sweeping into the Qaim area in armored vehicles, backed up by helicopter gunships. They pummeled suspected insurgent safe houses, flattening parts of the villages and killing armed men. Nine Marines died in combat and 40 were wounded, according to the military.
When the offensive ended, however, angry residents returned to find blocks of destruction. Men who'd stayed behind to help were found dead in shot-up houses. Tribal leaders haven't counted their dead; several families hadn't yet returned to the area.
"We ran away because you didn't know who was fighting who," said Ahmed Mohammed, who works at a hospital north of Qaim. "Americans were fighting. The Albu Mahal were fighting. And Tawhid and Jihad were fighting."
Capt. Jeff Pool, a Marine spokesman in Iraq, confirmed that Iraqi informants contributed to intelligence gathering for Matador but said there was no effort by the U.S. military to incorporate local tribes in its assault plans. He said he couldn't verify that al Goud or others had contacted Marine officers at Camp Fallujah.
"We have no knowledge of any local efforts" to reach out to the military before the operation, he said in an e-mail response to questions.
Pool also said in his e-mail that American officers were aware of fighting among local forces before the Marines moved in.
"Three days before Operation Matador kicked off, Marines in Qaim observed 57 mortar rounds exchanged between two groups," he wrote. "None of the mortars were directed at the Marines or any other coalition force. We don't know who was firing at who or why."
Pool and other military spokesmen didn't respond to questions about whether U.S. troops had tried to contact any of the feuding forces in the area.
Deputy Defense Minister Shaways said it was extremely difficult to distinguish friend from foe in the midst of battle. He called Operation Matador a success, but acknowledged that some tribal leaders were upset by it. He said tribal leaders were expected to travel to Baghdad this week to discuss the aftermath of the campaign.
Still, he said, vigilante justice doesn't fit into the new Iraq, even when the cause appears just. He said the Defense Ministry would reach out to the embattled tribesmen and attempt to recruit them for Iraq's nascent security forces.
"We cannot allow anyone who feels he's not secure to just set up checkpoints and kidnap people," Shaways said. "This is not the Wild West."
(Al Dulaimy is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Yasser Salihee contributed to this story.)