Matt Sanchez

Editor’s note: Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedded in Iraq with the 1st Squadron 4th Cavalry out of Fort Riley, Kan. – the 1-4 Cav – has been providing WND readers with a glimpse into the Iraq war most Americans have never heard.

Last September, at the height of their power, a convoy of insurgents paraded down Route Michigan, the main thoroughfare in Ramadi, where they declared the city to be the capital of the Islamic State of Iraq. It was roughly during this period that the “top Marine intelligence officer,” later revealed to be Col. Peter Devlin, wrote his foreboding report: “We have lost Anbar province.”

By all accounts, from 2003 through 2006 there was little or no police presence in the city of Ramadi. So, no one investigated the rash of killings by “insurgent groups.” Some of them were common criminals interested in settling tribal feuds or monopolizing resources in a territory where who was in charge depended on where you were standing. Fewer still were ideological jihadists bent on attacking an infidel city that historically had a significant Jewish and Christian population, but in modern times had become effectively 100 percent Sunni.

“Did the Americans do something wrong? Could this have been avoided,” I asked Sheik Abdul Sattar.

Lt. Col. Miciotto Johnson, commander of the 1-77 Armor Battalion

Sattar recalled the early period of the American arrival: “I gave them ideas about how to deal with the terrorists.” He recommended a weapons buy-back policy that the Americans listened to politely but never acted on. Today, Iraqis eagerly reveal the locations of weapons caches, partially for their security and also for the cash reward American forces pay.

Contrary to popular belief, the American military did deal with local sheiks from nearly the very start. Sheik Heiss, lead sheik of the Jazeera region just north of Ramadi, spoke of meeting with Army officials in the summer of 2003 and even completing a contract for city repairs by the fall, but soon thereafter it became difficult to find employees. Anyone suspected of dealing with Americans was a target, an example waiting to be made.

At FOB (forward operating base) Blue Diamond, I talked to Capt. Jay McGee, a bespectacled Army intelligence officer and West Pointer class of 2002. Jay was on his third tour to Iraq, this time with the 3-69, an armor unit out of Fort Stewart, Ga.

“Al-Qaida polarized the other insurgents through their targeting,” McGee said. In the reach for power and control, AQI (al-Qaida in Iraq) used brutality as a tool for submission. McGee showed me some of the photos of small villages, where there was little or no police protection and no American military. I won’t reproduce those images here, but it is sad to see such a lack of concern for human life. Men shot above the small of the neck, hands tied behind their backs and barely buried in shallow graves, or left to decompose in the open air. Without protection, Iraqis were afraid to stand up until the presence of more troops.

The Road to Anbar may become Iraq’s Damascus – conversion has taken place in Ramadi

“Al-Qaida is like a hydra that regenerates from losses, but we’re burning the head off the hydra,” Capt. McGee said with a laconic calm that was far more mature than his years, and I soon learned why. During his time at West Point Jay was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, a form of cancer. “I had a tumor the size of a softball,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone, lacking no irony. “Yeah, it was great times.” He remembered how the disease had changed him: “Before it happened, I was really pessimistic, quite whiney.”

McGee has spent three of the past five years in a foreign country, away from home. In my travels throughout Iraq, I’ve met many on their third tour, and just as many on their first. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to who gets deployed and who does not. The winner for most deployments was Staff Sgt. Lipp with the 96th Heavy Truck Company out of San Antonio, Texas. He was just finishing his 5th tour, in Iraq. Multiple tours are not uncommon in the military, since the start of the operations in the Iraq and Afghanistan. What is rare is the Capt. McGee’s mindset.

“I don’t think deployment is that bad, I have a sense of perspective. It doesn’t bother me so much, that’s what I expected.” He said this with the type of gratitude one has after six months of chemotherapy and stays at facilities like Brooke Army Medical Center.
I had to ask him about the scandal on military medical treatment, but the captain shrugged to offer his opinion. You’ll often hear the men and women say, “At least that’s what I saw,” “in my opinion” or “I don’t want to talk for anyone else.” It’s called “staying in their own lane.” And it’s a custom for respecting differences. Not everyone fights the same war, not everyone has the same living conditions or the same level of risk, but most will limit their judgments to personal experience in a sign of respect and a gesture of camaraderie.

“The individual doctors were dedicated and professional. I can’t complain about the care, I got better and didn’t have to pay medical bills,” McGee said pragmatically, with the type of detachment that made him an asset as an intelligence officer, a job he found rewarding.

“In high school, I wanted to be a doctor or lawyer, something that would make me a lot of money,” McGee said, echoing a common desire of kids growing up in the United States. In a place like Iraq, doctor meant prestige and maybe some work stability – it didn’t mean tons of cash. But Jay came from Fort Worth, Texas, his mother was a nurse, his father a police officer, and he ended up going to West Point, an institution with tougher admission standards than any Ivy League school. He could have done anything he wanted to, but he wanted to be there, at Camp Blue Diamond, Anbar Province, Iraq.

