QAYYARAH, Iraq — Sheik Horn floats around the room in white robe and headdress, exchanging pleasantries with dozens of village leaders.
But he’s the only sheik with blonde streaks in his mustache — and the only one who attended country music star Toby Keith’s recent concert in Baghdad with fellow U.S. soldiers.
Officially, he’s Army Staff Sgt. Dale L. Horn, but to residents of the 37 villages and towns that he patrols, he’s known as the American sheik.
Sheiks, or village elders, are known as the real power in rural Iraq. And the 5-foot-6-inch Floridian’s ascension to the esteemed position came through dry humor and the military’s need to clamp down on rocket attacks.
Late last year, a full-blown battle between insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi forces had erupted, and U.S. commanders assigned a unit to stop rocket and mortar attacks that regularly hit their base. Sgt. Horn, who had been trained to operate radars for a field artillery unit, was thrust into a job that largely hinged on coaxing locals into divulging information about insurgents.
Sgt. Horn, 25, a native of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., acknowledges he had little interest in the region before coming here. But a local sheik friendly to U.S. forces, Mohammed Ismail Ahmed, explained the inner workings of rural Iraqi society on one of Sgt. Horn’s first Humvee patrols.
Sgt. Horn says he was intrigued, and started making a point of stopping by all the villages, all but one dominated by Sunni Arabs, to talk with people about their life and security problems.
Moreover, he pressed for development projects in the area. He boasts that he helped funnel $136,000 worth of aid into the area. Part of that paid for delivery of clean water to 30 villages during the broiling summer months.
“They saw that we were interested in them, instead of just taking care of the bases,” Sgt. Horn said.
Sheik Ahmed, Sgt. Horn’s mentor and known for his dry sense of humor, eventually suggested during a meeting of village leaders that Sgt. Horn be named a sheik. The sheiks approved by voice vote, Sgt. Horn said.
Some sheiks later gave him five sheep and a postage stamp of land, fulfilling some of the requirements for sheikdom. Others encouraged him to start looking for a second wife, which Sgt. Horn’s spouse back in Florida immediately vetoed.
But what may have started as a joke among crusty village elders has sprouted into something serious enough for 100 to 200 village leaders to meet with Sgt. Horn each month to discuss security issues.
And Sgt. Horn doesn’t take his responsibilities lightly. He lately has been prodding the Iraqi Education Ministry to pay local teachers, and he closely follows a water-pipeline project that he hopes will ensure the steady flow of clean water to his villages.
“Ninety percent of the people in my area are shepherds or simple townspeople,” said Sgt. Horn. “They simply want to find a decent job to make enough money to provide food and a stable place for their people to live.”
To Sgt. Horn’s commanders, his success justifies his unorthodox approach: No rockets have hit their base in the past half year.
“He has developed a great relationship with local leaders,” said Lt. Col. Bradley Becker, who commands the 2nd Battalion, 8th Field Artillery Regiment. “They love him. They’re not going to let anyone shoot at Sheik Horn.”
He has even won occasional exemption from the military dress code — villagers provide a changing room where he can change from desert camouflage to robes upon arrival.
There are downsides. In his small trailer on base, Sgt. Horn that keeps antibiotics to take after unhygienic village meals.
“I still refuse to kiss him,” joked Col. Becker, referring to the cheek-kissing greetings exchanged among sheiks.
Sgt. Horn acknowledges that some villagers are offended at seeing a foreign soldier in clothing usually reserved for elders, but he says this has diminished over time.
The sheiks told Sgt. Horn they will give him an official document deeming him a sheik before he goes home in about two months. He plans to frame it.
And the robe? “Maybe I’ll put it in the closet and wear it on occasion,” Sgt. Horn said.