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Iraq: Sunni Groups Vie For Control Of Western Region

  • Kathleen Ridolfo

http://gdb.rferl.org/8AC1F9A4-A5D8-4CA0-9685-B1A9A4F5CAAF_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/8AC1F9A4-A5D8-4CA0-9685-B1A9A4F5CAAF_mw800_mh600.jpg The Sunni tribes' influence in Baghdad is growing (epa) Disputes are emerging in several Iraqi governorates between awakening councils and local administrators. The councils, formed by tribal leaders last year to fight Al-Qaeda, are demanding a greater role in the policing and governing of their areas.

In Al-Anbar, tribal leaders from the Al-Anbar Salvation Council have demanded seats on the governorate council, angering the Iraqi Islamic Party, which currently controls the council. Tribal leaders have threatened to take violent action against the party should their demand go unheeded.

The Islamic Party claims to be the only party authorized to govern Al-Anbar because of its participation in the December 2005 elections. The Al-Anbar Salvation Council contends that the Islamic Party bought votes in the election and is not truly representative of the region's population. The salvation council wants Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to intervene and force a new governorate election. Should the salvation council compete in local elections, it would probably attract significant support.

Tensions between the competing groups have been building for months, but worsened after the Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq), to which the Islamic Party belongs, pulled its ministers from government in August. In an apparent bid to maintain a Sunni Arab presence in government, al-Maliki offered the posts to members of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council. Al-Tawafuq reacted harshly, disparaging the qualifications of the council members and claiming they had no base of support in the governorate.

Salvation council member Ali Hatim, who is a leader of the Al-Dulaym tribe, told RFE/RL in a February 7 interview that al-Maliki's intervention is necessary because the governorate council's election commission is comprised solely of Islamic Party representatives. Under the constitution, Hatim said, the election commission should be comprised of independents. Hatim said he and salvation council head Hamid al-Hayis sent an official complaint in this regard to Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani. Should the government fail to restructure the committee, Hatim said, there will be no point in holding new elections, because they could not possibly be free and fair. "We can expect no changes," he claimed.

Regarding the Islamic Party's claim that it is the rightful representative of Iraqis living in Al-Anbar because of its election win, Hatim said: "There was no voting" because the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq controlled the streets. Rather, he claimed, the Islamic Party "hired people" to vote for it in the national election. He argued that the constitution and the law will support the salvation council's claim.

Meanwhile, Al-Anbar Salvation Council head al-Hayis told RFE/RL on February 7 that the council has launched a signature campaign in the governorate to support its complaint against the Islamic Party.

Al-Hayis said the salvation council has informed al-Mashhadani that the Islamic Party should withdraw from the governorate within 30 days, or the council will forcibly remove the party and its supporters from the governorate.

Asked if the Islamic Party did not have some right to be active in Al-Anbar, al-Hayis told RFE/RL: "They don't deserve anything. We are against giving them even one vote." In an interview with the London-based "Al-Hayat" published on February 8, al-Hayis said the tribes "fought Al-Qaeda and presented our sons to protect" the people of Al-Anbar while the Islamic Party holds all the power in the local government.

Groups Trade Accusations

Both sides have traded accusations that the other facilitated Al-Qaeda's appearance in the province. Islamic Party leader Abd al-Karim al-Samarra'i told Al-Jazeera television on February 7 that the tribesmen "are nobodies who do not have a presence or roots in Al-Anbar Governorate." He further claimed the tribesmen have "a shameful history," because they gave shelter to insurgent groups before 2007.

Al-Hayis claimed to RFE/RL that the Islamic Party was responsible for the destruction that took place in Al-Anbar since 2003. He maintained that the dispute between the council's tribes and the Islamic Party began when the tribes took on Al-Qaeda last year. When this happened, he alleged, the Islamic Party took to the airwaves and acted as if they were Osama bin Laden's lawyers.

Islamic Party member Umar Abd al-Sattar told RFE/RL on February 8 that the salvation council is not a true salvation council. The council was closed or finished by a decision of Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah before Abu Rishah was assassinated in September, Abd al-Sattar contended. He said nothing is known of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council except that it is led by Hamid al-Hayis.

