FALLUJAH, Iraq — Marine Sgt. Tony Storey doesn't like to think about what-ifs as he watches the young Iraqis he's helping to train take target practice. He recalls one man who was a natural with his AK-47.
"Where'd you learn to shoot like that?" Storey asked.
"Insurgent," the man said with a smile.
"Was he joking?" Storey asked, surveying the 50 men from the Albu Issa tribe lying in the dirt firing their weapons — bang, bang, bang — at a distant target. "I don't know."
For the men of Regimental Combat Team 6 who are training members of Anbar province's tribes to fight al Qaida, Storey's questioning of his charge's shooting skills isn't simple curiosity. Less than a year ago, the tribes viewed al Qaida in Iraq as an ally in their effort to push the Americans out of Anbar.
Now, the tribes see al Qaida as a threat to their society and their businesses — many of them dependent on illegal smuggling — and they've turned for help to the U.S. military, which has been only too happy to help after years of frustrating fighting in Anbar.
But will the tribes, so recently allied with al Qaida, be dependable long-term allies?
"In 2003 when we came in here we didn't get it right with the tribes and ran into a lot of problems," U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said during a recent trip to Anbar. "But al Qaida got it even more wrong. Now there is an opportunity."
Getting it right has become a minor obsession among American officers, who acknowledge that their new allies have some unsavory aspects.
"Nothing goes in Anbar without tribal support," said Marine Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskin, the commander of U.S. forces in Anbar. "Everybody belongs to a tribe."
American officials are rethinking everything. After years of plugging the good-news stories of soldiers handing out soccer balls, they realize it did more harm than good.
"When you walk into a town and hand out soccer balls you might feel good about yourself but you shame all those boys' fathers," said Marine Brig. Gen. John Allen, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Anbar. "This society is not driven by winning hearts and minds. It's driven by shame and honor."
The walls of Gaskin's office are covered with color-coded maps of Anbar. Each color signifies a tribe. The legend shows pictures of tribal leaders next to their corresponding colors.
Gaskin jokes about the tribes' role in Anbar as smugglers and recalls visiting one sheik who introduced his three sons.
" 'This one I'm most proud of. He is a smuggler,' " Gaskin recalled him saying.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, compared Anbar's tribes to the mafia.
"Every tribe is like some organizations in Northeast America," Petraeus said. "It's an import/export business."
Tribal anger at al Qaida in Fallujah is rooted in the 2005 killing of Sheik Hamza al Issawi, Anbar's mufti, or top religious figure. The tribes vowed revenge. Now, next to the posters in Fallujah that say "long live the Islamic State," referring to the al Qaida-dominated Sunni Muslim insurgent group the Islamic State of Iraq, are posters that say, "We will take revenge on al Qaida," signed by the Anbar Revolutionists, a new anti-al Qaida group.
The Sunni Muslim tribes have little allegiance to Iraq's Shiite Muslim-led central government. Residents say that the Anbar Revolutionists have vowed to move their fight to Baghdad to battle Shiite militias and death squads once they've defeated al Qaida.
Still, American officers have worked hard to curry favor with the tribes, whose influence is much stronger outside Fallujah than it is inside Anbar's largest city. Allen has flown to Amman, Jordan, numerous times to ask tribal leaders who've fled there to return. U.S. military planners hope to build a "human wall" with the tribes in the restive villages around Fallujah.
"The message is always the same for us," Allen said. "The coalition asks you to please consider coming home."
Allen said he tracked Anbar's 43 or so tribes in green and red on a map. Green represents tribes who aren't fighting the American-led coalition and are against Al Qaida. Red signifies those who are still anti-U.S. forces. He declined to show the map to a reporter.
Allen studied the tribal makeup of the region before he came to Iraq at the beginning of the year, and he has a tribal expert working for him.
"What we can do is create consensus among the tribes on expelling al Qaida in Iraq," he said. "They (tribes) don't equate expelling al Qaida in Iraq with shouldering up with the coalition forces."
At Camp Bahariya — "navy" in Arabic — a few miles from Allen's office, the men Storey is helping to train are part of the plan to rid Anbar of al Qaida, but they're also a risky bet.
The group in green coveralls and bulletproof vests is being trained by the Police Transition Team. Two Iraqi drill instructors, former members of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, march with them, chanting:
"Where can those who are wanted by us go?/ We will smash the heads of those who don't submit to us."
The trainees are from the Albu Issa tribe, which is prominent in the Amariyah Farris area south of Fallujah. The town has been plagued by chlorine bombs, car bombs and gruesome executions by al Qaida in Iraq. Last year, the Islamic State of Iraq declared a state here. Most of the Albu Issa tribe rejected the Islamic State and became al Qaida targets.
The tribal sheik asked members to volunteer to fight, and now 50 of them will be a Provincial Security Force in their village.
"It's a tenuous situation right now," said Storey, who in civilian life is a liquor-enforcement officer from Ohio. "Where does their loyalty lie? Are we training the counterinsurgency force or are we training its enforcers? I think it's probably both."
Lt. Col. John Reeve, the No. 2 officer in Regimental Combat Team 6, from Camp Lejeune, N.C., acknowledged that he and his troops have had their doubts.
"We didn't trust them and we still don't trust them, but they've killed al Qaida," he said of the tribesmen the group has trained.
"They've always tried to link themselves with the rising star," he said. "We're the rising star, and that's pretty apparent to everybody."
But flipping loyalties means that these convenient allies could switch again.
"It's possible. You can't control them, but this is transition and we need something to transition to," Reeve said.
Officials from the government in Baghdad think that the U.S. effort to train security forces along tribal lines is risky. "It's very dangerous," said Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who is Iraq's foreign minister.
Police Chief Col. Faisal al Zobaee was honest about his former hatred for the American military presence as he handed diplomas to the Albu Issa training graduates. Zobaee is a former member of the 1920 Revolution Brigade, an insurgent group, U.S. military officials said. His brother was brutally slain by al Qaida and he vowed revenge.
"I hated the Americans because they occupied our country," he said. "But all of us are for fighting the terrorists now. The Americans are better than terrorists, better than the militias," he said. Of the threats to his tribesmen, he said, Americans now are only No. 3.