Growing rivalries between Sunni factions in Iraq’s al-Anbar province threaten the gains made by local “Awakening Councils” working in cooperation with U.S. forces against al-Qaeda gunmen. Leading tribal shaykhs in the province have demanded the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) leave the province within days. The IIP is the largest Sunni political party and a part of the governing coalition of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. More than 95% of al-Anbar’s roughly one-million-strong population is Sunni Muslim.
Al-Anbar province was the original launching pad for the insurgency in Iraq five years ago. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime was a historic blow to the Sunni tribes that live along the Euphrates valley. In addition to smuggling goods across the borders with Syria and Jordan, the tribesmen of al-Anbar depended on the Sunni-run governments that ruled the country since its independence in 1921 for employment and investment opportunities. Many tribesmen joined the army and become officers and commanders, while others were successful in the contracting field where the central government was the primary employer.
Most of al-Anbar province—which comprises nearly one-third of Iraq’s total area—is desert except for narrow strips of fertile land along the Euphrates River. Unlike many parts of the Shiite south and the Kirkuk region in the north, no oil has been discovered in al-Anbar. Since the early days of the invasion, the Syrian border with al-Anbar was a gateway for al-Qaeda-affiliated foreign fighters. In 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) declared the existence of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) with a parade in the center of the city of al-Ramadi, capital of al-Anbar (al-Hayat, October 19, 2006; al-Ghad, October 19, 2006).
Yet it was in the same al-Anbar province where a story of success emerged. In October 2006, the late Shaykh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha—assassinated in September 2007—launched his anti-al-Qaeda “awakening” movement, known in the province as Sahwat al-Anbar. Soon Abu Risha’s armed tribesmen were collecting U.S. pay and fighting against AQI. In a few months this movement succeeded in driving al-Qaeda out of al-Anbar. This was the first major achievement of the surge and inspiration from the story of Abu Risha and his men spread throughout the Sunni areas and communities of Iraq. Tribal shaykhs in the provinces of Salah al-Din, Diyala and in the Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad followed the example of Abu Risha, taking out the strongholds of al-Qaeda in their areas one by one.
In al-Anbar today there are three main tribal leaders—each one of them leading a movement supported by the United States and opposed to al-Qaeda:
• Shaykh Ahmad Abu Risha has succeeded his brother as the head of the Anbar Salvation Council, which has formed a political wing. Shaykh Ahmad has been following the same policy as his brother with some success in securing his area after defeating al-Qaeda. Abu Risha is part of the Albu Risha clan of the Dulaim tribe, which dominates al-Anbar.
• Ali Hatam al-Sulaiman is the head of al-Anbar Tribal Council and the Grand Shaykh of al-Dulaim. Al-Sulaiman is also called “the prince of al-Dulaim”—during the first half of the 20th century, his grandfather was the most powerful shaykh in the province, still known as al-Dulaim province at that time. Al-Sulaiman’s ambition is to revive the old glory of his family.
• Shaykh Hamid Farhan al-Hayis was expelled from the Anbar Salvation Council by Abdul Sattar Abu Risha only a few weeks before the latter’s death. After forming his own Awakening movement, he allied himself with Shaykh al-Sulaiman. Their stances have been very close ever since.
The IIP was the only Sunni group to participate in the political process in post-war Iraq. When many of the Awakening tribesmen were still part of the insurgency, the Islamic party was the only significant power in the provincial election of January 2005. Today, the governor of al-Anbar, the majority of council members and even the electoral commission in the province are members of the IIP. The party is headed by Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi and is the main power in the Sunni parliamentary and governmental bloc of the Tawafuq (Accord) Front—a coalition of the IIP, the Iraqi National Dialogue Council and the General Council for the People of Iraq.
After their emergence and victories, the Awakening movements started to seek political representation. Six months after the Tawafuq Front withdrew from the cabinet of Prime Minister al-Maliki—following political disagreements in August 2007—Shaykh al-Hayis called on al-Tawafuq to rejoin the cabinet, condemning what he described as their “closed-minded policies and radical stances.” Al-Hayis even offered candidates from his own movement to fill the vacancies in al-Maliki’s cabinet (Aswat al-Iraq, February 17).
In al-Anbar the conflict between the shaykhs and the IIP erupted when the Iraqi parliament issued the provincial election law last month. With an election expected in a few months, both Shaykh al-Hayis and his ally Shaykh al-Sulaiman escalated their confrontation with the IIP, accusing the party’s members of dominating official posts, including the electoral commission. In mid-February they gave the IIP a 30-day notice to withdraw its members from al-Anbar; otherwise they threatened to take arms against the IIP and its allies. Al-Hayis and al-Sulaiman refused the call of Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi to form a “council of wise men” to solve these internal rivalries (al-Hayat, February 22).
The IIP fought back by filing a lawsuit after al-Hayis described it as “the political wing of al-Qaeda” (Heyet.net, February 12). The Supreme Council of Judiciary issued an arrest warrant against the two shaykhs. Al-Sulaiman replied that he did not receive a copy of the warrant and accused the IIP of using the “tactics of cowards.” He renewed his threat and reminded his rivals that there were only two weeks left for the IIP partisans to leave al-Anbar.
Shaykh Ahmad Abu Risha, the head of the most powerful Awakening group, distanced himself from the stance of the other two shaykhs by saying that the accusations leveled by al-Hayis reflected only his personal opinion but not the feelings of the people and tribes of al-Anbar (al-Yaum.com, February 27).
IIP leader Tariq al-Hashimi expressed gratitude for Abu Risha’s support. Al-Hashimi bounced back on another front as well, showing the nation-wide power of his party when he met a delegation of tribal shaykhs from the predominantly Sunni province of Salah al-Din. During his address, al-Hashimi called for more Sunni tribal fighters to join the Iraqi police and armed forces (al-Hashimi.org, March 6).
Any escalation in hostilities between the IIP and the shaykhs of the Awakening Councils needs to be contained. A military confrontation will definitely threaten the improvement in al-Anbar’s security that has been achieved through the shared and difficult efforts of the Iraqi Sunnis. Unless the Iraqi Shiite-led government and the U.S. Army intervene effectively to solve this situation, this tension might turn into a Sunni-Sunni civil war. The deterioration at any level of the security situation in al-Anbar gives a precious opportunity to al-Qaeda in Iraq to regain its bases in the province and overturn the gains of the so far successful “surge” strategy.