The road that separates Latifiyah neighborhood (35 kilometers south of Baghdad) from Hayyin, one a Sunni enclave and the other Shiite, empties of traffic as the curfew hour approaches. Along with tribal members, security forces deploy at security checkpoints not more than 50 meters away from each another in order to secure the main road which runs through an area once known as the “triangle of death”. And for the first time in years, the area has relative calm.
The name “triangle of death”, used by the media to describe areas south of Baghdad (Latifiyah and Mahmoudiyah and Youssifiyah), involves a degree of exaggeration. However, for four years al-Qaeda was able to ally itself with local tribes, transforming these areas, especially Latifiyah, into zones of intense violence.
Until recently, Shiites did not dare enter Latifiyah which was a stronghold of the “Ansar al-Sunnah Army” and the “Army of Muslims,” two al-Qaeda-linked armed factions. In Latifiyah al-Qaeda allied with Al-Janabi and al-Jbour, the biggest and most loyal tribes to Saddam Hussein. This alliance led to increased attacks and assassinations on Shiites who in turn left in mass until the city was empty of Shiites.
Today, the people of Latifiyah remember the heroic stance of Sheikh Ahmad al-Janabi when he demanded that all organizations affiliated with al-Qaeda leave the city or face war in 2006. “Tribal sheikhs realized that al-Qaeda had transformed their area into a Taliban republic and that they had lost their status, obliging them to obey orders from a simple Arab fighter”, Sheikh al-Janabi told Niqash.
“We opened our homes to them and treated them the way guests should be treated, offering them hospitality and care. Some of us married them, but they obliged us to obey their rules and they started to fight everyone with a different opinion than their own even if he was a Sunni,” added Janabi.
People of the desert interpret religion in a simple manner. They use tribal law inherited from their fathers to solve their conflicts. When al-Qaeda took control, however, tribal leaders started to hear Salafi interpretations of religion which they have never heard before, related to different aspects of their lives from what they ate to how they dressed. According to Salman al-Ja’ar, a neighborhood leader visiting Sheikh Ahmad’s guest house, “we used to blindly obey them because they came to fight the occupier and defend Islam, but they started to issue laws contradicting our traditions. They prevented women from going out without covering their faces; they obliged them to wear black. They used to beat them if they were caught wearing other colors… they killed barbers, burnt homes using satellite dishes and they gathered children, women and the elderly to watch the slaughter of our Shiite brothers.”
Al-Ja’ar mentioned other stories which at first seemed unrealistic, but the nod of consenting heads at the guest houses seemingly confirmed their truth. “They told a shepherd to cover goats’ genitals with cloth and they prohibited salads because they are a mixture of cucumber, which they regarded as masculine, and tomato, regarded as feminine. They introduced things against God’s own will,” he said.
Sheikh Zaher al-Ka’bi, a Shiite was able to stay in Latifiyah because of his kinship with the Sunni tribe. Al-Ka’bi told Niqash that he “stayed in Hay al-Turath, the center of al-Qaeda’s command in Latifiyah, thanks to my relatives from al-Jbour tribe who told al-Qaeda that I was a Sunni to protect me. But, like others, I was prohibited from leaving my neighborhood or approaching houses inhabited by al-Qaeda leaders.”
Al-Ka’bi tells the story of Abdul-Mu’een al-Masri who was appointed Wali (governor) of the neighborhood and an imam after killing 20 Shiites. “He married a Sunni Iraqi girl who discovered that he was not circumcised. Once the news spread, al-Qaeda members took him from his house and killed him in a shocking way.”
According to al-Ka’bi, neighborhood leaders used to meet to express their disgust with al-Qaeda and plan a break with the group. It was not, however, until 55 Shiites were murdered following a wedding celebration that tribal leaders and the town fully turned against al-Qaeda.
An Iraqi security officer interviewed by Niqash said that the war against al-Qaeda declared by Sunni tribes was behind the success of security forces in spreading their control over this hot area. Hammad al-Shammari, responsible for checkpoint 77, said: “Our tasks were limited to collecting corpses from the streets. Government troops were not able to stop the al-Qaeda attacks, and did not have the courage to go to Latifiyah without U.S. air support, while tribes were fighting fiercely and achieving victory.”
Today, however, members of the armed tribes who achieved this victory are disgruntled, saying that the government has abandoned them by not granting them armed jobs or the bereaved and wounded financial support. Dirghal al-Halli, a member of the tribal guard says: “We are worried about the future of our children and our families in case we die or are injured because the law related to monthly compensations for martyrs or injured people has not yet been passed. Many of us feel that sacrifices… have gone unnoticed as government institutions and the ministry of interior have closed the door of recruitment.”