Officials play down post-election threats
February 25, 2009
RAMADI, Iraq — Iraqi and U.S. military officials say they don’t expect an outbreak of violence when Anbar’s new provincial government is seated in coming weeks, despite threats by some political parties in the days after the Jan. 31 election to take up arms.
Several U.S. military officials said the threats were bluster and were culturally-based.
"I’m not really that worried about it, to be honest," said Marine Col. John Love, commander of Regimental Combat Team 8. He called the politicians’ calls to arms "mostly rhetoric."
He said he thought "there’s naturally going to be some dissent and some adjustments, but it’s their first time going through this."
Anbar was violence-free during Iraq’s elections for provincial councils, which is similar to U.S. state legislatures. International observers said the elections were largely fair and well-run. But in the days afterward, leaders of the Awakening, including Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, threatened to reestablish an "armed wing" to contest the election results.
They accused a rival party of stuffing ballot boxes and reporting inflated results. They accused the rival party, the Iraqi Islamic Party — which currently holds leadership of the provincial government — of being a front organization for al-Qaida in Iraq.
"I can assure you that the people of Anbar are just like a volcano now," one Sunni party leader said at the time. "We are sitting on top of it to prevent an eruption."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent a representative to calm the brewing crisis, and tempers reportedly waned.
Love said he met in February with 13 of the region’s 16 lead sheiks, who pledged to subdue any uprisings within their tribes.
In Ramadi, the provincial capital, Lt. Col. Thad Trapp, commader of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, said the United States is prepared for but not worried about potential violence when the new government is seated. No date has been set for that seating yet.
He said a prominent sheik and political leader threatened on television soon after the election to resort to violence. A few days later, the same man reappeared on television and said his party should use the ballot to regain control, Trapp said.
"It’s largely bluster. It’s saving face. It’s establishing a position of dominance," Trapp said. "The Iraqis understand that. They hear that on the news, and don’t think literally ‘blood on the street.’ They think, ‘He’s pissed off, and is saying so on TV.’ "
Rahim Khalaf Mohammed al Aethowi, vice president of the North Ramadi city council, also said he didn’t expect violence, and the people making the threats were trying to get attention.
"It’s only talking," he said. "It’s lying."
Seeming to bear that out, protestors didn’t show up in Ramadi for a planned demonstration on Tuesday against the election results.
In Rutbah, about a 45-minute drive from the Syrian border, Mayor Qasim Marai Awwad said he believes there was cheating among election officials. But cheating happens all over the world, and he doesn’t expect violence because of it.
Robert Kerr, team leader of Anbar’s provincial reconstruction team, said the people who made the threats have since said they will follow peaceful procedures.
"I think perhaps it was a little bit of hoopla, a little bit of bluster," said Kerr, who works at Al Asad Air Base.
Anbar was once one of the most violent regions in Iraq, but officials say it is now largely free of al-Qaida insurgents — or at least, free of militants willing to make attacks.
It’s the same tribal groups are now squabbling over the political process that helped bring the security gains. The Awakening, as it became known, was the first large-scale move by tribes and clans to work with the Americans against militants.
Kerr said he worries more about individual cells of insurgents than a larger al-Qaida presence.
"There really don’t seem to be any pockets of popular resistance," he said. "I think the general feeling is, as long as we have al-Qaida on the run, as long as you have peace and stability — police, courts — I think the province will continue to move forward."