By Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
4th Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division
FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq – Less than a year ago, Sunni and Shia tribal groups in northern Babil 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, the biggest celebration marking the end of Ramadan, together to welcome back two members released from detention – a stark contrast to the way these very tribes approached one another not long ago.
One battalion commander described this by depicting the scene of what he saw just 11 months prior.
"We got to this area last November," said 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 Shia, on the south side is Sunni ... So on the north side of the Dali you would see Sons of Iraq checkpoints facing south looking at the Sunnis, and on the south side of the road, exactly opposite, you'd see Sunni SoI checkpoints facing north looking at the Shia area. It was almost like a Mexican standoff."
Today, those same checkpoints have united, often manned by both Sunni and Shia 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, 2008, marked another step in the right direction for unity in Iraq. The two released detainees were Wail Hamid, a member of the Shia 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 Shia member, while the Shia did the same for the Sunni member. Not only that, 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. These two tribes had once been associated with Jisr al-Mahdi violence (Janabi tribe) and al-Qaida insurgency (Musudi), and now they were requesting for the peace and well being of one another.
This was one of the main motivators that showed Getchell hope for the future.
"I said, okay, if Sunnis are coming in and asking me for a Shia, and Shia 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 saw tension between the two tribes quiet while their respect and better relations with one another grew.
He said the senior members of the tribes had always maintained interaction during formal gatherings. However, it had been the younger men who wanted little to do with one another. It was through combining checkpoints and by insisting on working relations and unity that allowed the incremental growth that now puts distance between the two tribes and their past.
"[At the dinner] I asked the leaders to utilize this event as another stepping stone to lean on forward, turn the page of the past and begin a new page in the cooperation of the future. 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 involved, but from those in the surrounding regions as well. These actions and previous efforts are now having an impact 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.
"Shootings, caches and other violent activities have almost ceased to exist in this portion of this area," Getchell said of the effects. "The people no longer talk about security. They talk about government; they talk about economic development, talk about bettering their farms."
Most importantly, though, they're talking to each other.
This work, Release of former detainees reveals tribal relations, by MSG Michel Sauret, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.