Behind the Mansour Hotel Bombing
The noontime bombing that killed a dozen Iraqis at Baghdad’s Mansour Melia Hotel on June 25 continues to reverberate through Iraq — and through the American military high command. This was not a “typical” bombing (if there is such a thing in Iraq): it was well-planned and executed and the bomber was required to penetrate three levels of security, which included armed guards deployed by Iraq’s Defense Ministry. The bomb’s detonation was so powerful that it blew the doors off the Mansour’s heavily enforced dining room and caved in the dining room ceiling, according to a hotel employee.
Among the 12 dead were six members of the Anbar Salvation Council, including Sheik Fassal al-Gaood (a council leader and a former governor of Anbar and Sheik of the al-Bu Nimir tribe), Sheik Abdul-Aziz al-Fahdawi of the Fahad tribe, Sheik Tariq Saleh al-Assafi and Colonel Fadil al-Nimrawi, both from the al-Bu Nimr tribe and aides to al-Gaood. In the wake of the blast, an Iraqi police source identified two more assassinated leaders: Iraqi General Aziz al-Yasari and Sheik Husayn Sha’lan al-Khaza’i of the Khaza’a tribe. Rahim al-Maliki, a well-known Iraqi poet and television producer was also killed at the hotel, as well as three of al-Gaood’s bodyguards. Several other sheiks were injured in the blast, including Sheik Ali Khalifa, Sheik Ribah al-‘Alawani and Shaykh Diham al-‘Abidi.
The tribal leaders were coming to the hotel to meet with a delegation of government representatives including Ahmad Chalabi, none of whom had yet arrived, according to Iraqi government officials. “The bombing was a devastating loss for our efforts in Anbar,” an American official in Iraq says. “We are still trying to piece together what happened.” The official confirms that the tribal sheiks had been brought together at the Mansour Hotel at the suggestion of General David Patraeus who, along with a number of civilian Defense Department officials, had been working to forge an alliance of anti-al Qaeda tribal leaders in the western province. This was not the first time the group had met, but it was to be an important meeting — the last in a series that included serious negotiations about what steps the tribal leaders would take in ending the al-Anbar insurgency. “The meeting at the Mansour was to be a culmination of years of work,” an Iraqi official confirms.
In fact, the effort to recruit the Sunni tribes and turn them into an alliance against the then-still emerging Sunni resistance had begun as far back as April of 2004, when U.S. officials traveled to Amman to meet with Iraqi exiles who had contact with leaders of Sunni tribes in western Iraq. The meetings then took place in a hotel in downtown Amman and included tribal leaders and a number of “dignitaries” with ties to the former Baath government. The key leader then, according to our Iraqi sources, was Talal al-Gaaoud — a Sheik from western Iraq who subsequently and unexpectedly died of a heart ailment just two years after the Amman meeting. Fassal al-Gaood was Talal’s successor and lived in the Mansour hotel. The al-Gaood family, well-known in Anbar, has been involved in Iraqi politics and business for generations.
The bombing was immediately denounced by the Maliki government, which vowed to catch the perpetrators. Maliki himself blamed al-Qaeda for the bombing, saying that his government’s efforts to bring together tribal leaders from al Anbar posed a threat to extremist elements in the province. But American officials quickly expanded the list of suspects to include competitive tribal heads from al-Anbar and other provinces who had broken with al-Gaood and his associates. A member of the Anbar Council in Ramadi confirmed that just prior to the meeting in Baghdad al-Gaood and his associates had been dropped from the council “because they did not continue working with us” and “because they were too trusting of the Americans.” This official also confirmed that “it was well known that al-Gaood and the other tribal leaders were meeting with the Americans and the government” about “unspecified matters.”
Nor did American officials discount a government hand in the bombings — particularly as elements inside of Maliki’s government had complained that the Americans were making promises to al-Gaood on behalf of the Maliki government that “subverted the majority vote of the Iraqi people.” As one Interior Ministry official said: “We had a parliamentary election in this country and it was boycotted by the Sunnis and now the Americans wanted to reward them for doing that.” But the official denied that there was any government hand in the Mansour assassinations. Mahmoud Farhad Othman, one of Iraq’s three ministers of state, angrily denied that the government resented the American attempts to recruit the Sunni tribesmen. “This has all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda,” he told an associate, “and to suggest otherwise is pure nonsense.”
American officials are now turning their attention to a third group of suspects and have targeted Shia militia assassins as having a hand in the Mansour bombing. These investigators have told me that the first hint that Shia militiamen might have been involved came from questioning of al-Gaood aides who survived the attack — and who confirmed that they were meeting at the Mansour Hotel to brief government and American representatives on the success of their new political program in Iraq, which they had codenamed, “The Wake Up of the Tribes.” Al-Gaood and his associates believed that the same political tactics that had worked in al-Anbar could be applied by the Americans in the five Shia provinces of southern Iraq, where Shia militias had proven particularly impervious to American influence.
“The ‘wake up’ was a very effective political tactic in al-Anbar,” a government ministry official familiar with the meeting told me, “and so General Patreaus wanted his own people briefed on how it would work — and he wanted government officials there. The focus was how to apply the lessons learned in al-Anbar to the Shia areas.” That some would see the al-Gaood briefing as a challenge to the emerging power of Shia militias in the south — as well as to the Shia majority government — is something that apparently occurred to American investigators of the bombing only after other potential suspects were eliminated. “It is not exactly a secret that, in the weeks leading up to the bombing, there was a growing fear in Shia circles that the US was about the change its strategy in Iraq away from the Sunnis and starting focusing on the Shias,” a Sunni leader in the government says.
Slowly, American investigators began to piece together a presumptive case targeting the Shias as likely perpetrators of the Mansour bombing. These investigators told Iraqi authorities that, from the evidence they had gathered, there was good reason to believe that Shia leaders wanted to end the American-Anbar alliance. For instance, as they noted: in the weeks leading up to the Mansour bombing, notable figures in the Hawza (the traditional center of Shia thought) attacked the move openly. Some Imams publicly declared in their Friday speeches that the United States was conspiring to deprive the Shia of what they had achieved in the elections, while others urged Nouri al-Maliki and his government to stand firm against American meddling in Shiite affairs. Still others specifically warned Shia tribes “in the middle and in the south of Iraq” from accepting American arms “to fight the legitimate resistance to the occupation.”
But while Iraqi government officials say that the Americans have made a presumptive case for blaming anti-American Shia militias for the bombing in June, the case cannot be proven. In truth, while the high command of the U.S. military now points to al-Anbar as a “success story” — as the one place in Iraq where the U.S. has successfully recruited Sunni moderates to fight “al-Qaeda extremists” — the al-Mansour bombing has left the “Wake Up The Tribes” strategy, which was to be applied throughout the country, in tatters. The anti-al Qaeda front of al-Anbar lives on, but its leaders remain unwilling to tie their future to a continued American presence. In this, they have much in common with their Shia antagonists both in the Iraqi government, and in the tribal areas of the South. As one al-Anbar official scathingly notes: “The lesson of the Mansour bombing is simple for all to see. No one likes al-Qaeda, but no one should make the mistake of being friends with the Americans.”