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EXCLUSIVE Report From Iraq: U.S. Fueling Sectarian Civil War in Anbar by Funding Former Insurgents to Fight Al Qaeda

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When Gen. David Petraeus spoke of success stories in Iraq, he largely focused on the situation in Anbar province where former Sunni insurgents are now fighting al-Qaeda alongside U.S. troops. In a U.S. broadcast exclusive, we air a report from Anbar by independent filmmaker Rick Rowley that exposes how the U.S. is fueling sectarian civil war in Iraq by funding the former Sunni insurgents. [includes rush transcript]

When General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker spoke of success stories in Iraq during their congressional testimony, they largely focused on the situation in Anbar province where former Sunni insurgents are now fighting al-Qaeda alongside U.S. troops. Critics of the military’s policy in Anbar have accused the U.S. of fueling the sectarian civil war in Iraq by funding former Sunni insurgents. It is widely known the U.S. is paying the former insurgent forces, but General Petreaus denied the U.S. was directly arming them.

In a U.S. broadcast exclusive, we air a report from Anbar by independent filmmaker Rick Rowley of * Big Noise Films*. This piece is excerpted from an exposé that aired on Al Jazeera English [ Watch full report: Part I || Part II ] It was produced by Rick Rowley, David Enders and Hiba Dawood, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Report from Anbar
Rick Rowley, independent filmmaker with Big Noise Films.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about General Petraeus’s report, we’re joined by filmmaker and journalist Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films. He has just returned from Iraq, where he closely tracked the situation in Anbar province. In a few minutes we’ll broadcast a report that Rick shot in Anbar province, but first your comments on the testimony of Ambassador Crocker, Rick, and General Petraeus.

RICK ROWLEY: Well, when General Petraeus says that they’re merely applauding these tribes from the sidelines, he’s lying. I mean, while we were embedded with the Americans, we saw American military commanders hand wads of cash to tribal militias. And when he says that they are facilitating their integration into the country’s security forces, what he means is they’re pressuring Iraq’s government to incorporate these militias wholesale into the police forces. In fact, that’s one of the promises that these tribes are given, that after working with the Americans for a few months, they’ll become Iraqi police, be armed by the Iraqi state and be put on regular payroll. So it’s completely disingenuous, what he’s saying.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who these militias are in Anbar province that the U.S. troops are working with.

RICK ROWLEY: Well, it’s been widely reported that these are former insurgents who were fighting Americans in the past. And that, you know, is troubling for American soldiers. But the far more troubling issue for Iraq is that many of these groups are war criminals who are responsible for sectarian cleansing in the region.

We spent a month and a half in the country, and we crisscrossed Iraq. I was traveling with David Enders and met with the production support of Hiba Dawood, and we found entire communities of refugees who had been displaced by exactly the same tribes that the U.S. had been working with in other parts of the country.

So, you know, it’s one thing for Americans to call this a reconciliation process and say that, you know, we’re fine with working with people who used to be fighting with us, but it’s an entirely different thing for them to be funding groups who are already responsible for sectarian cleansing and are arming themselves for a sectarian civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going go to break and then go to your report and then talk to you afterwards. Rick Rowley is an independent reporter with Big Noise Films. He just returned from a month and a half in Iraq.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Rick Rowley’s report. This piece is excerpted from an exposé that aired on Al Jazeera English. It was produced by Rick Rowley, David Enders and Hiba Dawood, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

RICK ROWLEY: Amman. It’s Friday, and we’re still only in Amman. The papers are full of stories about a sheikh from Anbar who’s changed the course of the war in favor of the Americans. Abu Risha’s lieutenants have agreed to bring to us their stronghold in Ramadi, but we’ve been unable to speak with Abu Risha directly, and our contacts in Amman have discouraging opinions about his movement.

Moyad Abu Subiah has written about the resistance in Anbar since the war began.

MOYAD ABU SUBIAH: [translated] I’ve never heard of anyone named Sattar Abu Risha. Maybe there is a Sattar Abu Risha. Maybe there are many Sattar Abu Rishas.

