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New `Sheik Force' of Iraqis protect ammo dump, pipelines under tribal eye

MOSUL, Iraq—An hour south of this Sunni Muslim-dominated city in northern Iraq, an unusual new crime-fighting tool called the Sheik Force protects a massive ammunition dump, two oil pipelines and soon, if more recruits can be found, an electrical grid.

The 230-member force, which uses tribal sheiks or their representatives to protect Iraq's economic infrastructure, is both a jobs program and an attempt to keep those tribal leaders happy in a region where literacy is around 30 percent, joblessness is rampant and tribes wield considerable influence over potential insurgents.

Coalition officials and a British security company pay the force's members $100 a month, which is more than members of Iraq's new Civil Defense Corps earn, and fine them $20 to $1,000 for each incident of damage or theft.

"The goal is to fix responsibility with local leaders," said Capt. Jessica Merriam, intelligence battle captain for the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, from Fort Campbell, Ky. "The sheiks and tribes are very important, and having one person to go to when a problem arises is so beneficial."

Securing Iraq's infrastructure has been a major headache for coalition forces, with pipeline explosions and cut electric lines causing millions of dollars in damage and shortages in basic services.

Loyalists to Saddam Hussein's former regime and organized-crime leaders have been paying poor farmers and other rural residents $500 to $5,000 to hide weapons or plant explosives for pipeline attacks and ambushes of coalition forces, U.S. military officials say. Iraq has the world's second-largest oil reserves, but a fuel crisis has been worsened by nearly 100 attacks on its pipelines since the end of the war.

To combat the problem, the 1st Brigade reached out to Sheik Ra'ad Naif, a tribal leader who assembled a group of unemployed students, farmers, police and Iraqi soldiers into a ragtag unit that started with 12 members.

"He's a dynamo," said Lt. Col. Kevin Felix, the commander of the 1st Brigade's 2nd Battalion. "I'd commission him as an officer in the U.S. Army tomorrow."

Some wear new blue uniforms; others sport kufiya head scarves and carry their own guns. One wears a hand-me-down army jacket with the face of the late rock star Jimi Hendrix drawn on the back.

Sheik Ra'ad—some call him a mukhtar, or local mayor; others say he's a sheik of the al Bohamad tribe—is hard to track as he crisscrosses a no-man's-land of desert and lawless suburbs south of a city with a disproportionate number of unemployed former military officers.

His employees and his American sponsors sing his praises, though they concede that his 4-month-old force has had growing pains.

"If we had five more guys like him, we'd have no problems," said Capt. Ryan Curry, the assistant operations officer of the 1st Brigade's 2nd Battalion.

"The people from the tribes themselves are protecting the pipelines now," said Sheik Force member Hamid Darwish, 33, who jumps from a "Sheik Force" pickup truck with a machine gun mounted on its roof to boast that he doesn't sleep at night so he can keep on fighting off thieves. "This increases the nationalistic motives for ordinary people to protect their land."

But on Jan. 6, two thieves pulled up to a brass salvage company on the grounds of an 8-square-mile Saddam-era ammunition dump that the Sheik Force guards and spent two hours looting a television, several rugs and two air conditioners from the freshly painted building. The company attempts to dispose of unspent ammunition and reduce unemployment by paying local workers and funneling profits back to a nearby village.

The next morning, the U.S. officer who oversees the Hatra Brass Recovery Co. was furious at the possible inside job.

"You cannot believe how disappointed I am," said Capt. Jim Hartman, assistant operations officer for the 2nd Battalion of the 320th Field Artillery Regiment, which is attached to the 101st Airborne's 1st Brigade.

Hartman, who was shouting at the commander of the 57 Sheik Force members at the dump, ordered two more guards onto the building's roof and front gate around the clock. "My confidence is very low. Soon there will be a lot of brass and other valuables here, and I can't trust you to guard a TV?"

Later, a visibly frustrated Hartman described the theft as part of the force's growing pains. Sheik Ra'ad has had to expand his force to protect two pipelines and is stretched thin, Hartman said.

The sheik also has had to hire workers from other tribes, and sometimes he's had to fire lazy or disobedient members.

The looting will cost the sheik's tribe $1,000, and he will exact retribution, Hartman said.

"I can guarantee this is the last time this will happen. Most of these guys are his relatives," said Hartman. "When a pound of flesh needs to be taken, he can take it. The tribal leaders run this area, and everybody knows it."

Abed Naif, 34, is a former Iraqi army officer and a relative of Sheik Ra'ad who commands the Sheik Force members at the dump, known as Jaguar South by U.S. forces.

"The looting occurred because of negligence on the part of the guards; I admit it," Naif said. "But we will choose better people, former army sergeants and retired policemen and members of different tribes, to help. We can easily identify strangers and tell the bad guys from the good guys."

For now, the Sheik Force is concentrating on the ammunition dump and two pipelines, one of which stretches more than 40 miles through the 1st Brigade's territory. In the last few months, the force has caught 22 carloads of bandits at the dump and 16 pipeline attackers, said Sheik Force member Hamid Darwish.

Most of the force has been transferred to the payroll of a British security company called Erinys, but U.S. soldiers still pay tribal leaders to watch over part of the area's electricity network. If they can find the right leader to start a second Sheik Force, they may be able to cover the entire power grid.

"We're trying to get to where they're protecting it as a sense of duty," said Merriam, the intelligence battle captain. "We're not at that point yet. It's still a business exchange: Give a little bit, get a little bit."

In the meantime, U.S. soldiers are trying to educate Sheik Force members about what they're protecting. "We tell them that $7 million a day is the wealth that is available through one oil pipeline without attacks," Merriam said

Rafa Muhsin, 21, seems to have gotten the message. "The Sheik Force has a good reputation in the area. The people morally support us," said the former soldier, who joined the force a month ago to help support his family and said he was proud of his job. "The shooting of gunfire in the area has decreased."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): sheikhforce

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