The first time I saw Aifan Sadoun Aifan al-Issawi was at Combat Outpost (COP) Black on the outskirts of Fallujah in January 2008. By then, Iraq’s sectarian blood-letting had slowed to a trickle, thanks to a combination of the Anbar Awakening, the co-opting of fence-sitting elements of the Iraqi populace and the surge of tens of thousands of additional American forces into Iraq. U.S. troops called Sadoun “Dark,” apparently for his darker complexion. I thought we called him Dark because he was so shady.
Dark’s convoy of black armored Suburbans and dirty blue-and-white Iraqi police pickup trucks slowly curled like a cinnamon roll into COP Black’s dusty parking area. He stepped out of his Suburban like the Fertile Crescent’s version of Suge Knight – fitted gray Italian suit with a kerchief in a breast pocket, unblemished matching gray shoes and Gucci sunglasses that looked like they were stolen from J-Lo’s forehead.
A Marine muttered to me, “If you think this is ridiculous, you should see his house.” (I never did – it apparently had a koi pond by the driveway – but you can, thanks to this Agence France-Presse news video clip posted on YouTube. Notice the U.S. and Marine Corps flags on his desk. More amusing was his prized possession, a photo of him with a smiling U.S. President George W. Bush, taken when Dubya had visited Iraq in 2007.)
When I think of Iraq today, I think of Iraqis like Dark, who helped rally Sunni tribesmen across the deadly Ramadi-Fallujah corridor to revolt against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – which through murder and intimidation had worn out its welcome in western Iraq’s Anbar Province by around 2005. Dark wasn’t the most important Sunni tribesman who joined with U.S. forces to fight against AQI – that was arguably the late Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi – but he was definitely among the most interesting.
This was a nasty time, a footnote of world history that we (the royal “we”) would rather forget. Some Sunni tribes had initially welcomed foreign jihadists who went to Iraq to fight us infidels following the 2003 invasion, but their tone soured as AQI’s brutal tactics affected both Americans and Iraqis. Anbar sheikhs who defied AQI’s emirs were either killed themselves or their family members were kidnapped, tortured and maybe decapitated – their heads placed on pikes in the middle of cities as a warning to keep others in line. Deadly IEDs were emplaced not necessarily by true believers, but by Iraqis who wanted to make a quick buck, stay on AQI’s good side lest they be targeted for death next, or both.
A few tribes were successful against AQI, including Sadoun’s Albu Issa on the Fallujah Peninsula. Dark wasn’t even the paramount sheikh of the tribe – that title belonged to his aged uncle, Khamis Hasnawi al-Issawi – but he was certainly the most assertive member and served as its head of security.
Dark and his men fought alongside U.S. troops, losing dozens of family members and tribesmen, and mourning fallen Americans as he would brothers. When the fighting worsened, he and his family fled to the safety of Amman, Jordan, to join the growing Iraqi expatriate community there, but he eventually returned to Fallujah to rejoin war. The AQI attacks on him grew more vicious, including the detonation of a chlorine tanker truck near his home that killed his mother and other relatives. In return, he and his tribesmen turned up the heat on AQI, its sympathizers and their families.
Dark was no angel, and his motivations were as complicated as the tribal dynamics that criss-crossed Anbar Province. Many of the Iraqis who fought with Dark were definitely not angels – their ranks included former insurgents who had been fighting Americans just months before. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend – for the time being.
By late 2007, the tide had turned. AQI members were either dead, fled or driven underground. Violence dropped dramatically. It had become safer to drive on Route Michigan – the main highway between the sister cities of Ramadi and Fallujah – than on Interstate 95. Without real gunbattles, Dark worked to solidify his tribe’s business interests. The last time I saw him was spring 2008, when he was trying to hussle some construction contracts while complaining about not receiving enough free fuel from U.S. troops to keep his gas-guzzling fleet of Suburbans running. As peace became the new normal, Sadoun eventually became a politician, serving as a parliamentarian for the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya coalition.
In a 2009 interview for a book about the Anbar Awakening, Dark recounted the attempts on his life over the years: “Before, they tried to kill me because we fought Al Qaeda, and I am sure they will keep looking to kill me.”
On Jan. 15, they finally got him: Dark was killed while visiting a road construction site near Fallujah by a suicide bomber posing as a laborer.
Many of us expected a large amount of score settling after U.S. troops departed Iraq – the result of political rivalries, tribal feuds or payback against tribesmen who cooperated with the Americans. As my company’s intelligence cell chief said, “It’s sad, but just another instance across hundreds of years.”
Sad, but true. Pour one out for Dark. I imagine he was a scotch guy. Neat. Top shelf.