RICK ROWLEY: Moyad said that Abu Risha was a ghost, a name that the Americans had attached to a public relations campaign. But that evening we finally spoke to the ghost. Abu Risha was not in Ramadi after all. He was right here in Amman behind elaborate security in the top floor of the Marriott Hotel.

SHEIKH SATTAR ABU RISHA: [translated] If you want to introduce me, I am head of the Iraq Awakening Council, leader of all the Iraqi Arab Tribes. I am real. I am not a ghost. And to the terrorists, I say that I will be in Anbar in five days, and if they want to see me, I am ready for them.

RICK ROWLEY: Abu Risha claims that he has secured most of Anbar province, a truly amazing victory. Anbar is the stronghold of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. More U.S. soldiers have died there than in any other province. Much of Anbar has been under the direct control of insurgents since 2004. And in Anbar’s most famous town, Fallujah, two all-out invasions, dozens of air strikes, tens of thousands of arrests and three years of curfews and continuous American raids have not ended resistance.

But the Americans claim that their alliance with Abu Risha now has turned the tide in Anbar. Attacks have dropped, roads have reopened, and al-Qaeda is retreating. Abu Risha has become a symbol of American success, and his alliance has become their template for fighting the insurgency everywhere in the country. They call this new strategy "reconciliation."

We embedded with the military to see this process for ourselves. Sixteen clicks upriver from the gates of Baghdad, the Seventh Cavalry, Custard’s old regiment, is negotiating an agreement with the sheikhs from the Falahi, Zobai, the Tamimi, Obeidi and Jumaili tribes. They sign their names to a satellite map of the region, indicating the areas they are promising to protect.

UNIDENTIFIED 1: So what I’m hearing is if an IED — if I come back to the house, then I’ll just blow the house up, OK? Somebody is responsible. And I want to know who I talk to.

UNIDENTIFIED 2: No more meetings. Right now we find out who is responsible for this area.

UNIDENTIFIED 3: Here maybe is an insurgent [inaudible].

UNIDENTIFIED 1: The next thing I ask is we’re all going to sign this. We’ve all agreed.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] Which tribes signed the agreement today?

SHEIKH NADIM: The Tamimi, Zobai, Al Obeidi, Al Jumaili, Falahi. Most tribe in Taji.

INTERVIEWER: [translated] How many of these tribes were once involved in fighting the Americans?

SHEIKH NADIM: [translated] Your time up is. It’s $100 for an extra minute.

RICK ROWLEY: The first tribe in Taji to ally itself with the Americans was the Falahi, and that deal ended attacks in that region overnight. The Falahi are the Americans’ closest allies here, and they helped to bring the other tribes to the table today. Captain Wohlgemuth took us out to what was once the most dangerous stretch of road in his region.

CPT. MARTIN WOHLGEMUTH: Pretty safe.

RICK ROWLEY: Two months ago his unit faced an average of four attacks a week here.

CPT. MARTIN WOHLGEMUTH: As we come through, you’ll be able to see the security here. I mean, these guys do a fantastic job standing out here every day. Twenty-four hours a day they’re on security.

We’ll dismount here, and we’ll start walking through the neighborhood, and you’ll get an idea of the change.

Just asking how many bullets they have, how they’re doing.

RICK ROWLEY: Although Captain Wohlgemuth and his troops call their new tribal allies "freedom fighters," the Americans are well aware that yesterday they were called "insurgents" and that the diplomatic task of holding together this new alliance is both delicate and daunting.

CPT. MARTIN WOHLGEMUTH: Every one of these guys shot at us at one time in their life.

Oh, there you go. Look at the freedom fighters. Salaam Aleikum.

RICK ROWLEY: The Army use a combination of incentives to keep their alliance together.

CPT. MARTIN WOHLGEMUTH: I owe him $1,800 for the —

RICK ROWLEY: Captain Wohlgemuth hand out money for construction projects, and he offers help to families trying to get their relatives out of jail.

CPT. MARTIN WOHLGEMUTH: Yeah, he’s asking where his son is. Tell him we’re going to work to get him released.

