Fact-Checking the New Yorker
There’s plenty of buzz around Jon Lee Anderson’s piece on Iraq in this month’s New Yorker magazine, and one item in it that’s caught a lot of attention is what a certain Shaikh Zaidan al-Awad had to say:
A few days before General Petraeus testified before Congress, I met with Sheikh Zaidan al-Awad, a prominent Sunni tribal leader from Anbar. The last time I had seen him, in 2004, he was full of hostile bluster about the U.S., and made no secret of his identification with the “resistance,” as he described the hard-line Sunni insurgents. Sheikh Zaidan was a fugitive, suspected by the Americans of being a sponsor of the insurgency, and he was living in voluntary exile in Jordan. But when we spoke this fall, in an apartment in Amman, Zaidan told me that he had recently met for informal talks with American military and intelligence officials, because he approved of what they were now doing—allowing Sunni tribesmen to police themselves.
I asked Zaidan what sort of deal had led to the Sunni Awakening. “It’s not a deal,” he said, bristling. “People have come to realize that our fate is tied to the Americans’, and theirs to ours. If they are successful in Iraq, it will depend on Anbar. We always said this. Time was lost. America was lost, but now it’s woken up; it now holds a thread in its hand. For the first time, they’re doing something right.”
Zaidan said that Anbar’s Sunni tribes no longer had any need to exact blood vengeance on U.S. forces. “We’ve already taken our revenge,” he said. “We’re the ones who’ve made them crawl on their stomachs, and now we’re the ones to pick them up.” He added, “Once Anbar is settled, we must take control of Baghdad, and we will.” There would have to be a lot more fighting before the capital was taken back from the Shiites, he said. “The Anbaris will take charge of the purge. What the whole world failed to do in Anbar, we have done overnight. Baghdad will be a lot easier.”
Many of the players in Iraq seemed, like Zaidan, to be positioning themselves for the next battle. While the Shiites issued warnings about the Sunnis’ intentions, nearly all the talk among the Americans was of the Mahdi Army and its reputed sponsor, Iran, which Petraeus accused of waging a “proxy war” in Iraq; there were dismissive references to Al Qaeda as a spent force.
Sheikh Zaidan offered a vision of how the conflict in Iraq could escalate to the advantage of the Sunnis: “I think America will be able to start a Shia-Shia civil war in the south—with the Arab Shia, the tribes, being supported by the U.S., and the Persian Shiites supported by Iran.” He said that this would be an opportunity for the Americans to “cut off the head of Iran’s government and its militias in Iraq.” The Sunnis could help in this fight, he suggested.
Powerful stuff, except that Zaidan al-Awad is misidentified as “a prominent Sunni tribal leader from Anbar.” Zaidan’s elevated social and tribal status was also implied when he was featured by Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey in June 2006. But don’t blame these reporters or their fixer—even gorgeous, elegant and smart Jordanian fixers get it wrong once in a while—for not spotting a tribal charlatan as he makes the media rounds.
According to several knowledgeable sources I’ve spoken to, Zaidan is regarded as nothing more than a buffoon.
Zaidan's picture from Aljazeera.net
Zaidan Khalaf al-Awad is not the tribal chief of the Albu Jaber ‘tribe’, and even if he were, then the Albu Jaber qualify as the least significant of all of Anbar’s 200-plus tribes and clans—as trivial as the low-born Slubba or the Swatreh—since they number around 200 men. Furthermore, Zaidan’s father was a sirkal, or headman responsible for cultivation, for the Ali Al-Suleiman family around the Khaldiyyah area; he’s not of ‘sheikhly’ ancestry.
It’s interesting that Zaidan had a foot in with the insurgency, or rather the banditry that posed as the insurgency, and another foot in the Coalition Provisional Authority. Zaidan was connected to Naji ‘Affat whose son Mizher ‘Affat al-Dulaimi, ‘Abu Fahed’, was an alleged CIA asset. ‘Abu Fahed’ worked for Saddam’s mukhaberat for many years, and then joined the Iraqi opposition in the early 1990s. But he was suspected of being an infiltrator for the Saddam regime into the opposition ranks, something that was implicitly corroborated to me by those who’d seen his dossier after the fall of the regime. At one point before the Iraq war, some circles in US intelligence picked him up again and used him for leverage in Iraqi politics, and he was campaigning for the upcoming elections when he was assassinated in Anbar during December 2005. It has been suggested that the killing was not political in nature but rather taken in revenge for a kidnapping, even though some jihadist groups claimed credit at the time. ‘Abu Fahed’ and his father, together with Zaidan, had been involved in banditry and extortion rings.
On the other hand, Zaidan’s brother Jabir worked for the CPA as a member of the Pentagon’s Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council (IRDC). Jabir was a graduate of the Baghdad Medical College in 1986 whereas Zaidan only has an elementary school certificate. Jabir was partly responsible for providing health services in Anbar Province, and he worked closely before and after the war with the late Talal al-Gaoud (a man often cited by David Ignatius) and Sa’adoun al-Dulaimi, Iraq’s Minister of Defense in the Ja’afari cabinet, who had also joined the IRDC before the war.
