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Iraqi cleric ascends from al-Qaida to U.S. ally

Nadhim Khalil has power, the fruits of an Iraqi odyssey that has taken him from the leadership of the local branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq into the generous arms of the U.S. military.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Nadhim Khalil wears the clothes of the cleric he is. He bears the scars of the insurgent he was. And in a country where business these days is power, he talks the speech of the merchant he has become, plying his trade in a contest for authority.

Imbued with the swagger of youth, lording over this oasis-like town on a bend of the Tigris River, Khalil has power, the fruits of a singularly Iraqi odyssey that has taken this scion of a religious family from the leadership of the local branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq, responsible for a reign that saw residents executed in the streets, into the generous arms of the American military and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, his erstwhile foes.

Khalil's analysis is blunt: He used to be on the losing side.

His formula is simple: With God, guns and money, he is now the authority in town.

"I'm sure the Americans will leave after a little while, and there's nothing I achieve by killing them now. I could kill them anytime, anywhere, and so what?" he asked. "In the beginning, the thought was that you could achieve your goal with weapons, but honestly? That investment has shown no return. That company has shown no profit."

Khalil's ascent here is a legacy of the war that has all but ended and the struggle that has begun in Iraq, shaped by the expediency of American tactics to quell the insurgency and the combustible, shifting landscape those choices have left behind. War and occupation shattered old notions of power here, embedded in patronage and tradition. In places like Thuluyah, new leaders and forces are emerging, redrawing the maps of towns and regions that, in quick succession, have passed from the hands of Saddam Hussein, through the throes of the insurgency and into today's far murkier contest.

Fierce in its customs, Thuluyah is a microcosm of Sunni Muslim regions of the country, residents like to say. If so, the town is a sober harbinger. Khalil, often forthright, sometimes persuasive and occasionally thuggish, has become the strongman.

Just 30 years old, Khalil has inherited from his family the town's biggest mosque, where brimming crowds gather on Fridays for his stentorian sermons. He heads the council that oversees the hundreds of armed men who deserted the insurgency for U.S.-funded units known as the Sons of Iraq, outnumbering the police and army unit stationed here. The mention of Khalil's name — Mullah Nadhim, as he is known here — ensures passage through their checkpoints. He heads a council of tribal leaders that provides a channel to Maliki, who offered his hand in friendship in a meeting in Baghdad's Green Zone.

The elected city council can only watch and complain — in whispers — about a man they fear. The town's elders scoff at his age and pedigree, with a wayward glance.

"My opinion?" asked Abdullah Jabbouri, a council member and former general. He paused, smiling a little sheepishly.

"Anyone who has absolute power becomes dangerous, even to himself," he said.

Khalil has long enjoyed prominent standing in this town of 50,000, graced by orchards and orange groves. His father, Mahmoud, was the head of the Caliphs Mosque, the town's largest, which Khalil inherited at 18. So was his grandfather, Khalil. In the days of Hussein, he had secured a measure of fame — or perhaps notoriety — when he was questioned for sometimes explicit criticism of the government in his sermons — that it should build schools, not palaces, that its rule lacked the justice of Islam's forebears.

But it was not until 2003, in the months after Hussein's fall, that he won renown with a message as incendiary as it was harsh — against the Americans, of the need to defend Sunnis against Shiites. Even today, some recall a sermon he delivered that November.

In it, he spoke of three men who competed to be the most vile. The first saw a woman carrying wood atop her head. He beat her. The second then tore off her clothes and raped her. The third stood back. When the others asked what he would do to prove his wickedness, the man laughed. That was my mother, he told them.

'The occupation is like a cancer'
Khalil paused as he finished the story. The mosque fell silent. The mother, he declared, his voice rising again, represented Iraq, and the men were those betraying her.

"The occupation is like a cancer," he shouted, "and it has to be removed."

In those days, Khalil had insisted that he was only "fighting with his tongue." His zeal soon drew him into the ranks of an incipient insurgency, leading 30 armed men and meeting colleagues in Baghdad, where he sometimes sought shelter at the Um al-Qura mosque. He ventured to the Anbar province capital of Ramadi, towns in Diyala province, and across the border to Syria. The U.S. military jailed him twice: as prisoner No. 159705 when he spent nearly six months in the massive prison at Abu Ghraib in 2004, and as No. 200331 when he was incarcerated for a similar stint at Camp Cropper in Baghdad nearly two years later. By his count, U.S. soldiers searched his house 67 times. They occasionally brought dogs, he said, to inspect his mosque.

