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The Sheikh Down

How the Pentagon bought stability in Iraq by funneling billions of taxpayer dollars to the country's next generation of strongmen.

Before we pull out of a gas station along the Baghdad-Amman highway, Eifan peels several crisp 25,000 dinar notes (roughly the equivalent of $20 bills) off a fat wad he keeps in his pocket and hands them to a police officer through his barely rolled-down window. "Go buy yourself a Pepsi," he tells him. The two trucks filled with Eifan's armed men position themselves in front of and behind the BMW.

Eifan plays the Sahwa's orchestral anthem on the stereo and looks at me in the rearview mirror. "I did not cooperate with the Americans to ruin Iraq," he says. "I cooperated with the Americans because they were a reality enforced on Iraq." He blames the United States for giving rise to the extreme violence that tore Iraq apart, but personally takes credit for making this route safe. "It used to be impossible to drive on this road," he says. He points to an overpass where he says Al Qaeda hung two people. We float past crumpled cars, remains of the suicide bombings that once targeted outsiders who ventured into Anbar.

I don't have to worry about being pulled out of the car by masked gunmen, in part because the attacks stopped when the hijackers realized the Americans paid better. The original leader of the provincial Sahwa, and a close friend of Eifan's, Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, was well known for running a successful ring of highway bandits. Initially, he had tried to befriend Al Qaeda, but then Al Qaeda began raiding Anbar's roads to raise funds, and a turf war ensued.

And so Abu Risha's alliance with the Americans began. Eifan and several other Anbari sheikhs fled to Jordan in 2005, but a group of Marines convinced them to return at the end of 2006. It's not clear what promises were made, but when the sheikhs came home, they and other Sunni tribal leaders began fighting the insurgents alongside the Americans. Eifan initially refused to join Abu Risha's Sahwa—Abu Risha belonged to a different tribe—but once the Americans started giving Abu Risha contracts, Eifan changed his mind.

Getting a full accounting of the make-a-sheikh program is nearly impossible; at press time the Pentagon was still responding to multiple Freedom of Information Act requests. Yet data from Pentagon reports to Congress indicate that in Fallujah, CERP funds more than tripled in the year starting in September 2006. Anbar has received $424 million in CERP funds, more per capita than any other province ($297 per person, twice as much as Baghdad). Abu Risha, once one of Anbar's most notorious criminals, hosted the first "reconstruction fair," in Ramadi. He was assassinated in September 2007, just days after meeting with George W. Bush.

The main point of the CERP contracts "was to try to get people to realize that if they played by the rules we were establishing, then they would have a chance to actually play the game," explains Commander Edward Robison, who worked as a Navy reconstruction officer in Anbar in 2007. And "play the game," he clarifies, means "make money." As he tells it, the US military or Iraqi politicians would handpick a pliable sheikh, then award him funds that he could hand out as he saw fit. "If you were an individual who was not going to be one of the players in the community, you did not get work. The ones who were going to be players, they got work."

 

Funneling billions of dollars into an unstable country "has raised the stakes of corruption considerably," says the US Institute of Peace's Parker. According to Transparency International, Iraq is tied with Burma as the world's second most corrupt country, behind Somalia. Payoffs and profiteering are widely seen as "the cost of doing business" in Iraq, Parker says. He believes the US government doesn't care whether Iraqis are left with a corrupt country when our troops leave. "We are fine with letting the Iraqis have their own corrupt system for themselves."

Maki al-Nazzal, a former UN field worker who grew up in Anbar and knows Eifan's family, notes that even American troops have not been immune to the temptations of graft. "Officers want their cut," he says. "It used to be 15 percent of the contract." In March, investigations by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) led to the arrest of several commanders taking kickbacks. Three South Korean Coalition soldiers were convicted for stealing $2.9 million in CERP funds in a bribery scheme, and a US Army captain was indicted for stealing $690,000 in CERP funds after a late-model BMW and a Hummer showed up in his driveway back in Oregon.

SIGIR is currently investigating around 80 cases of corruption and waste. But it has turned a blind eye to CERP's function as a payoff dispenser for the military. Inspector General Stuart Bowen may have bigger fish to fry—by his own accounting, at least $8.8 billion in reconstruction funds went missing between just October 2003 and June 2004. (Oversight of the reconstruction of Afghanistan has also been spotty at best; see "No Accounting for Waste.")

