Once the visit was concluded, we headed back for Fallujah and had a late night snack at Sheik Aifan's place before settling in for a night's sleep as his guest. His daughter, a shy girl of perhaps seven years of age, sat beside him as we ate. At one point, he suddenly peeled a crisp U.S. $100 bill off a wad of bills that would have stunned any movie mafia boss, smiled benevolently, and added that she shouldn't let her mother know about the gift.
The sheik, of course, had $100 bills to spare, as millions of dollars for so-called construction projects have been funneled his way. It's how he pays the roughly 900 men that he estimates make up his private militia. For all of this he can thank the U.S. military, which delivers regular installments of money -- shrink-wrapped bricks of those $100 bills -- because post-invasion Iraq remains largely a cash-only economy.
Before our journey to Ramadi, a patrol of U.S. Marines had paid Sheik Aifan a visit. As the soldiers climbed the stairs to his meeting room, they took clips of ammunition away from the sheik's security team, and kept them until they left his compound. It was a gentle reminder of who still has the final say in this part of Iraq and of just how far the trust extends between these partners of necessity.
Iraq: Never forgive and never forget those who took us there.