QAYYARAH, Iraq -- Sheik Horn floated around the room in white robe and headdress, exchanging pleasantries with dozens of village leaders.
He was the only sheik with blond streaks in his mustache, and the only one who had attended Toby Keith's recent country-music concert in Baghdad with fellow US soldiers.
Officially, he is Staff Sergeant Dale L. Horn of the US Army, but to those in the 37 villages and towns that he patrols, he is 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 that esteemed position came through dry humor and the military's effort to clamp down on rocket attacks.
Late last year, a full-blown battle between insurgents and US and Iraqi forces had erupted, and US commanders assigned a unit to stop rocket and mortar attacks that regularly hit their base. Horn, who had been trained to operate radars for a field artillery unit, now had been thrust into a job that hinged largely on coaxing locals into divulging information about insurgents.
Horn, 25, a native of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., acknowledged that he had little interest in the region before coming.
But a local sheik friendly to US forces, Dr. Mohammed Ismail Ahmed, explained the inner workings of rural Iraqi society on one of Horn's first Humvee patrols.
Horn said he was intrigued, and started making a point of stopping by all the villages to talk to people about their life and security problems.
Moreover, he pressed for development projects: He now boasts that he helped to funnel $136,000 in aid to the area. Part of that paid for delivery of clean water to 30 villages during the broiling summer. ''They saw that we were interested in them, instead of just taking care of the bases," Horn said.
Mohammed, Horn's mentor, suggested at a meeting of village leaders that Horn be named a sheik. The sheiks approved by voice vote, 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, a recommendation that Horn's spouse in Florida vetoed.
All this may have started as a joke among crusty village elders. But it has sprouted into something serious: 100 to 200 village leaders now meet with Horn each month to discuss security issues.
Horn does not take his responsibilities lightly. Lately, he has prodded the Iraqi Education Ministry to pay local teachers, and he follows a pipeline project that he hopes will ensure the steady flow of clean water to his villages.