JAZEERAT EL-ANBAR, Iraq – The tribal leader had just been freed after 12 days in an American prison. Well-wishers flocked to his house. They kissed his cheek. They cried. Mostly, they cursed their U.S. occupiers.
Sheik Saad Naif Mish’hen al-Hardan, wearing a yellow Arab robe, looked pale and dazed. “History will record this,” the 40-year-old leader told his followers.
“Everything that begins must end,” he said, shaking his head. “And no incident will be forgotten.”
The meaning of al-Hardan’s words was not lost on the dozens of men sitting on his porch, their rage palpable. The al-Daylami tribe was deeply insulted that U.S. forces arrested al-Hardan, and in front of his people.
Before, al-Hardan and his tribesmen said, they welcomed the Americans, offering them refreshments as they passed through after Baghdad fell April 9.
But his arrest – and his apparent threat of retribution – is another example of how cultural misunderstandings are raising tensions and the danger level on all sides in Iraq.
The town of Jazeerat el-Anbar sits across the Euphrates River from Ramadi, a hotbed of anti-American resistance. On average, insurgents have killed a U.S. soldier nearly every other day since President Bush declared major fighting over May 1.
U.S. forces are on edge. When attacked, they shoot back, sometimes hitting the innocent. To quell the insurgency, American troops raid homes in broad sweeps, arresting anyone caught in their net.
The detained Iraqis – mostly bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time – complain U.S. troops are heavy-handed, apparently unaware they are sowing deep seeds of resentment by humiliating proud tribesmen.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, leader of U.S. forces in Iraq, said last week he ordered a change of tactics, directing commanders to go after specific targets rather than staging wide sweeps.
But Iraqis say what is most distressing is their physical treatment during and after arrest.
U.S. troops put their boots on the back of men’s heads as they lay face down, forcing their foreheads to the ground. There is no greater humiliation, they say, because Islam forbids putting the forehead on the ground except in prayer.
“American culture differs from ours. Things that seem to be acceptable to us may be vulgar to them and the other way around,” said Mohammed Latif, a Sunni Muslim cleric in nearby Ramadi, a conservative and deeply tribal Sunni city about 60 miles west of Baghdad.
Lt. Col. Henry Kievernaar, commander of the 3rd Squadron of 3rd Armored Cavalry Infantry in Ramadi, agreed. “All the issues between us” stem from a “lack of communication,” he said.
That lack costs lives on both sides and, turning Anbar Province more radical.
When U.S. forces came to take Sheik al-Hardan at 6:30 a.m. on July 20, they came in full force, his son and nephews said. With more than 120 troops, several tanks and other armored vehicles and six helicopters, the Americans laid siege to the house and surrounding fields.
Soldiers found nothing when they searched the sheik’s modern, two-story residence, his family said, but they left with more than 70 men and boys.
The sheik and his brother were jailed in the nearby town of Baghdadi. Most captives were hooded, handcuffed and transported to nearby military bases. They claim they were left in the sun for hours, not allowed to use toilets and given tepid water and canned food.
London-based Amnesty International has accused the U.S. Army of violating international law by subjecting Iraqi prisoners to “cruel, inhuman or degrading” conditions.
But Kievernaar, from Fort Carson, Colo., said the Army follows Geneva Conventions for treatment of captives. “We don’t have cold water. There’s no electricity (for refrigeration). They get what we have,” he said.
So the situation becomes he-said-she-said.
“When I see my sheik being arrested, what do you expect me to do?” asked Tarik Mish’hen al-Hardan, 64, the leader’s uncle. “Of course I will resist.”
“They insult the country’s personalities and tribal chiefs. … They insult them in front of their tribesmen,” said Mahmoud Younis Orsan al-Zobay’ei, 62, from another tribe in the nearby Sunni town of Fallujah.
Sheik al-Hardan said the reason for his arrest appeared to be American suspicions that he was leading a resistance group called the Noor Mohammed Party, financed by Saddam Hussein.
“They claimed Saddam has visited me, that I receive money from him and brought fighters from Syria, from Anbar and other provinces to fight American forces,” al-Hardan said. He denied ever meeting the deposed dictator or leading such a group.
He said that after 10 days of questioning the Americans apologized and asked him for help in the future. They wanted to know how they could open a new chapter with the Iraqi people.
Al-Hardan said his answer was simple.
“Stop humiliating us. Do not wound our dignity … by making people lie on the ground, handcuffed and putting your feet on their heads.”
U.S. military officials argue that Americans are forced to take extreme measures – including those that offend Iraqis – to keep soldiers safe and get their job done.
“We have had suicide bombers. I’ve had grenades thrown from behind the crowd. I’ve been shot at,” Kievernaar said. “I understand going to their homes is a big issue … but at the same time, we find out they’ve hid weapons in the sanctity of their homes.”
Tribal leaders claim U.S. forces recently threatened them unless they revealed who was behind the attacks. Collaborating with the Americans is taboo: There have been several reports of men killed by their immediate families or tribesmen on suspicion of being American spies.
One al-Daylami tribesman said relations would go smoother with a little courtesy.
“We would cooperate with them if they were polite when they come into our homes … if they would shake our hands,” said Rasheed Awda al-Hardan, 70.
As always, there’s the other side.
“We’ve … trained (Iraqi) police. We’ve fixed water treatment plants. What did we get as a thank you? Shot at by an RPG (rocket-propelled-grenade),” said a frustrated Kievernaar. “It’s a two-way street.”
Courtesy Josh Kirby