Political rift divides Sunnis in Anbar Province

Email|Print| Text size + By Alexandra Zavis
Los Angeles Times / January 6, 2008

RAMADI, Iraq - From a podium decked in flowers and the Iraqi flag, a Sunni Muslim sheik in a pinstriped suit politely welcomed the Shi'ite guests who had driven up from Baghdad, before launching into a tirade about the lack of jobs and essential services in this former insurgent bastion.

The focus of his anger, however, was not the Shi'ite-led national government, but fellow Sunni Arabs on the Anbar provincial council.

Anbar is the success story of the US strategy to combat the insurgency from the ground up by striking alliances with local leaders. But although the tribal sheiks' rebellion against the militants they once backed has calmed the region and opened the door to political dialogue with Iraq's majority Shi'ites, it has deepened divisions among Sunnis.

As the violence has faded, an argument has been raging over who speaks for Iraq's Sunni Arab minority: the province's largely secular and fiercely independent tribal leaders who resisted the US invasion or the main Sunni political party, an Islamist group led by former exiles who cooperated with the Americans from the start.

In slightly more than a year, Anbar's sheiks have helped accomplish what US military might, and endless rounds of political negotiations, could not: driving out the extremists who had flourished in Iraq's western desert since the invasion in 2003. Pockets of resistance remain in Anbar, but the US command says many of the Sunni insurgents, now allied with Al Qaeda in Iraq, are seeking new sanctuaries north of Baghdad.

Now, the sheiks say, it's payback time. They want more schools, better healthcare, clean water, and reliable electricity for their war-ravaged province. They want jobs for their followers. And above all, they want a stake in government for their Iraqi Awakening Conference movement.

"Anbar is a tribal society, and the Awakening came from the tribes," said Sheik Ahmed abu Risha, who succeeded his slain brother, Abdul-Sattar abu Risha, at the helm of the movement in September.

The sheiks accuse the Iraqi Islamic Party, which controls the local councils in most Sunni areas, of hijacking development funds and monopolizing jobs for their own supporters.

"There is corruption up to here," Sheik Hameed Farhan Hays said, raising his hand to his forehead, after delivering his speech during a recent visit by a representative of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

Leaders of the Iraqi Islamic Party countered that the sheiks had only themselves to blame for boycotting the 2005 elections that ushered in representative government in Iraq. And they challenged the sheiks to take their accusations of corruption to court.

Whether true or not, the accusations underscore the mistrust between the two sides. For now, it is a war of words. But some worry that the dispute could escalate.

Saleh Mutlak, who heads a rival Sunni political group that has joined forces with the Islamic Party in parliament, said the sheiks asked him to convey a message to his allies.

"Unless there is a solution . . . then we will use our guns to displace the Islamic Party from Anbar," he quoted the sheiks as telling him.

US officials play down the danger posed by the power struggle, noting that the province is recording its lowest level of violence since the war began. But they say such conflicts underscore the need for new elections to decide who controls Iraq's provinces.

With most Sunnis boycotting the January 2005 vote, the Islamic Party won control of the governing council - and the $170 million budget - in overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar with the participation of less than 5 percent of voters. The sheiks say the low level of support is grounds for new elections.

Iyad Samarrai, the Islamic Party's secretary-general, said he was as unhappy about the vote as they are. The boycott gave the majority Shi'ites and ethnic Kurds a disproportionate share of provincial council seats in mixed parts of the country, as well as in the national parliament.

More Sunnis voted in the December 2005 parliamentary polls, which eased the imbalance at the national level, but new provincial elections have been postponed pending agreement on a law setting out the relationship between national and regional governments. The bill is one of several key power-sharing measures that have stalled in parliament.

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