The problem was, when we came in here, we arrested everybody. If they had more than a weapon in their house, they went to jail. But now they’re — "Can you please help us? You know, our fathers, our sons" — everybody is in jail. Everybody has a relative in jail. And we can make some huge friends if we can help to release them.

IRAQI CIVILIAN: I swear to God we didn’t do anything! I swear to God he is innocent!

RICK ROWLEY: Captain Wohlgemuth says the reconciliation strategy is working in Taji and other parts of Iraq. He claims there is one man to thank for that.

CPT. MARTIN WOHLGEMUTH: Sattar Abu Risha, a living legacy in his own right. He’s probably better known as Lawrence of Arabia to the Americans. His legacy is what allowed this to happen in a lot of different places. And it’s happening in Amiriya, they’ve got freedom fighters. In Abu Ghraib, they’ve got some freedom fighters. And they all say it’s generally because of that, because he was first one to really do it. The major sticking point is trying to get the government of Iraq to buy into groups of armed Sunnis so close to Baghdad.

RICK ROWLEY: The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has fiercely criticized the U.S. military’s reconciliation process. Saad Mutaleibi, Prime Minister Maliki’s head negotiator working with former insurgents, worries that the U.S. is strengthening factions that threaten the government in Baghdad.

SAAD MUTALEIBI: You bring a small crocodile at home, and you think you’re going to turn this into a pet. A crocodile will never be a pet. That crocodile will grow and then becomes a monster within the house.

RICK ROWLEY: In some places, the Iraqi government is effectively blocking the Americans’ efforts. The tribal alliance that was supposed to secure Abu Ghraib fell apart in August after the Iraqi government refused to hire the Sunni militia members into the police force.

As our appointment with Abu Risha in Ramadi approaches. We are told by his lieutenants that his plans have changed. Five days have passed, and he is not in Ramadi waiting for the terrorists. He is in Dubai on a business trip.

Sheikh Ali Hathem from the Dulaimi tribe, the largest and most important tribe in Anbar, has an explanation for Abu Risha’s absence. He says that Abu Risha is no longer welcome in Ramadi. Ali Hathem says that Abu Risha is not the leader of all the Arab tribes of Iraq, but claims he is a conman who has received millions of dollars in construction contracts from the Americans who have tried to turn him into a symbol of their success.

SHEIKH ALI HATHEM SULIEMAN: [translated] This is nothing new for us. The Americans like to create characters, like Disney cartoon heroes. Talk is cheap. When they get a rid of al-Qaeda, what will happen to these weapons? They will create a deadly conflict between the tribes.

RICK ROWLEY: On the ground, America’s Sunni tribal strategy has powerful critics on all sides. Back in Taji, Captain Wohlgemuth’s reconciliation efforts are subjected to a horrifying test.

VOICE OVER RADIO: PBF, I’m getting word right now that it was a car bomb down in Jerf al Milla, over.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: Oh, shoot! Let’s go!

RICK ROWLEY: As Captain Wohlgemuth’s men arrive on the scene, his Sunni tribal allies draw their weapons on Shiite Iraqi Army officers, who they blame for letting a car bomber through their checkpoint.

CPT. MARTIN WOHLGEMUTH: I want you to get on the speaker. Everybody goes home, or they go to jail right now.

Jedi Five Dagger Six, go. Hey, Roger, you’re about to have a civil war on your hands. The problem is that V-bed went right through that IE checkpoint, and nobody stopped it, and nobody searched it. And now, every person in this town is going to kill those guys.

RICK ROWLEY: Captain Wohlgemuth’s alliance survived its first attack, but across the country the U.S. strategy is contributing to sectarian tensions.

UNIDENTIFIED 4: [translated] We were attacked because we wanted safety and peace. Now we are caught between two sides, between al-Qaeda and people calling themselves the Mahdi Army.

RICK ROWLEY: Fighters in Taji talked as much about the Mahdi Army, Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite militia, as they did about the al-Qaeda enemy the Americans have enlisted them to fight.

UNIDENTIFIED 5: [translated] The Mahdi Army has no mercy at all. They are not Muslims. They are all Iranian.

