In mid-October 2008, the Iraqi weekly Niqash interviewed Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleiman. The Sheikh heads one of the two main factions that make-up the Anbar Awakening. Since the assassination of Sheikh Abdl Sattar Abu Risha, the founder of the Awakening, in September 2007, the movement has split into two groups who are still allied with each other. On the one hand there is the Awakening Conference of Iraq headed by Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, the brother of Sheikh Abu Risha who took over after his death. On the other is Suleiman’s the National Salvation Front. He also heads the al-Anbar Tribal Council.
Suleiman is a prominent figure in Anbar. He heads the Dulaim tribe, and his grandfather was once one of the most powerful sheikhs in Anbar. Suleiman hopes to restore his family’s standing. He is also aligned with Sheikh Hameed Farhan al-Hayes. Hayes is one of the more boisterous tribal leaders in the province. After splitting with the Anbar Salvation Council, Hayes formed his own Awakening movement, before joining with Suleiman. Together the two have been trying to supercede the Risha family, mostly through bold statements. In August 2007 for example, Hayes offered to replace the boycotting Iraqi Accordance Front in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s cabinet. In February 2008, Hayes and Suleiman announced that the Iraqi Islamic Party, which rules Anbar, had thirty days to leave Anbar or be attacked. In turn, the Islamic Party filed libel suits against the two, and arrest warrants were issued, but never served to them.
In his interview with Niqash, Sheikh Suleiman tried to lay out his nationalist credentials, criticized the Islamic Party, and announced the end of the Awakening movement as a fighting force. First, Suleiman said that the Anbar parties stand for national unity. This has been a common theme amongst all the Awakening’s sheikhs who have promoted the group as more than just a tribal alliance in western Iraq, but as a party interested in leading the country. He confidently asserted that they would win the provincial elections in Anbar because they were responsible for securing the province and expelling Al Qaeda in Iraq. In contrast, Suleiman claimed that the Islamic Party came to power in the 2005 elections by cheating, and that they were only able to rule because they had the backing of the United States and insurgents. The sheikh also claimed that the Islamic Party had done nothing for the development of the governorate. In contrast, Suleiman promised after the voting took place and the Anbar groups came to power, that the area’s health and public services would be improved. Finally, Suleiman said that there was no more Anbar Awakening. He said that all of the Awakening fighters had joined the government’s security forces, and that the Baghdad was now in control. To continue with the nationalist rhetoric, Suleiman said that the Anbar police don’t even belong to the province, but to the nation as a whole.
Unlike the Sons of Iraq (SOI), the Anbar Awakening is an organic organization. It arose from the tribes and insurgents in western Iraq who grew tired of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Anbar groups were also different from the SOI, because when the United States military began working with them, they always acted hand in hand with the government, and had the tribal fighters integrated into the local security forces. Finally, Baghdad never voiced any strong objections to the Awakening as opposed to their constant criticism of the SOI in the rest of the country.
Suleiman is one of the new generation of sheikhs that emerged after the U.S. invasion. As reported earlier, during the Saddam period Iraq’s tribes were weak and dependent upon government patronage for their standing. U.S. military tactics in Anbar eventually offered new opportunities for the tribes, and younger sheikhs to assert their authority over older ones. Risha, Hayes, and Suleiman all grew out of this situation. They are now on the verge of attaining official status as many believe they will win the provincial elections in Anbar and unseat the Islamic Party. It will then be up to the sheikhs to prove whether they are committed to improving Anbar and the country, or whether they are only concerned about their own personal welfare. Despite the rhetoric, there are plenty of signs that they may be about the latter rather than the former.
For more on the Awakening and Anbar’s tribes see:
Finding A Historical Precedent For The Sons Of Iraq, But Not A Solution
A More Complicated Picture of Iraq’s Tribes
Anbar Under Iraqi Control, But Political Disputes Continue
Anbar Dispute Between Sunnis Growing
The Demise, But Not Death of Al Qaeda In Iraq
Ali, Fadhil, “Sunni Rivalries in al-Anbar Province Threaten Iraq’s Security,” Terrorism Focus, Jamestown Foundation, 3/11/08
Hamid, Nirmeen, “al-suleiman: awakening movement is over,” Niqash, 10/24/08
International Crisis Group, “Iraq After The Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape,” 4/30/08
Jensen, Sterling, “News From The Iraqi Awakening (Part 6),” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 10/8/08
Lynch, Marc, “Iraqi Sunnis after the Awakening,” Abu Aardvark Blog, 6/20/08
McCallister, William, “Sons of Iraq: A Study in Irregular Warfare,” Small Wars Journal, 9/8/08
Partlow, Joshua, Tyson, Ann Scott and Wright, Robin, “Bomb Kills a Key Sunni Ally of U.S.,” Washington Post, 9/14/07
Raghavan, Sudarsan, “A New Breed Grabs Reins in Anbar,” Washington Post, 10/21/08
Schneider, Howard and Wright, Robin, “Sheik Risha Killed in Bomb Attack in Iraq,” Washington Post, 9/13/07