By August 2006, after a meeting in Homs, Syria, he had joined al-Qaeda in Iraq, a homegrown Sunni movement that U.S. officials say is led by foreigners and that embraced a radical strain of Islam.

Unlike other regions of Iraq, there was never any ambiguity in Thuluyah about the occupation. From the beginning, it was despised. The town was the scene of one of the first efforts at counterinsurgency, when 4,000 U.S. troops, along with helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, moved through in June 2003. They killed three males, including a 15-year-old whose body was left for hours, swelling under a burning sun.

But even the occupation's fiercest opponents were startled by the severity of al-Qaeda, which ruled Thuluyah for 16 months starting in 2006. Men deemed collaborators were dragged from their homes and cars, sometimes executed in the street with a bullet to the back of the head. One man, a policeman's brother, was beheaded with the dull edge of a shovel. In all, residents say, 216 people were killed. No one could smoke in the streets.

"In theory, it was good," Khalil said of al-Qaeda.

But he realized that what he deemed the excesses of implementation were turning sentiment against it. These days, he calls himself contrite; he said he only wanted to fight Americans, not Shiites in neighboring Balad and certainly not his own people. But he acknowledged, too, that he was eventually forced to weigh the costs and benefits.

'The past is closed now'
"Four years of fighting, and we didn't achieve anything," he said in his house, adorned with a Koranic inscription on the wall that reads: "God forgives all sins. Truly, He is often forgiving and most merciful."

"That company went bankrupt," Khalil said matter-of-factly. There was little hint of penitence, less of remorse. "The past is closed now," he said. "It failed, and I don't like to remember the years of failure."

In June 2007, Khalil turned against his allies, declaring war from his mosque.

"Al-Qaeda must depart, or face from us what they may not expect," he recalled saying. "Throw them out of our villages. Have no mercy on them, whether young or old."

Three times, al-Qaeda in Iraq loyalists tried to kill him. On Oct. 19 that year, they planted a bomb under his chair in the mosque, injuring 136 worshipers. Khalil suffered 30 wounds that left dark scars on his left arm and left leg. But within a few months, working with the U.S. military, police and men who deserted al-Qaeda in Iraq for an American-backed militia of former fighters, Khalil crippled the group. Residents estimate that 80 of its men were arrested and 70 others were killed — 50 by the U.S. military and 20 by police. Only a dozen or so fighters remain, haunting the gardens and farms around the town.

In his own estimation, Khalil was the last man standing.

He has shaved his beard, its wispiness once indicative of his youth. In a reception room painted soft pink, he unabashedly displays a picture of himself with a sniper rifle, surrounded by Iraqi security forces, former insurgents turned American allies and a U.S. soldier, smiling broadly. To visitors, always gracious, he speaks with the fervor of the converted.

"I have a new company," he declared.

Smiling, he added, "You can't bring the Neanderthal to live in a globalized age."

But he still calls himself an Islamist, and to his followers, his words remain harsh.

"Our country is occupied and our bodies are torn apart, but we shouldn't forget our families in Palestine," he proclaimed in a sermon recently to an overflow crowd in his austere mosque, its white walls gouged by shrapnel from his assassination attempt.

"Those sons of monkeys, enemies of God and killers of prophets," he declared, his voice rising in denunciation of Jews, "are killing our brothers and sisters in Palestine."

Under Hussein, Thuluyah enjoyed the perks of patronage and loyalty. Some residents estimate that as many as 90 percent of the townspeople were Baath Party members, a fourth of them employed by the army, government or intelligence service.

That world crumbled in April 2003. The tribes — powerful clans with the names of Jabbouri, Khazraji, Ubaidi and Bufarraj — filled the void for a while, then made way for insurgent groups and eventually al-Qaeda in Iraq. Its departure left a contested landscape, in which the government, represented by no more than 70 soldiers, is a bit player.