RICK ROWLEY: The bombing was almost certainly carried out by Sunni groups opposed to a Sunni tribal alliance with the Americans. So why were people here afraid of the Shiite Mahdi Army? There weren’t any Shiites in the town of Falahat. The so-called freedom fighters told us that the Shia had gone. Even the new American base in Falahat was in a Shia family’s old house. Why had the Shia families left?

We found them in this slum on the outskirts of Baghdad. This stronghold of the Shiite militia is considered too dangerous for the international media. We are the first camera to film with these internal refugees. The Sadr office says that 14,380 refugee families have already registered with them in this neighborhood alone. That’s between 150,000 and 140,000 people. Shiite residents who left Falahat now crowd into these tiny cinderblock houses.

SHIA REFUGEE: [translated] There were threats before the attacks, to leave the place. They left a note saying we did not belong here. Then they bombed the houses. Two mortar shells hit my house. One exploded, the other is still there. So we had no choice but to leave. It took 15 days to empty out the whole area. There were 15,000 houses. Now, we don’t own anything.

RICK ROWLEY: There are no schools here and no doctors. None of these cinderblock houses have running water. And residents walk in 120-degree heat to get polluted tap water from a hose. The Iraqi government provides no aid to these people. The U.N. doesn’t exist here. And foreign NGOs will not even let their staff visit these neighborhoods.

The scale of this crisis is astronomical. Nationwide, campaigns of terror and sectarian cleansing have forced between four and six million Iraqis to flee their homes.

Adnan Ali Al-Kadhimi, the deputy director of the Iraqi Red Crescent, says that even though attacks on the U.S. military have decreased in Anbar, Shia families have not been able to return home.

ADNAN ALI AL-KADHIMI: Very small numbers had managed to return. But then, they did not stay for long. And immediately after they faced the danger, they had to scale back.

RICK ROWLEY: As time passes, the new sectarian divisions solidify and become more permanent.

UNIDENTIFIED 6: [translated] Families who tried to go back were killed on the way. A woman and her little daughter went back to pick up their food fashion and were killed, right on the main street.

RICK ROWLEY: The road home for the Shiite families of Taji is made more difficult by the Americans’ new strategy. The refugees say they know exactly who it was that bombed their houses and cleansed the Shia from the region: Sunni tribes American soldiers are working with.

SHIA REFUGEE: [translated] It was the local tribes, the Falahat.

RICK ROWLEY: Back in Taji, the alliance with former Sunni insurgents has produced some remarkable results. Americans can now walk on foot through neighborhoods where six months ago even tanks were not safe. But the town’s former Shiite neighbors cannot. To the U.S. military, the so-called Sunni freedom fighters may be selfless patriots taking their villages back from al-Qaeda, but to some Shiite refugees and to Prime Minister Maliki’s administration, many are former war criminals responsible for sectarian cleansing, who are using American support to arm themselves for civil war. Saad Mutaleibi says that America’s new allies include some of the country’s worst war criminals.

SAAD MUTALEIBI: Oh, definitely. The other groups, like the group, the Amiriya group, is notorious for beheading people and killing and major atrocities. And these people are sitting in Amiriya with the American support now. And the Iraqi army or police cannot enter that area. These efforts are tactical moves to resolve today’s problem, but in essence you’re adding another problem with another layer to the problems of Iraq.

RICK ROWLEY: Captain Wohlgemuth remains optimistic, but he is quick to recognize the complexities of his mission.

CPT. MARTIN WOHLGEMUTH: I do know Abu Risha left the country. Abdul Sattar, he left the country, and there’s been a lot of bickering and a lot of fighting. A few of the fighters have left. I don’t think it’s — it certainly hasn’t disintegrated.

RICK ROWLEY: With other armed Sunni groups attacking his allies, frictions between the Shiite Iraqi army and the freedom fighters and the allegations that the local tribes are using American support to arm themselves for civil war, his soldiers face a complex diplomatic mission, one they did not imagine and have not been trained for.

CPT. MARTIN WOHLGEMUTH: The one thing that we ask is that the people back home remember that these are very young kids that they’re sending off to do — to be politicians and policemen and diplomats. It’s done every day by soldiers, by soldiers that are very young, 17 years old sometimes, without a lot of experience, without a lot of training, without a lot of support.