"And we know that behind this council are many political sides interfering, [both] inside and outside the governorate. And we'd like from these political sides to announce themselves officially, rather than allowing people like [al-Hayis] to talk like this," Abd al-Sattar said. He described the dispute as politically based, adding, "But honestly after these remarks by al-Hayis, we are forced to take legal action against him." The party has filed lawsuits against al-Hayis in Al-Anbar and Baghdad, he said.

Regarding the current structure of the governorate council, Abd al-Sattar said: "The government knows, and the parliament knows, and the politicians know that this council was elected according to the constitution and reflects the will of the Iraqis who voted for the council. And now the problem is that other parts were not able to join the council, and they want to be a part of the political process. And they can have this in the coming [provincial] elections." He added: "I don't understand all this hate against the governorate council and against the [Islamic] Party, and I think that these [interfering] sides in a way have some connections inside the government or outside the government."

When asked to explicitly identify the parties he believed are interfering in the issue, Abd al-Sattar declined, but contended that "everyone knows who those parties are." He further claimed that the interfering parties are trying to usurp power and act as the "alternative to the Islamic Party" throughout Iraq. As their attempts are failing, he said, they have resorted to mudslinging and wild accusations against the party. Abd al-Sattar maintained, as have other members of the Islamic Party in press interviews, that al-Hayis is uneducated and does not possess any professional qualifications.

Abd al-Sattar maintained that the Islamic Party achieved many good things in recent years, and he theorized that rival Sunni groups are now trying to claim those achievements for themselves and discredit the Islamic Party, which he says enjoys broad support among the Iraqi people. He said the political process is open for all and there is room for broad participation. The Islamic Party has never tried to portray itself as the only party representative of the Sunni Arab people, he said, and the ballot box should decide who represents the people.

Regarding al-Hayis's contention that the Islamic Party brought Al-Qaeda to Al-Anbar, he said: "First of all, al-Hayis is not a sheikh [tribal leader]. Not everyone who is wearing a disdasha and iqal [traditional tribal dress] should be considered a sheikh." He said al-Hayis belongs to a tribe led by Hamid al-Turk, who is also a member of the Al-Anbar administrative institution.

He said the Islamic Party is the main threat to Al-Qaeda in the governorate. While the Islamic Party was fighting Al-Qaeda, al-Hayis and his comrades were sitting in their houses. When they realized that Al-Qaeda would be defeated, they came out and claimed the victory as their own. "So, when al-Hayis says he has proof that the Islamic Party supported Al-Qaeda in Al-Anbar, we respond by saying we have thousands of documents and pictures proving that we are the enemy of Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda is our enemy," Abd al-Sattar said. "We say that the person [al-Hayis] who is talking like this, is he a government official, like a president or a prime minister or a minister of defense or interior? Or is he even is a mayor or governor of a provincial council? Or is he even a tribal leader or a political party leader? This person who said that and accused the Islamic Party of having a connection with Al-Qaeda -- this declaration is clear proof that al-Hayis has the connection to Al-Qaeda and militias, and he is the head of them. Therefore, this is inciting terrorism."

Changed Landscape Requires Political Revision

Beneath the accusations and rhetoric from competing interests in Al-Anbar, one thing is clear: the changing security landscape requires political groups that came to power through the 2005 elections to accommodate the new reality, represented by tribal councils that boycotted the elections but have since voiced a desire to participate in government. Similar power-sharing disputes, though different in shape, have erupted in governorates across Iraq, from Diyala to Al-Qadisiyah, Babil, and Kirkuk.

While the Al-Anbar Salvation Council's threat of force against the Islamic Party is counterproductive, it's desire for a role in the governance of Al-Anbar needs to be understood. After all, one of Prime Minister al-Maliki's key goals is to forge national reconciliation.

Under the current governance construct, both in Baghdad and in the governorates, political and security power remain in the hands of a select group or sect that is hardly representative of the population under its control.

Under the draft governorates' law, provincial elections are slated to be held on October 1 (the elections should have been held last year). Those elections, if held in a free and fair environment, would likely rebalance the system. However, it remains unclear whether governorate elections could be organized and executed by the end of the year.

Moreover, the anticipation of an election does not appear enough to satisfy, at least in Al-Anbar, groups hungry for a say in local governance. Should Baghdad fail to respond to the emerging crisis, it could face a severe setback to the security gains of the past year.
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