Anbar province was once one of the most violent and volatile regions of Iraq, accounting for hundreds of U.S. casualties. On Monday, however, the province — quieted by the U.S. military in alliance with Sunni tribal sheiks, the so-called Sunni Awakening or Sahwa movement — was turned back to Iraqi government rule.
Washington may be glad to hand over the formerly al-Qaeda infested area and the Shi'te dominated government in Baghdad happy to receive it. But not everyone is celebrating. A leader of the Awakening movement narrows his eyes and tightens his jaw at the idea of the U.S. hand-over. "We wanted it to be postponed but the decision had already been made by the government and we cannot change it," says Sheikh Mohammad Mahmood al Natah, the spokesperson for the Awakening Council. The hand-over, originally scheduled for June, took place on Monday, making Anbar the 11th of Iraq's 18 provinces, and the first Sunni region, to return to the central government's control. It's a measure of the growing security gains in the war-scarred country, but simmering intra-Sunni tensions in Anbar are bubbling.
Only a handful of the 40 or so Awakening leaders attended the ceremony in Ramadi, a snub that Sheikh Natah says was intended as a clear message to the government. At heart is a power struggle between the Awakening council and the Iraqi Islamic Party, made up of Sunni exiles who are allied with the Shi'ite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The party holds 36 of the Anbar council's 41 seats. Those posts are up for grabs if a slow-moving electoral law is approved by Iraq's bickering parliamentarians and the provincial elections that were slated for October take place later this year.
Unlike the last time around in 2005, the Sunni tribal elders are eager to contest the polls, and say they wanted U.S. troops to remain in Anbar until after the elections to help ensure a free and fair ballot. They also want their key ally, police chief Major General Tareq Youssef al A'sal al Dulaimi, reinstated to the position he was ousted from just a few days ago. (Dulaimi was removed for unspecified "administrative" reasons.) The Awakening members say Dulaimi's sudden removal, which was approved by the Interior Ministry, has cemented their fears that their local Sunni rivals in the Iraqi Islamic Party are maneuvering to gain control of Anbar's 28,000-strong police force and purge it of tribal loyalists.
They say Dulaimi's replacement, Riad al Karboole (who will his assume his duties after the hand-over) is an Islamic Party man, and they fear the police force will be infiltrated by their extremist Sunni enemies. "If the Islamic Party continues to pressure the government to remove the Awakening members from the security forces ... then there is a high likelihood that Anbar will return to violence," Sheikh Natah says.
The Iraqi Islamic Party dismisses the sheikhs' concerns. "Some people make accusations without solid evidence," says Omar Abdul-Sattar, a parliamentarian and the Islamic Party spokesman. Abdul-Sattar says that the decision to remove Dulaimi was a done deal between all of the various factions in Anbar, including the tribes, as well as the central government. "This is old talk, Tareq al A'sal has been replaced by consensus," he says.
But the Awakening members don't see it that way. "The tribes are angry with the government's decision," says Colonel Jubeir Rashid, the security adviser to the Awakening Council and a member of the Anbar police force. Tribal elders see Dulaimi's removal as part of a wider government crackdown against the Awakening Council and the Sons of Iraq, the 100,000-strong, largely Sunni former militiamen who are each paid a monthly stipend of $300 by the U.S. to help keep the peace. In the past few weeks, the Iraqi army has moved against the groups in Diyala province, detaining several leaders, and disarming and dismantling several of their checkpoints. There are reportedly plans to detain hundreds of Sons of Iraq members in the coming weeks.
Anbar's tribal leaders say they feel threatened. "Our reward for defeating Al Qaeda is that we've been sidelined," says Sheikh Hamid al Hayess, a senior member of the movement. "We are sensing a change toward us," says Colonel Rashid. "The government should help us, not try to break us with its decisions."
7 months ago