Murder and intimidation campaign

“The locals were tired of al-Qaida,” McGee continued. By all accounts, al-Qaida often assassinated sheiks, or tribal heads, as a means of dominating the tribal system and attacking the power structure.

The reports of the murder and intimidation campaign are numerous, and at this point beyond dispute.

Sheik Sattar’s father was murdered – Sattar preferred not to discuss the details – as were three of his brothers. In a deeply stratified society, murdered relatives are a common bond for many Anabaris of all classes. Family ties are important in Anbar where sheiks pledge loyalty and responsibility to their tribe – an extension of the immediate family.

Iraq is more complex than the “conventional wisdom” often distilled for coverage of the situation back home. The majority of Iraqi soldiers serving in Anbar are Shia, but there’s little or no tension between the Shia soldiers and the Sunni citizens of Anbar. On the other hand, the soldiers in Baghdad have often been accused of participating in terrorist acts against Baghdadis both Sunni and Shia. I’ve asked many soldiers about this and they mostly claim that whether Sunni or Shia, it doesn’t matter. Most of them have a common enemy in al-Qaida. As a Sunni organization, bin Laden, Zarqawi or any of the members of al-Qaida never expressed any concern over the slaughter of fellow Sunnis.

“This was their only success story,” said McGee as we went through the significant acts – the accounts of IEDs, small arms fire and car bombs. The more the people shunned al-Qaida and the insurgency, the more Iraqis reported weapons caches and possible terrorists.

“Even the Arab media has turned against al-Qaida,” McGee said. An interpreter told me how bin Laden was no longer seen as a sympathetic symbol of resistance and that al-Qaida itself was suffering from a sort of public relations problem on the Arab streets.
Al-Qaida’s occupation of Anbar was both subtle (“cooperate with us and we’ll give you some money”) and frighteningly graphic. In 2004, the media were not reporting on sectarian violence, but the New York Times had declared the “Sunni Triangle” as the epicenter of the conflict in Iraq. Today it is rare to hear anyone refer to the “Sunni Triangle,” especially as the violence has gone down.

At Sattar’s compound, the sheik was not shy about his contribution to the changes in Anbar: “I’m the only one who stood in their face.” Marine intelligence officer Col. Peter Devlin supports Sattar’s account, a rarity in a country where fact and fiction are often twisted together like the green elastic threads of the bands Marines use to blouse their boots: “Although not totally unknown to us previously, he (Sheik Sattar) effectively came out of nowhere. He and his organization provided the first effective Sunni response to the ham-fisted tactics of AQI – a backlash that seemed as inevitable as it was elusive since we knew that the vast majority of Anbaris despised AQI.”

The Anbar Awakening

The short version of the story that is practically a legend goes like this: On the 14th day of September, 2006, Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Reisha met with other leading sheiks. They all agreed to use their influence to support American forces and repel AQI. From that day on, the violence in Anbar has tapered, notably.

But during our interview, Sattar saw “prosperity” in Anbar’s future, his personal fortunes having grown with the American presence, a fact that had bred many detractors. Here in Iraq, a military interpreter who preferred to remain anonymous said Sattar was just one of many sheiks: “There were many more who were far more important to the awakening, but less pompous.”

Flowers for the opening of a new road, a new beginning

Today, the Awakening – the council of local tribes, fighters, and “concerned citizens” who cobbled together a truce with the American military in order to defeat a greater threat, AQI – is the type of storybook success everyone wants to claim, but to which only Sheik Sattar has clear title. Sattar himself told me of an Arabic saying: “Defeat is like an illegitimate child, but victory has many fathers – some fake, some true.”

Within days of pledging support, hundreds of Sattar’s men signed up to become local police officers. Marines and soldiers have fought and defeated terrorism here, but it will be local authorities that maintain the peace.

“Can al-Qaida return to the city?” I asked the sheik.

“They cannot come back as they were before, no one would accept that, but they could come back using a different name.”

He added: “Throughout Iraqi history, September has always been a month of momentous change, it is also the month of my birth. I hope these two events will have significance.”

Ironically, September also became the month of Sattar’s death. Just outside the hall where we met, a massive explosion killed him less than a week later. This was his last one-on-one interview.

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Matt Sanchez, originally from California, is a New York City-based writer currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His work has appeared in the New York Post, National Review and the Weekly Standard.

A corporal in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a student at Columbia University where he’s working on degree in American Studies, Sanchez says his mission in Iraq is “to report on the stories that matter the most, first-person accounts by the men and women on the ground.” His blog,, chronicles his work.

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