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

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.

Last September, Abu Risha was assassinated in a bombing. But the Awakening movement continued spreading to other parts of Iraq, as various U.S.-backed forces emulated what Abu Risha started in Anbar. Their successes have bolstered their sense of political entitlement.

The next provincial elections are widely expected to bring more representation to Iraq's Sunnis. But as Shiite-on-Sunni violence has declined, the competition for power among Sunnis is deepening.

"We don't want to be assigned ministries," said Abdul Karim al-Asaal, a senior Awakening official and the police chief's brother. "We want this by the ballot."

'Who Is Higher Here?'

Seven months ago, the governing council sent four nominations for a new police chief to Iraq's Interior Ministry. Tariq Yousef al-Asaal was not on the list. But the Interior Ministry, which oversees Iraq's national police, appointed Asaal anyway, in an acknowledgment by the Shiite-led government of the growing power of the Awakening movement.

Under Asaal, violence in Ramadi declined and commercial bustle returned to a city that had been largely a ghost town. Nevertheless, in late May the governing council voted to fire Asaal. Marzuk said the chief had sent his men outside the province, dismissed officers and made other decisions without getting permission from the council.

"Who is higher here?" Marzuk said. "The governor or the police chief? The governor is like a president in his province." The governor, also an Iraqi Islamic Party member, had approved Asaal's dismissal.

Asaal said he reports only to Iraq's central government. "The interior minister himself appointed me for this position, and the prime minister knows about all of this," Asaal said.

Many Iraqi Islamic Party politicians still keep families, homes and investments in Arab capitals, prompting Awakening leaders to deride the party's credentials. The mostly secular tribal chiefs are also wary of the religious leanings of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which has pushed for conservative Islamic values and legislation. They have also accused the party of financing the activities of al-Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups, which party officials have denied.

Now, the governing council is suing the Interior Ministry for not appointing one of its four candidates, and for refusing to dismiss Asaal, Marzuk said.

Political Disputes

On the tan walls and in the busy markets of Ramadi, there are no election banners or signs of campaigning. But already there is talk of political change.

Haitham Abdul Hameed Thanoun, a 37-year-old teacher, said he was frustrated by a lack of basic services and investment. "The Iraqi Islamic Party has not done anything for the city and its people," he said. "They have done good only for their followers by appointing them to government posts."

Others viewed party members as out-of-touch politicians who prefer to stay in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices.

Tribal bonds work to the advantage of the Awakening. "They are closer to us, and we feel they have done a lot for the people," said Um Ahmed, a housewife who declined to give her full name.

But no one is counting out the Iraqi Islamic Party. It has deep financial resources, and many electoral commission members belong to the party. Awakening leaders have alleged that the party is exerting influence over the electoral commission to push the elections back until next year, which party members have denied.

Marzuk said the Iraqi Islamic Party has plenty of support across the nation. "We are not worried," he said, smiling.

In recent months, Awakening leaders have traded accusations with the party in other parts of the province. One powerful Anbar tribal leader, Hamid al-Hayis, who heads his own U.S.-backed group, named candidates to fill cabinet positions left vacant by the Sunni bloc's boycott of the central government over political differences.

This year, Hayis also ordered Iraqi Islamic Party politicians to leave their positions in Anbar and vowed to take up arms against them. In newspapers, he branded them "a political wing of al-Qaeda." The party retaliated by suing Hayis and another Awakening leader. The nation's high court has issued an arrest warrant for them.

Fear of Conflict

Tensions are rising as the United States prepares to hand over security responsibility for Anbar to Iraq. More than 1,100 American troops have lost their lives in Anbar, according to the independent Web site iCasualties.org, and it is a province still on the fringes of stability.

Suicide bombings have become more frequent in recent months. Some of the attacks have appeared political in nature; last month, the Iraqi Islamic Party's headquarters in the city of Fallujah was blown up.

Many fear that the discord over Asaal's dismissal may turn into a wider intra-Sunni conflict. Without a strong police force to keep security, insurgents could resume their attacks. Policemen here said they would never accept their chief's dismissal.

"We will fight anyone who approves this," said Asaal's secretary, who asked that his name not be used because of safety concerns. "The governing council is creating conditions for more violence."

Asaal said he doubted that the central government would fire him.

"I don't think the government is ready to sacrifice the security of Anbar," he predicted. "Now, the only thing the government is proud of is Anbar. The main success of the United States government is Anbar." He added: "If I get dismissed, my policemen will lose morale. The security situation will collapse again. And we won't have anything to be proud of."

Special correspondents Adil Dulaymi and Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.

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