Rift threatens U.S. antidote to Al Qaeda in Iraq

Growing divisions among pro-US Sunni tribal chiefs threatens to unravel American gains against Al Qaeda.

Sam Dagher
Target: Sheikh Ali al-Hatem (l.), a leader in the Awakening Movement, escaped a twin car bombing in Baghdad Monday that killed 22 people.
Sam Dagher
Sheikh Hatem: Increasingly at odds with other pro-US sheikhs.

The tribal rebellion among Sunni Arabs against Al Qaeda in Anbar Province, which later spread to Baghdad and other parts of the country, is by all accounts the crown jewel of US achievements in Iraq over the past year.

But now the Sahwa (Awakening) Movement is under growing assault on multiple fronts, threatening to undo many of the American military's recent security gains.

While Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) insurgents have been hitting it hard in a campaign of increasing attacks, the movement's leaders are also pushing for a greater voice in the government, a move that has tangled them within Baghdad's notoriously vicious political scene.

At least 147 members of militias within this movement, now called Sons of Iraq instead of Concerned Local Citizens (CLC) by the US, have been killed in attacks attributed to Al Qaeda since October, according to Iraq Body Count, a website that tracks Iraqi deaths in the war.

One of the Sahwa founders, Sheikh Ali al-Hatem, escaped Monday what he said was the sixth attempt on his life. The movement's driving force, Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, was killed in September.

In Baquba, north of Baghdad, sectarian pressure is hampering the movement. Hundreds of Sahwa militiamen protested Monday to demand that the provincial police chief, a Shiite, be fired for sanctioning alleged crimes against Sunnis within the province. The protesters threatened to quit their jobs as neighborhood guards, paid mainly by the US.

Iraq's Shiite-led government has also delayed drafting Sahwa members into the police and Army. Only 10 percent of the 77,000 Sahwa members have been accepted for training for police and Army jobs. Of those, 490 have completed training, according to a US-led coalition spokesman, Rear Adm. Greg Smith.

A political awakening

The greatest enemy of the relatively young Sahwa movement may be growing and bitter rivalries from within.

On Tuesday, Sheikh Abdul-Sattar's brother and successor, Sheikh Ahmed, huddled in Anbar Province's capital, Ramadi, with other chieftains poised to announce a new party, "Sahwat al-Iraq" (Iraq's Awakening). The party would take part in upcoming provincial elections, according to his deputy, Sheikh Abdul-Karim Yussif.

Sheikh Ahmed has already forged an alliance in Anbar with Iraq's top Sunni party, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, and was named as a possible minister within Mr. Hashemi's Sunni bloc should it return to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. It has boycotted the government since August.

Notably absent from Tuesday's meeting was Sheikh Hatem, who regards himself as the rightful chief of Sahwa. He has assailed Hashemi for trying to hijack the movement to serve what he calls the IIP's corrupt goals in Anbar. He has even accused the party of maintaining links to Al Qaeda. IIP officials deny those charges.

"More dangerous than Al Qaeda are the political parties that continue to support Al Qaeda.… Al Qaeda is a convenient scapegoat for a lot of things.… It's open war against our enemies and our response will be swift," Hatem said Monday, hours after a truck bomber rammed into the parking lot of his Baghdad office, killing six of his guards and wounding 20. Minutes later a second car bomb exploded nearby. The combined death toll was 22.

Sheikh Hatem's way

A week before the bombings at Hatem's compound, soldiers and policemen guarded the building on a leafy street in Jadriyah district of Baghdad. The sheikh arrived in a shiny new white SUV as part of a teeming convoy. He descended from the driver's seat clutching a holster belt holding his pistol.

In a testament to what he describes as his impeccable tribal credentials, the walls of Hatem's office are covered with black-and-white photos of his ancestors, including his great-grandfather, Sheikh Ali al-Sulieman, the so-called prince of Anbar's Dulaim tribal confederation, who is believed to have helped the British in installing a monarchy in Iraq in 1921.

Hatem, wearing a navy blazer over his traditional tribal dress, eschews the niceties of classical Arabic in favor of Iraqi slang.

He says that Al Qaeda isn't the only group that wants to diminish the growing power of the Sahwa Movement. He believes the ruling Shiite political parties are increasingly nervous about its rising assertiveness. And, he says, Sunni political parties see it as serious competition.

The Sahwa Movement, he says, began with a conference of 12 tribal sheikhs, including himself and the late Abdul-Sattar, in early 2006. They all pledged to fight the brutality of Al Qaeda, which had sought to overpower the Anbari tribes. He proudly recounts how he himself used to execute captured Al Qaeda operatives, many of whom were members of his own tribe.

He says Abdul-Sattar went out of his way to please the Americans and committed the "ultimate tribal faux pas by meeting with President Bush" during his visit to Anbar without consulting other tribal elders.

"People were upset when the Americans gave such prominence to Sattar although there were others who were more deserving. There are leaders that took the fight to Al Qaeda," says Hatem. As he gestures, a diamond-studded wrist-watch appears under the cuff of his finely embroidered tribal robe.

Hatem was among the leaders of the executive body of the Anbar Salvation Council, which predates today's version of the movement, but that body was dissolved by Abdul-Sattar before his death.

Now, he claims, Iraqi Vice President Hashemi is attempting to undermine the movement by joining forces with Sheikh Ahmed. The vice president's real goal, he says, is to bolster his standing among Sunni Arabs and gaining a hand in lucrative Anbar contracts.

"We will not allow the rebellion of the tribes to be stolen and used by others to make them look good; we want the victory for the Iraqi people."

The US military would not comment on Hatem's charges, but said there is no one pot of money for Anbar. Funds come from the Iraqi government, development funds, and US military's Commanders Emergency Response Program.

As for the challenges besetting Sahwa and whether it would hurt the US mission, it said: "It will take more time and effort to build trust between the different stakeholders."

Web of competing interests

Saad al-Hadithi, a professor of political thought at Baghdad University, says Hatem is upset because he may not have benefited as much as he would have liked from reconstruction money. But, he says, his outbursts will undermine his credibility because "this is the style of militias and warlords."

Omar Abdul-Sattar, a senior IIP leader and member of the National Assembly from Anbar Province, laughs off the charges that his party is corrupt. "There are people that are trying to find an alternative to the Islamic Party but they will never succeed."

In fact, the position of Hashemi's Sunni bloc, of which the IIP has the largest share, has been greatly bolstered by its new allies among the Sahwa in its negotiations with the government.

"We have a common goal," says Mr. Abdul-Sattar.

As to when the Sunnis might return to the government, that could take months, he says. "Each side is betting it can hold out longer."

The Sunnis want a sweeping amnesty for prisoners and more representation in the security forces, among other demands.

Maliki's adviser, Sami al-Askari, says the prime minister will not agree to head a new government unless he's given more powers to choose his cabinet, and says current ministers were imposed on him by party bosses according to a sectarian formula.

Commenting on the political impasse, London-based Iraq analyst Ghassan Attiyah, who opposes the current political order, sums it up this way: "All the Americans did was buy the Iraqi government some time. The fact that fewer people are dying now does not change the reality that this is a dysfunctional state that can easily slip back into civil war."

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