U.S. officials hope Anbar province will set example
June 18, 2008
RAMADI, Iraq — In many ways, a win by the Awakening in fall elections would seem to ratify what has already played out in Anbar: the resurgence of the tribes.
Many American officials see that reassertion of tribal leadership — the alliance worked out between tribes and the Americans to fight al-Qaida in Iraq — as the fundamental turning point of the Iraq war, and not just here.
But as the Awakening works to build an image that transcends the often fractious and inward-looking nature of tribal politics, it is also relying largely on tribal influence as it seeks to build a base outside Anbar.
A mixed delegation of Sunni and Shiite sheiks led by Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha — the brother of Sheik Sattar Abu Risha, who was killed by a car bomb last September shortly after a visit by President Bush — traveled to Washington this month and met with Bush and other U.S. leaders.
The Awakening has set up several small offices in southern Iraq in recent months, a move that Ramadi mayor Latif Obaid Ayadah said was spurred by requests from Shiite sheiks.
"Iranian influence is increasing every day, especially in the south," he said. "We hear a lot of tribal leaders there complaining about how much Iranian intelligence is interfering in their lives."
Indeed, rejection of Iran is central to the Awakening’s message. Asked to describe his party’s appeal to Shiites, Ayadah offered simply, "We will help them keep Iran out of Iraq."
"They don’t want a relationship with Iran," said Marine Corps Maj. Adam Strickland, a liaison officer for governmental affairs. "It’s not a sectarian issue. They don’t talk about the Shiite threat. They talk about the Iranian threat, and they mean Iranians."
Several of the main Shiite parties that dominate the current central government have their roots in Iran. Strickland and other U.S. officials said the Awakening could benefit from what many see as the declining fortunes of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, where the Awakening’s populist message could find natural appeal.
Still, tribes are far less influential in many parts of Shiite Iraq as well as in mixed urban centers like Baghdad. And the Awakening’s support of the U.S. will also likely prove problematic. Tens of thousands of Shiites have turned out in recent weeks to protest the proposed U.S.-Iraq security agreement, which the Awakening supports.
Even if the Awakening is able to gain support from Shiite tribes, said Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan, those tribes will face far more established parties in the south, including that of al-Sadr, which the U.S. military has habitually underestimated in the past.
"The ones who keep making all the noise about the Iranian dominance are marginal and have no party machine," he said. "My guess is, the Sadrists pick up at least half the provinces and Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq Dawa get the other half," assuming the elections are conducted fairly.
Rhetorical attacks on Iran, meanwhile, are likely to be viewed with suspicion by many Shiites. Some of the Shiite community’s most prominent religious leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, are ethnic Iranians, and most Iraqi Shiite political leaders, like Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have embraced normalized relations with Iran.
Under Saddam Hussein, Shiites were often vilified as agents of foreign — and especially Persian — influence, and the harsh rhetoric could be viewed by some as sectarian code.
Awakening leaders appear conscious of such sensitivities. In 1992, Ayadah, who served as a provincial police chief under Saddam Hussein’s regime but resigned, said Iraqis were "united by our suffering under the previous regime." He said the party would invite Shiites to join as "equals and peers, not as followers."
"It’s a sensitive issue," said Sterling Jensen, a civilian foreign areas officer with the U.S. Navy. "The tribes here feel very positive about being able to find Shiite partners, but neither side wants to alienate the government."