By Army Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
Special to American Forces Press Service
Oct. 10, 2008 - Less than a year ago, Sunni and Shiia tribal groups in the north of Iraq's Babil province were divided. Now, they celebrate and share meals together for both large and small occasions. Two of the largest tribes in this region celebrated Eid al-Fitr together to mark the end of Ramadan, and they welcomed back two members released from detention – a stark contrast to the way these tribes approached each other not long ago.
One battalion commander described this by depicting the scene of what he saw just 11 months ago.
"We got to this area last November," said Army Lt. Col. Mike Getchell, commander of 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment. "There's a road in Muella called Route Dali. On the north side of Route Dali is Shiia, on the south side is Sunni. ... So on the north side of the Dali, you would see 'Sons of Iraq' [citizen security group] checkpoints facing south looking at the Sunnis, and on the south side of the road, exactly opposite -- you'd see Sunni ... checkpoints facing north looking at the Shiia area. It was almost like a Mexican standoff."
Today, those same checkpoints have united, often manned by both Sunni and Shiia members working together. The effects of this have brought both the young and old of opposing tribes to friendly relations.
Their most recent celebration together, Oct. 3, marked another step in the right direction for unity in Iraq. The two released detainees were Wail Hamid, a member of the Shiia tribe Musudi, and Khalid Kamil, a member of the Sunni tribe Janabi. Wail had been in detention for six months, and Khalid for four months.
"It was important to get them back during Eid," said Getchell, a native of Bridgewater, Mass., who now lives in Clarksville, Tenn. "The population recognized it as a gift, and I stressed that it was a gift for them to build upon, continue their reconciliation."
What was remarkable to Getchell was how warmly the Sunnis greeted the Shiia member, while the Shiia did the same for the Sunni member. Not only that, he said, but it had been leaders from the Janabi tribe requesting the release of Wail, and leaders of the Musudi tribe asking for Khalid's freedom.
The two tribes once were associated with violence – the Janabi tribe with the Jisr al-Mahdi militia and the Musudi tribe with al-Qaida -- and now they were looking out for each other's peace and well-being, Getchell said.
This is one of the main motivators that Getchell said give him hope for the future.
"I said, OK, if Sunnis are coming in and asking me for a Shiia, and Shiia are asking me for a Sunni, a member of another tribe, maybe they are ready to take a step forward," he said.
Over the months, Getchell said, he saw tension between the two tribes quiet while their mutual respect grew. The senior members of the tribes always maintained interaction during formal gatherings, he said, but it the younger men wanted little to do with one another. Combining checkpoints and insisting on working relations and unity, the colonel said, allowed the incremental growth that now puts distance between the two tribes and their past.
"[At the dinner] I asked the leaders to ... turn the page of the past and begin a new page in the cooperation of the future," he said. "One of the local leaders said, 'We're not going to turn the page of the past. We're going to burn the page from the past and start fresh.'"
In all, more than 40 tribal leaders attended the event, not only from the Janabi and Musudi tribes, but also from those in the surrounding regions as well. These actions and previous efforts are having an effect in the communities around Babil. Ever since the joint checkpoints began, young men interact with one another more and tribal leaders spend time together not only formally but socially, Getchell said.
"Shootings, caches and other violent activities have almost ceased to exist in this portion of this area," he said. "The people no longer talk about security. They talk about government. They talk about economic development, [and they] talk about bettering their farms."
Most importantly, he said, they're talking to each other.
(Army Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret serves in the 3rd Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.)