WASHINGTON — American officials were surprised Monday when an explosion in the lobby of Baghdad's Mansour Hotel killed six Sunni Muslim sheiks whom the U.S. considered top allies.
The hotel's tower is visible to most officials who work in the heavily fortified Green Zone, and U.S. officials had talked regularly with the sheiks and given them money. But the officials had no idea that the sheiks were planning to talk with their Shiite Muslim counterparts in the hotel's lobby, though clearly someone else did.
One U.S. military officer based in the Green Zone characterized the American reaction as "Huh?"
"No one here knew they were getting together until it happened," said the officer, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.
In the end, the sheiks were operating on their own, and therein lies the risk in the U.S. strategy of working with Sunni tribal leaders.
While the cooperation has helped quell violence in Anbar province, where tribal leaders turned on the group al Qaida in Iraq late last year, driving the radical Islamists from the province, it was by no means a signal that the sheiks would coordinate future actions with the United States or with Iraq's Shiite-led central government.
That's likely to pit stronger Sunni tribes against a weaker central government, and further fragment an already fractured country, experts warn.
"Their allegiance is to themselves," Jeffrey White, a military analyst for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said of the tribes. A strong central government "is fundamentally contrary to the tribal system," he added. "Tribes are essentially about divide and rule."
U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad acknowledge that they've begun to reach out to smaller groups instead of depending solely on the central government, which was elected in Iraq's much-heralded December 2005 elections. U.S. officials call it a "bottom-up" approach to Iraq's political process after realizing that the democratically elected central government has yet to address major issues engulfing the country.
The bottom "is where political reconciliation matters the most because it is where ordinary Iraqis are deciding whether to support new Iraq or to sit on the fence uncertain about the country's future," President Bush said Thursday in a speech at the Naval War College.
The "people in Baghdad are encouraged by what we're seeing. Citizens are forming neighborhood watch groups. Young Sunnis are signing up for the army and police. Tribal sheiks are joining the fight against al Qaida. Many Shiites are rejecting the militias," Bush said.
American military officials in Baghdad see the emerging local leadership as complementary to the central government. "You've got to have both," said a senior military official in Baghdad who agreed to talk on the topic only anonymously because he wasn't authorized to comment publicly.
None of that, however, adds up to support for the central government.
Specialists in Iraqi tribes caution that tribal loyalty extends only to the tribe itself. Once tribal leaders think that the U.S. no longer is serving their interests, they'll turn, the experts warn. Moreover, many Shiites who've joined the Iraqi military and security forces continue to moonlight for their sectarian militias.
"We make the assumption they are our ally," said Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University in Washington. "But they are independent; we cannot direct them. They are reaching out because they want us to arm them."
Indeed, experts say one needn't look much further than the last year to see how Sunni tribal interests shape their alliances. For years, the sheiks looked to al Qaida in Iraq to protect them from an American presence that challenged their authority. Tribal-based insurgents worked with al Qaida in Iraq, planting roadside bombs and ambushing U.S. convoys.
But when al Qaida in Iraq announced the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and began enforcing draconian Islamic laws and killing Sunni leaders, the tribes rebelled and turned to the United States for help.
Violence against American service members dropped and local residents began joining the Iraqi security forces, encouraged by their tribal leaders.
"Some of them who have previously been fighting us have come to us as we've spoken with them, and they want to fight with us," Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, the third-ranking commander in Iraq, said Friday. "They are tired of al Qaida and the influence of al Qaida in their tribes and in their neighborhoods, and they want them cleaned out and they want to form an alliance in order to rid themselves of this blight."
Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who advised the Bush administration on the current strategy in Iraq, called the sudden tribal rejection of al Qaida an unexpected, but welcome, result of the U.S. troop buildup.
Still, the rejection of al Qaida in Iraq wasn't unanimous, and the American commanders will need to sort out who's truly a friend among many competing groups, experts said. The United States won't be a friend to all.
"It's not a magic solution, because when you are reaching out to the tribes you are selective," White said. "It's a game that is pretty complex."
There are roughly 150 tribes in Iraq. Each protects its members from outsiders. Tribal leaders are expected to settle local disputes. In Iraq's rural areas and smaller towns, tribes play key roles in nearly everything.
Historically, Iraq's tribes have wielded the most power when the central government is weakest.
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein reached out to tribal leaders in areas where his hold on power was in jeopardy. He armed and funded them, telling tribal leaders they could enact their own laws as long as it didn't affect him, Yaphe said.
Some fret that stronger tribes will further fragment the nation, which is already splintering along sectarian lines. The Kurds in the north already support a more decentralized system, as do some Shiites in the south.
But Kagan said he didn't think that stronger Sunni tribes would lead to a split-up of the country — thanks to Iraq's Sunni-Shiite sectarian divisions.
The Sunnis would never agree to a split without a part of Baghdad, Kagan said, and the Shiites would never give it to them.