Oversight for CERP projects of less than $500,000 is almost nonexistent, according to the Government Accountability Office. Yet in its audit of CERP in 2008, the GAO decided against digging any deeper. "We did not really look at any of the contracting practices or how they were awarded or that kind of thing," says Sharon Pickup, the GAO's director of defense capabilities and management. SIGIR representatives declined to be interviewed for this story, as did the spokesperson for the Department of Defense inspector general.

Eifan at ease (above). A "lower level" guest of the sheikh (right).

Meanwhile, Congress continues to approve CERP funds for Iraq—approximately $1 billion is in the works for next year—under the assumption that the program's sole purpose is humanitarian relief and reconstruction. Most members of Congress remain unaware that the American alliance with the Sunni tribes has gone beyond the now defunct security contracts that paid their fighters' salaries. "There's not been a lot of discussion about [CERP]," says Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). "The program has largely given the commanders in the field the ability to use funds with what appears to me to be very little accountability."

 

Back in Eifan's diwan, I am sipping tea with a roomful of men when the sheikh bursts in, sweeping a long stick across the room. "Nobody say a word!" he shouts. Four heavies march in behind him and throw a man on the floor, his feet, hands, and eyes tightly bound with kaffiyehs. A man in green camo with an AK-47 blocks the doorway.

The captive's chest heaves as Eifan stands over him, stick in hand. An hour earlier, the sheikh was shouting into his cell phone about a botched reconstruction contract. Eifan stands to lose $50,000, and the compound has filled with murmurs about when and how he'll explode. The crime of the man curled up on the floor isn't related; in fact, no one is sure he's committed a crime at all, but some goatherds have accused him of being involved in a kidnapping. Eifan fires questions at him while the room holds its collective breath. "Don't stop to think of lies!" Whack! The stick comes down against his thigh.

Fallujah's police chief shows up, clearly deferent to Eifan's authority. Finally, satisfied with the interrogation, Eifan orders his men to bring tea to the shaken detainee. "We have many levels of guests here," he says, looking over at me. "This one is on a lower level." The police carry the man away. I ask Eifan what will happen to him. "They will interrogate him in a different way," he says flatly.

After everyone leaves, he takes me into another room, turns on a Lebanese beauty pageant, and pours some whiskey. He says his form of tribal justice is the only effective kind. "We still can't trust the police. That's why people come to me," he says. Despite winning the seat on the provincial council and his occasional meetings with the prime minister and other top politicians, Eifan shows little faith in the government. He confesses that his reason for making common cause with the Americans wasn't only to fight Al Qaeda; he also wanted to gain power over the Shiites, whom he sometimes spitefully calls Iranians, who control the government in Baghdad. "They wanted to desecrate Sunni land, repress Sunnis, and kill Sunnis. I was certain that we would not be able to get out of this problem unless we put our hand in the hand of the Americans."

That was two years ago, and since then reconstruction money has bought a lot of guns—guns the Awakening councils now aren't shy to threaten to use against fellow Iraqis. The councils' last beef was with the Iraqi Islamic Party, their main rival in the January provincial elections. For months leading up to them, assassinations had been taking out leaders on both sides. The current Sahwa leader in Anbar, Ahmed Abu Risha (brother of the slain Abdul Sattar Abu Risha), threatened to make Anbar "like Darfur" if the IIP won the vote. It was a flashback to the sheikhs' original conflict with Al Qaeda: a fight for control over the spoils of war. The new battle, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, "centered on the control over resources, notably reconstruction contracts."

Peter Harling, senior Middle East analyst with the ICG, says the volatility in Anbar indicates why buying allies, as appealing as it may seem, is unfavorable to a stable, democratic future in Iraq. "The pillaging of state resources is not a particularly good strategy," he says. "It creates a culture of predators and a lot of resentment from those who don't take part in those contracts. You might lavish one tribal leader with contracts but alienate 10 others." Rand analyst Long is also concerned that the strategy is shortsighted and could lead to unpredictable shifts in political loyalties when the United States cuts off the funding. "The question is, are the people we picked to be our friends going to continue to be supported by the Iraqi government?" he says. "If the people we were paying off don't get that kind of support, what does that do to stability? I think it's a real risk."

For now, the Iraqi government seems set on keeping a lid on Anbar by sticking to the American policy of buying off the sheikhs with contracts. When Eifan and I drive to Baghdad, we stop on a bridge overlooking a small river and a dam. The dam's overseer approaches the car and explains to Eifan that the provincial council told him they couldn't afford to fix it.

"How much did you tell them it would cost?" Eifan asks. The man hands him a slip of paper. "I'll get the prime minister to sign off on this and I'll do the work myself," Eifan says. "But first, write a new proposal. And double the price."

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