Zaidan marketed himself simultaneously as someone on the inside of the insurgency, and as America’s best friend in Anbar. He also claims a familial relationship with Sattar Abu Risha through intermarriage.
Sure, Anderson can get such a man to proclaim all sorts of inflammatory words on the record and it’ll make for a fantastic read, but does such rhetoric matter once the man’s stature is scrutinized and he is revealed to be of very little standing?
I mean, why not quote the bum on the street who’s been warning us that the ‘End is Near’?
There are many other problems with Anderson’s piece, like the sentence where he rehashes the Reuters-generated account about the 20 bodies found near Baquba that was later deemed to be bogus. Moreover, the whole section about Karim and Amar is so detailed that the Mahdi Army people will find it easy to piece it together and uncover what’s been happening, and not only that but Anderson informs them that Amar’s mother is also guilty. I’m sure that neither Karim nor Amir would have allowed so much detail to appear in print and hence expose them, and the mother, to reprisal. The New Yorker is morally obliged to find asylum outside of Iraq for Anderson’s sources.
But really, how much of the media’s misinformed damage can we undo? By “we” I mean people who know a bit more about Iraq or at least enough to spot charlatans like Zaidan; how much time can we set aside to work as pro-bono fact-checkers for the New Yorker or the New York Times?
Too many mistakes, too little time. The dilettantes will get promotions and awards, while the rest of us toil away in obscurity. It ain’t a meritocracy, folks. Just deal with it. Everyone lives happily ever after, except the victims and their kin who must pay for those mistakes.
On that note, I would like to quote a related question that exasperated the formidable Syrian historian, Hanna Batatu, in his landmark book The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (1978):
It is time to revert to the question that has been left unanswered: how were the enfeebled shaikhs and aghas of the last decades of the Turkish period able under the monarchy to expand and strengthen their feudal-like grip over their peasants, or to turn their once free-living tribesmen into sharecropping semiserfs in the shadow of a growing city life and an ascending central government?
An incomplete but basic explanation is that a new and extraneous force—the British—entered in 1914 the conflict between the cities and the tribal chiefs depicted in the preceding pages, and threw the weight of its influence on the side of the shaikhs and aghas.
Why the British should have desired to arrest or even reverse the process of tribal decomposition and to maintain and prop up the tribal leaders many only secondarily be attributed to a certain amount of prejudice on the part of some of their officials against the people of the cities, or to a more distinct tendency towards romanticizing the shaikhly stratum. “The longer the tribal system can be preserved,” remarked one British political officer in 1918, “the better; and when at last it fails from natural causes, it is hoped that…no low-born Baghdadi will be permitted to dance prematurely and indecently on its grave.” Gertrude Bell, the Oriental secretary of the high commissioner, wrote in 1922 of the shaikhs: “They are the people I love, I know every tribal chief of any importance through the whole length and breadth of Iraq, and I think them the backbone of the country.” More detached Englishmen on the spot had other things to say. “We tend to regard,” wrote the political officer of the ‘Amarah Division in November 1920, “the shaikh qua shaikh as of great importance in keeping his muqata’ah in order, whereas as a matter of fact he is more or less a figurehead, with very little power beyond that which he obtains from the support of the government. The individuality of the shaikh, in this Division, counts for very little. We have fallen into the error of over-rating his value and consulting him too much, to the exclusion of educated and far-seeing men of other classes…. We have lost sight of the fact that the shaikh does not represent agricultural interests from the point of view of either the sirkal or the fallah.”
The political officer of Hillah, writing in 1917 in a somewhat similar vein, revealed how difficult it had been in his district to “force the [tribal] sections to pay some heed to their shaikhs.” From the standpoint of the Sulaimaniyyah officer of 1919, the revival of tribalism was “a retrograde movement.” “One may even remember,” he said, “that so long as Scotland remained tribal, it produced nothing and nationally was a pauper.” The Shamiyyah officer, for his part, noted that in his division the big tribal unit was disintegrating, and that this “reflects the desires of the people themselves who are openly averse to its tyranny” because it “places great power in the hands of a chief whom they seldom see—a power he usually wields to fill his own pocket and which they know he could not possess but for the support of the government.” Reporting the murder in 1921 of three shaikhs by their own tribesmen, the Muntafiq divisional adviser brought out that in his area the tribes appeared anxious “to throw off all vestige of control by the shaikh.”
If in many regions, as is clear, shaikhly power was not desired by the tribesmen or conducive to their well-being, why did the English proceed to rebuild and solidify it?
Good question. Care to answer it, General Newton?
Blogging will be light as I prepare to go on walkabout again; I’ll be traveling for the next two months, and although I always say that I’ll report on what I see, longtime readers of Talisman Gate know that to be an empty promise.
For the time being, browse through the archives of this blog. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but much of what is going on in Iraq was predicted way ahead of anyone else right here on Talisman Gate, in some cases I saw it coming over a year ago. If one is interested in learning more about Iraq, I welcome you to re-read some of what I’ve posted here over the last two years…Nobody noticed that Talisman Gate just celebrated its 2nd anniversary this month!
Today’s front page of the Washington Times has a headline asking “Are We Winning the War?” In this expert’s opinion, the answer is “Yes, it’s been won”—but then again, I proclaimed victory five months ago.