BAGHDAD - One of the most promising - and most tricky - developments in Iraq has been growing opposition by Sunni tribal leaders to al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Over past months, a tribal coalition has sharply reduced violence in Anbar province, the Sunni region that once hosted the terrorist group. News stories claim this coalition is crumbling. But new tribal alliances are being organized to fight al-Qaeda, along with hard-line Baathist insurgents (known as "Saddamists").
This is some of the best news out of Iraq, at a time when there is little good news to be had.
These new alliances are emerging not only in Anbar but also in troubled areas around Baghdad, where al-Qaeda and Saddamists fled when pushed out of Anbar.
One example: Shiite members of the tribe known as the Bani Tamim are mobilizing in Diyala province east of Baghdad - in cooperation with Sunni tribes. This is an area where U.S. troops are conducting an offensive. Leaders of the Bani Tamim have 5,000 names of tribesmen willing to fight and to protect vital oil pipelines. They want help from the Americans to do the job.
Another important example: I recently met Sheikh Ali Hatem Suleiman, who has been acting head of the Dulaim confederation, the largest tribal grouping in Anbar. Last week, he met with 200 tribal leaders in Ramadi, where they formed the Council of Sheikhs in Anbar, which wants to work with the Americans against al-Qaeda.
We spoke in Ali Hatem's Baghdad office; the walls were decorated with photographs from the period of Iraq's monarchy, showing his grandfather and father meeting with, respectively, King Faisal I and King Faisal II. We lunched on platters of grilled meat, chicken, tomatoes and onions, eaten with flat Iraqi bread, as several armed guards stood watch outside.
Dressed in a long white tribal robe, brown suit jacket, and red-and-white-checked headdress, the 35-year-old sheikh explained: "Anbar was a safe haven for al-Qaeda, but they have lost the important people who supported them. We cannot deal with these people anymore."
Why did the tribes once tolerate al-Qaeda? The short answer: gross mistakes by the Bush administration. In 2003, U.S. officials labeled Iraqi tribes an impediment to democracy. They failed to grasp that tribes provide a basic social network for many Iraqis. Instead of using that network, the Americans rebuffed tribal leaders.
Anbar tribes became even angrier when the Americans disbanded the Iraqi army, which employed many locals. "Because of American behaviors," says Ali Hatem, "Anbar people allowed al-Qaeda to come in."
But al-Qaeda eventually alienated the tribes (despite the cash it disbursed). It assassinated clerics and sheikhs, demanded local women as brides, and tried to impose its extreme form of religion. No longer composed mainly of foreign fighters, the group recruited the worst elements of the tribes.
So, over the last year, the tribes began to fight back, helped with American money and arms.
Of course, this story doesn't come without problems.
Some worry the tribes may start fighting among themselves. The new Council of Sheikhs in Anbar was formed largely as a reaction against a leader of another tribal group called the Anbar Salvation Council.
Ali Hatem accuses this man, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, of criminal behavior and of arresting the wrong people. Abu Risha denies the charges and seems to have the U.S. military's support in Anbar. American officials would be wise to mediate rather than take sides (and to check out whether any allegations are true).
Others worry that arming the tribes will create new Sunni militias. Hopefully, this can avoided by forming the tribal fighters into auxiliary police brigades, under loose Iraqi government control.
The most serious concern is this: Ali Hatem and other tribal leaders are inviting Sunni insurgent groups to join their fight. Might those groups turn on the Americans, or the Iraqi government, once al-Qaeda is tamed?
The sheikh insists not. "We will tell the insurgents, 'We tribes will make a solution with the Americans and the Iraqi government. If you fight the United States, our problems will return back.' "
Sure, it's risky to support tribal leaders. But most seem to be fighting for survival, not just American aid. They know the local terrain, and they want to make their territory safer.
If the U.S. goal is to break al-Qaeda and pound the Saddamists, Iraqi help is badly needed, and Iraqi security forces still can't cut it. That means it is essential to encourage the tribes.