BAGHDAD - More than two years ago, Sheik Fasal al Gaood approached the U.S. military with what was then an unprecedented offer: His tribesmen were prepared to help American troops rout insurgents linked to al Qaida from Anbar province in western Iraq.
But the Sunni Muslim tribal leader and former provincial governor met one rebuff after another from American officers, he told McClatchy Newspapers at the time. Discouraged and angry, he warned that U.S. officers risked losing him as an ally.
The Americans eventually came around, and al Gaood renewed his offer. He helped turn some of Anbar's most prominent Sunni tribes into a force in the war against al Qaida's followers. That high-stakes partnership may have cost him his life: Al Gaood and 11 other Iraqis were killed Monday in a bombing at a Baghdad hotel where tribal sheiks who've joined forces with the U.S. were scheduled to meet.
"This is not about Qaida. This is a security breach and recklessness, and it is beyond al Qaida," said Ali Hatem Ali al Sulaiman, a leader of the powerful Dulaim tribe of Anbar. "This attack was about killing any patriot who speaks for Iraq and cares about this country."
In his last interview with McClatchy, three weeks ago in the hotel lobby where he died Monday, al Gaood alluded to internecine trouble brewing in Anbar. He was keenly aware that his life was in peril, saying that his home outside the provincial capital of Ramadi had been destroyed, his cars burned and five of his bodyguards slain by al Qaida.
"Iraq is marching towards the edge of a valley," al Gaood said. "Daily killings, kidnappings and bodies in the street."
He lounged on a red sofa, a pack of Marlboros always within reach. As usual, he wore a politician's tailored suit instead of the flowing robes favored by more traditional tribal leaders. And when talk turned to controlling Iraq, al Gaood supported strongmen and brute force over his American allies' visions of democracy.
"We should behead anyone who does a terrorist attack in Anbar," he said.
Al Gaood's story mirrors the war itself — a series of shifting alliances, missed opportunities and lives ended in murky circumstances. As of late Monday, al Qaida hasn't claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing on the Internet message boards it typically uses, leading some tribal leaders to wonder whether another enemy might have targeted the meeting.
Possible suspects range from Shiite groups such as the Mahdi Army to al Gaood's tribal comrades, who'd accused him of dealing behind their backs. News reports quoted at least one member of the Salvation Council, the group of tribal leaders who've pledged to hunt insurgents with ties to al Qaida, as saying that al Gaood and the other sheiks who were killed Monday had been dismissed from the group because of side deals they made with the Shiite-led Iraqi government.
Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the head of the Anbar Awakening, another tribal confederation helping to fight al Qaida and its allies, told Iraq's Sharqiya television channel that authorities were investigating the possibility that explosives planted in the heavily guarded hotel had caused the blast, not a walk-in suicide bomber, as was initially reported.
But even Abu Risha's group wasn't immune to finger-pointing, and Anbar residents noted that the partnership between his Awakening group and al Gaood's Salvation Council had begun to unravel. Members reportedly clashed over the use of torture and allegations of corruption.
Al Gaood was no stranger to going against the grain — he'd been imprisoned and two of his brothers were killed under Saddam Hussein's rule. Al Gaood said they'd been accused of plotting a coup to topple the dictator, who always considered his country's deep-rooted tribes a threat to his regime.
After Saddam's ouster in 2003, the restive Anbar province became the birthplace of the Sunni insurgency and a deadly battleground for U.S. forces. While other Anbar tribesmen joined local resistance groups, al Gaood accepted the dangerous job as the province's U.S.-appointed governor. He remained in his post even as U.S. Marines flattened large swaths of his territory in 2004.
Al Gaood lost his position when elections in January 2005 ushered in rival Sunni politicians from the Iraqi Islamic Party. Although out of a job, his tribal credentials ensured that he remained a key player in Anbar negotiations.
In early 2005, al Gaood became one of the first Sunni leaders to propose that the U.S. military enlist Anbar tribes to strike at al Qaida. He considered it a way to give jobs and a sense of purpose to his disgruntled followers, while isolating the foreign fighters streaming across the border from Syria.
High-ranking Iraqi officials, including the deputy defense minister, a Kurd, confirmed at the time that tribes were tentatively offering to join forces with U.S. and Iraqi troops. Al Gaood said his and other influential tribes approved of an offensive called Operation Matador, which was intended to uproot al Qaida from western towns along the border with Syria.
The results were disastrous, al Gaood told McClatchy in May 2005, at the end of the offensive. The sheik said that locals had razed insurgent safe houses and set up checkpoints to keep al Qaida militants from fleeing ahead of the offensive. But when 1,000 U.S. Marines stormed the area, al Gaood said, they didn't distinguish friend from foe, and several tribesmen were killed in the fighting.
"The Americans were bombing whole villages and saying they were only after the foreigners," he said. "An AK-47 can't distinguish between a terrorist and a tribesman, so how could a missile or tank?"
Bitterly disappointed with the Americans and facing growing anger from his constituents, al Gaood embarked on a life on the run. He hopped from Baghdad hotels to Anbar retreats to neighboring Jordan, always traveling with a phalanx of trusted bodyguards.
Whether he was an opportunist eager for the rewards of American friendship, a patriot dedicated to cleansing al Qaida from his area or both, al Gaood didn't abandon his tribal strategy for restoring calm to Anbar. In November 2006, about 18 months after his initial offer to the Americans, al Gaood was instrumental in the formation of the Anbar Salvation Council.
U.S. military officers have since praised the group, repeatedly holding it up as a model for other Iraqi tribes, even though they privately worry that such vigilante groups will undermine the progress toward an inclusive, national Iraqi military.
(Baghdad bureau chief Leila Fadel contributed reporting from Amman. Al Dulaimy, a special correspondent, reported from Baghdad. Allam reported from Cairo.)