The city council is universally despised, castigated as corrupt and dismissed as impotent. Tribal leaders hold sway. On a recent day, the sheiks of the region's tribes met in Balad to negotiate blood money for 14 construction workers from that town whom al-Qaeda members from Thuluyah had executed with a bullet to the back of the head in 2006. But even the sheiks complain they no longer enjoy the same writ in a terrain shaped by force of arms and patronage that comes through ties to the American military and the government.

Khalil calls the perspective of the tribal leaders "limited."

'He has helped maintain peace'
That leaves Khalil himself, who is called commander by the 700 members of the Sons of Iraq in the region. In mismatched uniforms or civilian clothes, they man checkpoints on the town's main road, draped in bandoleers and waving walkie-talkies. He heads a council of 10 tribal leaders established last year by Maliki, the prime minister's tentative but far-reaching attempt to cultivate rural support. He said he meets with the U.S. military every two weeks. Each Tuesday, he gathers a council in Thuluyah with the mayor and heads of the police, city council and army to review security here.

"He has helped maintain peace and stability in the region while supporting the populace's need for the same," said Lt. Col. David Doherty, a spokesman for the U.S. military in northern Iraq, the region that includes Thuluyah.

At the city council headquarters, a simple building near the town's entrance, pockmarked by bullets, Jabbouri was more circumspect. A towering man, dressed in a checkered kaffiyeh, he represents Thuluyah's past. He was a general under Hussein, a veteran of the war with Iran. He is a lawyer and tribal elder. A council member, he has ambitions to sit in parliament. At first, he deflected queries about Khalil.

"This is a deep question," the 68-year-old Jabbouri replied.

But over thin cups of scalding sweet tea, the conversation unfolded.

"He's from a respectable family," one of his colleagues volunteered.

"What?" Jabbouri gruffly responded. "Is he the head of a tribe? How many houses belong to him? Five? He's not a thinker. He's more like an adolescent."

The criticisms tumbled out, growing in boldness. Khalil's conversion was akin to a cleric banning alcohol, then mixing the first drink. Money and power have made him a pharaoh. His guns, in the hands of his men, have left the city council with no qudra, or capability. Though elected to office, the men find themselves on the outside looking in.

"All we can do is write. We can't carry anything out," one colleague said.

"The Americans put him in charge," another added, too fearful to give his name. "They gave him the key. From where else would he have gotten it?"

Jabbouri shook his head. "His ambition stretches beyond the sky," he said grimly.

"The fight now is the fight over the finger," Khalil said over a lunch of roast lamb and rice, grilled fish, okra and more lamb, after delivering his sermon.

He meant the coming election and the indigo stain Iraqis receive after voting. He meant, too, that he himself planned to run for parliament, hoping to represent Thuluyah.

These days, Khalil is a man about town. He got married and got respectable. He mixes easily with worshipers, his fighters and the workers renovating his mosque. Even in January, nearly a year before parliamentary elections, he sounds like a candidate.

Through his intervention, he said, the Americans have funded 20 projects for the town, from paving 10 miles of roads to bringing clean water for thousands of families. He still oversees salaries for the Sons of Iraq. He has found 400 people jobs in the army and police. He has secured compensation for 1,500 people who suffered injuries in fighting.

"I have a lot of credit from the people at this point," he said.

Across from the mosque, Shihab Khaled watched a butcher slaughter a sheep, dragging the knife along the belly of the animal as it hung from a meat hook.

"They used to massacre people like this, and it was ordinary," he said under his breath. Al-Qaeda in Iraq killed his brother Zahid, a policeman like him, in August 2007. He himself never wore his uniform in public. "It's all over now. It's passed like a dream."

He said he thanked God first, "and second, the efforts of Mullah Nadhim."

But there is something familiar about the reluctance of many others to talk.

"He who is scared stays peaceful," goes a proverb sometimes uttered in the town. It was often pronounced after Hussein's fall, in the ensuing anarchy. But it holds truth today, too. There is fear here, the sense in places where law is arbitrary that fewer words are better.

"He still needs time to build trust," said Suleiman Kanoush, a 43-year-old government employee. "We still need time to give him our trust again."

Trust, though, is not Khalil's power.