JURF AL SAKHR, Iraq — In this desolate tiny town in what was once called the Triangle of Death, signs of the violent past mix oddly with evidence of today's more tranquil life.
Large plots of land emptied by car bombs sit next to refurbished buildings. A new water treatment plant looks out to blast walls that haven’t been necessary for months. A newly opened clothes shop is next to one that's been shut for ages.
The U.S. calls this former al Qaida stronghold a paragon of post-surge Iraq. Violence has come to a near-standstill. Yet the government that's emerged is far from the democratic republic that the Bush administration once promised.
The town is run by deals among its anointed leaders, nearly all of them former Sunni Muslim insurgents. None was elected. No one pays any mind to what might be happening in Iraq’s Shiite-dominated parliament in Baghdad. In fact, residents assume that the elected central government will never help them.
Instead, the insurgents-turned-leaders depend on an influx of money from the U.S. or from the provincial government to keep Islamic extremists from dominating the town again. So far, the U.S. military has spent $1 million, the cost of one of the military’s newest armored vehicles, on reconstruction projects and salaries for residents to secure the town and its surrounding area — 30,000 people in all. If the U.S. plan works, the next million will come from the Shiite-led provincial government.
U.S. officials acknowledge that their approach is tenuous, but one that so far has produced a big drop in violence. No U.S. soldier has been attacked since June, and they can now walk in town with some assurance of safety.
Residents reopened more than 40 shops and are sending their children to school. Townspeople are no longer locked in their homes.
But everyone agrees that a major bombing, the assassination of a key figure or a sudden drought of money could break the deal. And it raises questions of what role the central government will have in Iraq. If residents reject that government, can Iraq stay together? Or will the state become a series of fiefdoms run by unelected leaders backed by the United States?
U.S. commanders hail the turnaround here, saying they approached it in an Iraqi way.
“This place is about all kinds of agreements,” said Lt. Col. Robert Balcavage, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment based at Fort Richardson, Alaska. “The central government right now is too far removed. I mean, if these people were to rely on the central government, they don’t see any hope there. So what we are doing is bringing government from the ground up.”
This is no grassroots democracy, however.
Jurf al Sakhr is nearly entirely Sunni, populated by members of the Janabi tribe. Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had placed troops here for protection against the Shiites just a few miles away, and nearly all became unemployed overnight in 2003 when the U.S. occupation government disbanded the Iraqi army. Soon after, the town became a key Islamic militant stronghold, where residents earned a living by attacking U.S. troops.
Once the U.S. swept the area and reduced the militants' hold on the town early on in the troop surge, it turned to the tribal sheik of the Islamic Army, the secular Sunni insurgency, to run the town. His name is Sabah al Janabi.
Unlike the more homogenous Anbar province, Jurf al Sakhr is south of Baghdad and sits on the Shiite-Sunni fault line. For Sheik Sabah, as he's called, to be a legitimate leader, the nearest Shiite town, Musayyib, would have to approve.
Accompanied by Balcavage, Sheik Sabah traveled there to seek the approval of the local commander of the Mahdi Army militia, a Shiite group loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr; the head of the police; and the local Shiite tribal leader. They agreed. The sheik would be responsible for Jurf al Sakhr and its people, and he'd make sure that his Shiite neighbors no longer felt threatened.
Armed with that agreement, the sheik then went to the provincial government. Once approved, he received his mayoral salary from the province, his first legitimate pay since the fall of Saddam's regime.
With that, the U.S. reached its next deal. It agreed to employ Sheik Sabah’s fellow tribesmen and former insurgents as concerned local citizens, as the U.S. calls the local security forces it’s been creating.
The members of the new security force would earn $375 a month, and it would be up to Sheik Sabah to distribute the funds. Some of their salaries would go toward buying weapons; another part was presumed to go to Sheik Sabah. And it would be up to him to secure the town.
“What we are really trying to do is employ heads of household now so that they can participate in the local economy and have hope,” said Capt. Henry Moltz, of the A Company 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, who is in charge of the town.
When the money was doled out, the violence dropped immediately. The U.S. military had offered the residents a better deal than the Islamists had. The former insurgents were now paid to be the town’s guardians.
The U.S. then began rebuilding town services, installing a water treatment plant, starting adult education in this largely illiterate town and repainting schools and other buildings. Sheik Sabah played politician, reaching out to the Shiite provincial Babil government for some of its millions when the U.S. money runs out.
“We want to be equal with the Shiites,” Sabah said as he walked through town by Moltz’s side.
Sheik Sabah began inviting Shiite leaders to visit his town, giving them his word that they'd be safe. When they visited, he'd make his case for why the province should support him.
“There is an idea in the population that they need to be self-sufficient so that they can sustain themselves if they don’t see anything from the central government,” Moltz said.
As more residents earned paychecks, more shops opened, and Moltz said fewer people depended on the U.S. salaries. An economic system developed.
Reaching out to tribal sheiks, however wily, isn't new in Iraq. During its occupation in the 1920s, the British reached out to the sheiks almost immediately, building alliances. And Saddam regularly courted tribal leaders, especially at the weaker points in his tenure.
But not all the troops are happy. They see their leadership conceding too much to a group that can be bought too easily. They describe going to the homes of people who were launching attacks against them a few months ago. “Personally, I think we gave up too much. As soon as money goes away, this will all end,” said one soldier who has worked in Jurf al Sakhr.
And it isn't clear whether the Shiite provincial government will support the Sunni town.
U.S. commanders cannot say how long they'll continue pumping money into areas such as Jurf al Sakhr. Last week, Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, the commanding general of the Multinational Division in Baghdad, as well as the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, could say only that the funding wouldn't continue for “years and years.”
Sheik Sabah said that if the U.S. support were to stop, “al Qaida would return.”
And while residents might not attack U.S. soldiers anymore, their disdain remains. As U.S. troops walked up to Sheik Sabah's office last week, his young son, Ahmad, sneered “Go away” in Arabic.
Moltz said he doesn’t care: “I don’t have anyone lying to me anymore. I don’t have anyone bombing me anymore.”
And he rejected suggestions that Sheik Sabah or his backers would turn and embrace their former insurgent lifestyle. “Why would they? They couldn’t walk through their streets then.”