Rise of Awakening Groups Sets Off A Struggle for Power Among Sunnis

Tariq Yousef al-Asaal, an Awakening founder in Anbar, dismissed his firing as police chief as "a political decision."
Tariq Yousef al-Asaal, an Awakening founder in Anbar, dismissed his firing as police chief as "a political decision." (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 4, 2008

RAMADI, Iraq -- After inspecting a prison, police chief Tariq Yousef al-Asaal returned to his spacious office, where U.S. military officers and Iraq's power brokers have sought his advice. A week earlier, the governing council, the ruling body here in this dust-swept capital of Anbar province, had fired him.

But on this June morning Asaal gave no indication of his dismissal. As he entered his office, his men saluted and visitors rose to greet him. Asaal slipped behind his big wooden desk and flashed a defiant smile. "The governing council had no right to dismiss me," he said.

Asaal's determination to stay in his job is a manifestation of a new political movement emerging in Sunni Muslim enclaves across Iraq. It is an outgrowth of the Awakening Councils -- launched by tribal leaders and backed by the United States -- that have fought extremists and become a key to stability in many areas.

Awakening leaders are planning to compete as a political force in provincial elections scheduled for the fall, when Iraqis will choose governing councils in Iraq's 18 provinces. The leaders likely will challenge established Sunni groups, including the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political party, which is led by non-tribal Sunnis who mainly lived in exile during the rule of Saddam Hussein.

At stake is the leadership of a rudderless Sunni community still struggling for a political foothold in the new Iraq. If the Awakening leaders prevail, they would inject nationalist, clan-based and secular values into a sectarian political system dominated by Shiite religious parties.

The Iraqi Islamic Party effectively runs the Anbar governing council. The Awakening controls the police. Asaal is one of the movement's founders.

"It was a political decision. They think the police will influence the elections," said Asaal, 44, referring to his dismissal. "The Iraqi Islamic Party's credibility on the streets is zero. Nobody supports them. They want their own police chief so they can fake the results."

At the nearby governorate building, Khudair Marzuk, a senior Iraqi Islamic Party member on the governing council, disputed the charges. "The Awakening wants us to leave our seats," he said. "But they don't have the qualifications. They were not elected."

A Movement Spreads

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq's once-privileged Sunni minority has lacked a coherent leadership. Insurgents, clerics, exiled politicians, and tribal leaders have competed for the mantle of the community.

But fear and opposition to the U.S. occupation kept many Sunnis from asserting themselves politically, especially in Anbar, the nexus of Iraq's Sunni insurgency. Most of them boycotted provincial elections in 2005, dreading retribution by Sunni extremists. That allowed Shiite and Kurdish parties to gain power, even in majority-Sunni areas.

In Anbar, the Iraqi Islamic Party participated in the polls and gained control of key positions, including the governor's office, the governing council and other important administrative posts. But the extremely low turnout -- less than 2 percent of those eligible voted -- called into question the legitimacy of the party's victory.

In 2006, a prominent tribal leader named Abdul Sattar Abu Risha and others turned against the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, rejecting its gory tactics and strict interpretations of Islamic law. In 2007, the deployment of additional U.S. troops, along with a cease-fire by anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, also helped reduce violence.

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