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Sunni Rivalries Threaten Iraq's Local Elections

Armed relatives and tribe members protect the road during a funeral procession for deputy Ayfan Saadun al-Essawi of the Al-Iraqiyah bloc in the western town of Fallujah on January 16. Essawi was killed by a suicide bomber.
Violence is rising again in parts of Iraq that are dominated by the country's Sunni minority.

But whereas disputes between Sunnis and Iraq's Shi'a majority were the underlying cause in years past, experts are attributing the latest violence to a power struggle within the Sunni community.

And this time the violence includes a wave of political assassinations that are disrupting upcoming local elections and threatens to destabilize the entire country.

So far 11 candidates -- all of them Sunni Muslims -- have been assassinated in the run-up to the April 20 vote.

Six slain candidates were members of Al-Iraqiyah -- the secular, mostly Sunni-backed political bloc within Shi'a Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's governing coalition.

'Real Fragmentation'

Yahya al-Qubaisi, a political analyst at the Iraqi Center for Strategic Studies in Amman, sees a link between the violence and the disintegration of Al-Iraqiyah -- which has been plagued by defections since Sunnis launched daily mass demonstrations against Maliki's government in late December.

"This wave of violence shows there is a real fragmentation of Sunni unity," Qubaisi says. "We are now talking about a security situation that is different than the sectarian fighting in 2007, when there were groups fighting against the government and against those who cooperated with the government. We now have two main groups in the Sunni community and they both accept the political process. But each one wants to be the sole representative of the Sunnis within the government and within the provincial councils."

The recent defections from Al-Iraqiyah have ravaged the bloc's clout in Baghdad, leaving its power dispersed across three different political factions.

Sunni Muslims take part in a demonstration against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Fallujah on April 5.
Sunni Muslims take part in a demonstration against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Fallujah on April 5.
In Anbar Province, the power struggle also has divided Sunni tribal leaders who once fought together against Al-Qaeda as part of the U.S.-funded Awakening Councils.

On one side of the Anbar rift are tribal leaders with ties to Sunni militias that Maliki has incorporated into the central government's security forces.

On the other side are politicians and tribal leaders who feel sidelined by the Shi'ite dominated government. Like most of the 11 assassinated Sunni candidates, they support the growing anti-Maliki protests.

The Sunni protesters accuse Maliki of using Iraq's antiterrorism laws to unfairly target his Sunni political rivals and consolidate his power.

They are calling for Maliki's ouster, the release of Sunni prisoners, and the scrapping of Iraq's constitution.

'Especially Complicated Case'

"Today, the political conflict has become very rough -- especially between politicians within the Al-Iraqiyah bloc and especially in Anbar Province," says Watheq al-Hashimi, who heads the Center for Strategic Studies in Baghdad. "The security situation remains a very big problem facing the government and the Iraqi people. But in Anbar it has become an especially complicated case because of the presence of Al-Qaeda fighters there and [rebel Syria fighters] from the Syrian Free Army. Now we see how the different voices in Anbar reveal the extent of the fragmentation there."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
One influential Sunni tribal leader in Anbar who supports Maliki's government is Sheik Hamid al-Hayes. He was the deputy leader of Anbar's Awakening Council when it was created in 2006 to fight against Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Hayes tells RFE/RL that the rift within the Anbar Awakening began to form in September 2007 after the movement's founding leader, Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, was killed by a roadside bomb near his Ramadi home.

Hayes blames the rift on Abu Risha's brother, Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, who took over as the group's leader.

"The problem with Ahmed is that he was not one of the founders," Hayes says, "and all he did was to take over from his late brother. He alienated many founders who had greater experience in the Awakenings' affairs. He moved toward Islamism and showed support for the [anti-Maliki] demonstrators, who include terrorists and militant religious figures. In contrast, we are civilians without such leanings."

Rival Fighters

Both Hayes and another Anbar Awakening founder, Wisam al-Hardan, have split from the movement due to their differences with Ahmed Abu Risha.

Hayes formed his own political group and has joined Maliki's National Coalition.

His older brother, Muhammed al-Hayes, now leads more than 3,000 fighters in Ramadi who are part of a Sunni militia called The Sons of Iraq. They each are paid $400 a month by the Baghdad government and operate under the auspices of Iraq's Defense and Interior ministries.

Hardan has become the leader of another Awakening group -- the Iraqi Awakening -- which also supports Maliki.

That means there are now rival Awakening fighters in Anbar Province -- some that support Maliki's government and some who oppose it.

Iraq's Electoral Commission has reacted to the assassinations in Anbar and Ninevah Province by recommending the local elections be postponed there until May 16.

But that has political observers concerned that more Sunni candidates will be killed before the ballots are cast.

Written and reported by Ron Synovitz, with additional reporting by Radio Free Iraq correspondents Moyad al-Haidari and Samira Ali Mandee