SAMARRA, Iraq – After keeping their distance for months, Iraqis in this Sunni Arab city suddenly began cooperating with U.S. troops, leading them to insurgents and hidden weapons caches. The reason: anger over the assassination by insurgents of a local tribal chief.
"That's when they decided to make a stand," said Capt. Ryan Wylie of Lincoln, Neb., commander of Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment. "They definitely had an idea of the terrorists and where they hang out."
U.S. commanders cite other reasons for a lull in violence in this city 60 miles north of Baghdad. They include construction of an 11-mile berm around the city to block gun runners and a greater reliance by the military on covert monitoring positions.
But almost everyone agrees that the biggest reason for the reduction in violence here was the public backlash against the insurgents after the Oct. 11 assassination of Sheik Hikmat Mumtaz al-Bazi, chief of one of the area's seven tribes.
The reason for the killing remains unclear. Some say he was targeted for working with U.S. forces. Others believe he was killed because of a contract dispute over a U.S.-funded project. Most agree that the sheik's American connection cost him his life.
"They killed him to send a message that you can't be working with coalition forces," said Lt. Col. Mark Wald, commander of the 3rd Battalion. "I think they were trying to rein him back in."
Tribalism is deeply rooted in Iraqi society and adds a dimension to the insurgency that outsiders find difficult to understand. Some tribes support the insurgency, while others back the government. In many cases, tribes are divided in their loyalties.
Before al-Bazi's death, U.S. forces in Samarra had struggled to cope with the insurgent threat in this city of 200,000, many of whom strongly opposed the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
Last year, Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, openly operated in Samarra, and the group's black flags fluttered from rooftops until U.S. forces regained control.
U.S. soldiers heard some Samarra residents speak openly of the right of "legitimate resistance" to the American presence.
Others admitted they could not cooperate with the Americans for fear of insurgent reprisals.
Those fears vanished when one of their own leaders was slain. All of a sudden, Iraqis began coming forward with information about insurgent hideouts and weapons caches.
The flood of intelligence was welcomed. Attacks against U.S. forces tapered off after al-Bazi's death, dropping to one or two a day — compared with seven a day in January. The decline prompted a U.S. decision to remove about two-thirds of the American soldiers inside the city and replace them with Iraqi paramilitary commandos.
"It really speaks to the potential this city has when tribesmen get fed up and take action against terrorists," said Lt. Nathan Adams of Savannah, Ga. "It's as simple as one tribe having something happen to them and motivating them to take action."
In western Anbar province, also dominated by Sunni Arabs, the Marine command reported tribal fighting last summer between those who supported dealings with the U.S. military and those opposed.
Last month, American forces in Anbar began raising a scout force, known as the "Desert Protectors," from the ranks of a tribe whose rivals had ties to Al Qaeda.
Samarra is still far from peaceful, and some soldiers said the wealth of information revealed how deeply rooted the insurgency was in the city.
One tribe is believed to have knocked out phone service to a rival group's neighborhood to prevent people from phoning tips to the police. A car bombing last Monday destroyed a gas station and killed six people, police said.
And no foreign fighter has been caught by Wylie's company after nearly a year in this city.
In addition, soldiers say, it is difficult to say whether the trend toward greater cooperation will last. Some caution that the surge in tips has recently tapered off. Samarra's population could return to the old habit of looking the other way when insurgents plant roadside bombs or launch mortars from the streets.
"There was definitely a surge at the beginning," Wylie said of the tips. "I don't think it's to the same extent that it had been."