AMY GOODMAN: That report produced by Rick Rowley, independent filmmaker with Big Noise Films. He traveled around Iraq for the last month and a half, one of the rare unembedded reporters. Rick, summarize and talk about the rest of your travels, what Iraq is like right now, and how you traveled.

RICK ROWLEY: Well, although Dave Enders and I spent a month and a half traveling around the country not embedded with the American Army, we still — we were embedded virtually everywhere we went. The only way to travel was to embed with the Iraqi militias that actually run the country. I mean, that is the biggest change from our last trip there, was that now the entire country is run by one militia or another. So in Najaf, we went with [inaudible], with al-Hakim’s militia, the Badr Brigades. In Basra, we went with the Fadila militia. In Baghdad, 60 to 70 percent of Baghdad is run by the Mehdi Army. So, I mean, the Americans now have become one of many militias in the country. And, I mean, they control ever-shrinking islands of green zones in a country that is rapidly sinking into civil war.

And the fact that Anbar is the one success story, it’s the one piece of good news in this incredibly black report from Iraq, I mean, it’s only good news for American soldiers, because they have — they’re hiring now Sunni insurgents to become part of their force. But, I mean, these people are still locked into a sectarian conflict that is going to make the country indescribably worse in the years to come.

AMY GOODMAN: And the man that President Bush met with, Abu Risha, in Anbar?

RICK ROWLEY: Well, Abu Risha turns out to be somewhat of a red herring. I mean, he is a symbol and a sort of figurehead that the Americans have put on this whole process. But, I mean, you know, we met him in the top floor of the Marriott Hotel in Anbar, and he never actually made it to Ramadi on that trip.

AMY GOODMAN: He was in Jordan, Amman.

RICK ROWLEY: He was in Jordan, not in Iraq. He never — you know, and he made these bold statements about how he was in five days time going to take the land road to Ramadi and sit there and wait for the terrorists to come and meet him. Instead, he went to Dubai and conducted some kind of business.

His business card says that he’s a construction contractor. And so, the rumors are that he’s gotten $75 million in American construction contracts in order to be the figurehead for this movement. But certainly, I mean, even in Falahat, the Americans talked about Abu Risha, but the freedom fighters —

AMY GOODMAN: The so-called.

RICK ROWLEY: The so-called freedom fighters recognize that he’s a fake.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re the only journalist who went into the refugee camp. Describe again the refugee camp we saw in your piece.

RICK ROWLEY: Well, the refugee camp — this is in Shola on the outskirts of Baghdad — it’s run and protected by the Shiite Mahdi Army. And the Sadr office there says it has up to 150,000 people there who have all been forced out of their homes in places like Taji and Anbar. There are camps like this around the country that receive, you know, absolutely no support from anyone. The Iraqi government doesn’t provide any services. The U.N. is not there. And, you know, Iraqi domestic and international NGOs can’t really function there. The Iraqi Red Crescent received less than half of the budget it requested. So it’s — you know, and there are four to six million Iraqis who have been forced from their homes during the course of this conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: And these refugees attacked by the Sunni insurgents that the U.S. is hailing?

RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, exactly. We found an entire village that had been — well, the Shiite component of an entire village that had been relocated to this refugee camp, this slum on the outskirts of Baghdad right next to a garbage dump.

AMY GOODMAN: I should clarify, the only Western journalist.

RICK ROWLEY: Yeah — well, yes. The only cameras in there.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the feeling you had as you left Iraq, comparing it to the times that you have been there before.

RICK ROWLEY: It’s infinitely worse than it was the last time we were there. I mean, the Tigris River is bloated with corpses. The city of Baghdad is divided up into armed camps. There are snipers who take people out as they enter and leave neighborhoods like Al-Amiriya. I mean, you know, we heard Petraeus and Crocker say that staying is hard, but leaving is worse. I would flip that on its head in saying leaving is going to be hard, there’s going to be violence when the U.S. leaves, but staying is infinitely worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick Rowley, I want to thank you for being with us and sharing this report. Rick Rowley, independent filmmaker with Big Noise Films, just back from Iraq.

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