RAMADI – Sheikh Khaled from the al-Halabsa family, established in the outskirts of Fallujah on the road to Ramadi, is one of the most powerful men in the Sunni triangle (Baghdad-Ramadi-Tikrit). Relaxed in his dishdash robe, drinking tea on the porch of his house, facing an immaculate garden and his own black Mercedes in the garage, he is nonetheless a very pessimistic man: “We don’t believe in American promises. They have lied before the war ‘promising democracy.’ If Americans believe in freedom and independence, why don’t they let the people vote for the Governing Council?” The sheikh adds that “even if I had a family member in the Governing Council I would not trust them because they were elected by tanks.”
The sheikh echoes a popular sentiment all over the Sunni triangle that the Americans themselves encouraged the widespread looting that so traumatized Iraqis after the end of the war in April, “So they must have an extra reason not to leave.” The Americans negotiated with regional sheikhs before entering Ambar – the province that includes Ramadi and Fallujah and which is considered one of the richest in per capita terms in Iraq. Most of the well-off in Ambar are contractors or are in the transportation business. All mosques are private. According to the sheikh “when the Americans occupied the land, they encouraged looters to come here. I caught some of them myself.”
The Americans were victims of a serious case of cultural misunderstanding – according to the sheikh: “The Americans confiscated all weapons. They encouraged looters to attack industrial complexes, steal generators … I told the American commander that we as sheikhs cannot face our families because we have no weapons. If you can’t protect us, why did you take our weapons? The American commander then said there would be military patrols. But there are no patrols – the Americans are afraid. In al-Haswa there is one of the biggest storages in the Middle East, it is central for the whole of Iraq. It has food, cars, electrical appliances, spare parts … looters attacked it armed with RPGs. We were unarmed. The Americans didn’t do anything.” As a result, now there is no dialogue between the sheikhs and the occupation forces.
While the businessmen sheikhs in the Fallujah-Ramadi axis have lost their patience, but stop short of admitting that they are financing the resistance, the religious sheikhs are facing another kind of problem. In Ramadi itself we are told that sheikhs who criticized the American occupation in their Friday prayers were arrested. Sheikh Salah and his brother, from Ramadi, say in fact that there was only one high-profile case: a cleric who rhetorically bombed the occupation forces was arrested for two months. So now clerics are much more subtle. In last Friday’s prayers, in a mosque contiguous to the Ramadi bazaar, the basic resistance message was “we hope the Governing Council is not who we think they are, so they have to listen to our demands to be trusted.” But at the end of his sermon, the sheikh could not help but “ask God to destroy America and release Iraqis from the occupation as soon as possible.”
The Americans definitely need some public relations. Sheikh Salah and his brother – prominent businessmen in Ramadi – are adamant that “in the beginning most people in the city were against Saddam [Hussein]. With the occupation, now most want him back.” The sheikh’s brother owns the best hotel in the city, closed four days before the war and not yet reopened. The reason: no security. The Americans have no military base in Ramadi: they are lodged in one of Saddam’s former palaces. Every day there are American patrols. According to Sheikh Salah, “Inside the city there are few attacks. But they are always attacked in the highway [to the Jordanian border] and in the outskirts.”
People in Ramadi say that the Americans are attacked at least six times every day: the Americans never admit more than one or two attacks a day. Unlike the road from Baghdad to Samarra and Tikrit, the road to Ramadi has no American checkpoints. Thieves holed up in the desert, equipped with BMWs and Kalashnikovs, continue to attack travelers on the Amman-Baghdad highway near Ramadi; but according to locals “the Americans have not done anything to catch them.” The American checkpoint on the highway is in the wrong place – at least 100 kilometers away from Ramadi.
Ramadi has an American-installed mayor, Abdul Karim Barjes. Sheikh Salah says “he never left his building” and unlike the mayor of Fallujah, is not respected by the local population. People in Ramadi – as well as in Fallujah – say that they saw Arab fedayeen (para-military) only in the beginning of the war.
Most of all, people in Ramadi are angry because “the Americans have done nothing for the city in five months,” says Sheikh Salah. The streets of Ramadi echo the same accusations heard in Fallujah: American soldiers in their raids are taking gold, money and pistols from people’s houses. People are also very much aware of Ali Babas (common thieves) turned Mukhabarat agents paid by the Americans.
The Governing Council is as unpopular and untrusted as anywhere in the Sunni belt. Ahmad Chalabi, the current chairman, is perceived “as an American agent. And he has American nationality. We would never vote for him if there was an independent election.” As far as a larger United Nations role is concerned, Sheikh Salah expresses the local consensus: “Whatever the UN does it is better than the occupation, as a halfway solution. But we don’t agree with any foreigners occupying Iraq.”
A striking refrain is heard across the Sunni triangle, from Baghdad to Samarra, from Fallujah to Baqouba. As Sheikh Salah puts it, “If Saddam came back again, he would rebuild Iraq in one month. After the  Gulf War, he rebuilt Iraq in 45 days.” The people who are saying this never in their lives were Ba’ath Party members.
The mood in the heart of the Sunni triangle all the way to Ramadi is replicated in the very poor, working-class neighborhood called Fourth Police, almost in the outskirts of Baghdad. Most people in this area did support Saddam’s regime and were Ba’ath Party members – and many abandoned their weapons and did not fight during the last war. They swear the resistance is composed of ordinary Iraqis. Practically everybody is armed. “Islam tells us we have to resist occupation. We will get rid of the Americans,” says a local carpenter. Nobody has detected any suspicious behavior by potential Arab fedayeen.
The anger in the Sunni triangle is pervasive. Workers are angry because 400,000 civil servants were sacked, and because there are only unknown exiles – 1,500 of them, mostly from the US and the UK – working in the Iraqi Reconstruction Development Council. Sunnis are angry because for the Americans the Kurdish region is the priority. Businessmen are angry because there will be no role for companies from Arab countries in the reconstruction process. Poor people are angry because the UN scaled down its foreign staff to only 42 in Baghdad, while relying on roughly 4,000 Iraqis for humanitarian work. Law-abiding citizens are angry because former defense minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad was granted immunity and was duly removed from the American “pack of cards” listing 55 wanted people (he was number 27). Everybody is angry because the US military cleared its troops in the recent “friendly fire” incident in Fallujah which killed eight Iraqi policemen.
The only people with nothing to complain about are those in the booming roadblock business – as the Americans bunker themselves out of sight. After the surreal slalom by two Ali Babas in a stolen battered Toyota on September 20, which cynics widely considered a trial run for a car bombing, there’s a new roadblock arrangement in front of the Palestine-Sheraton hotel complex in Baghdad – which houses large numbers of foreign journalists and American businessmen – the Aike hotel – where some American media are staying – was attacked last week. A trip through the Sunni triangle yields signs that no roadblock will prevent the same from happening to the Palestine.