A New Breed Grabs Reins in Anbar

Sheik Jassim Muhammed al-Sweidawi is part of a new generation of tribal leaders asserting influence across Sunni areas of Iraq.

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

RAMADI, Iraq -- As the day crossed into dusk, Jassim Muhammed al-Sweidawi sat on brown floor cushions, chain-smoking, calmly watching the tribesmen argue over blood money.

A man from the Dulaimi tribe had killed a man from the Jenabi tribe. The elders of both tribes could have sought justice in a provincial court. They could have conferred with traditional sheiks versed in centuries-old ways of resolving disputes. But they didn't. They came to Sweidawi, a sunburned, American-backed chieftain who in less than two years had become the most powerful man in this patch of eastern Ramadi.

He asked the men if they trusted his authority. They nodded. Within minutes, he worked out a settlement. The men were not happy, but they also feared Sweidawi and needed his protection. "Your appreciation for me will not be forgotten," the chieftain, 52, said after both men had kissed his cheeks.

"Sheik Jassim," as his tribesmen call Sweidawi, is among a new generation of tribal leaders asserting influence across Sunni areas. They have won their respect by fighting Sunni insurgents of the al-Qaeda in Iraq group. With American money and support, they have brought a fragile order to Anbar province, once Iraq's most violent theater, accomplishing in months what the U.S. military could not do in years.

But the rise of these sheiks, collectively called the Awakening, is already touching off new conflicts that could deepen without U.S. military backing for the movement. They have stripped traditional tribal leaders of influence. They have carved up Sunni areas into fiefdoms, imposing their views on law and society and weakening the authority of the Shiite-led central government. Divisions are emerging among the new breed of tribal leaders, even as they are challenging established Sunni religious parties for political dominance.

Their ascent reflects how the struggle for local and regional centers of power is increasingly shaping Iraq's future. And their growing clout ensures that large segments of Iraq will remain influenced by tribal codes, rather than modern laws, posing an obstacle to the democratic foundations that many would like to see built here.

"No one can remove us," Sweidawi said. Today, he claims to control much of his Albusoda tribe, numbering about 30,000.

Backing From the U.S.

Since its launch in Anbar in late 2006, the Awakening has spread to mostly Sunni-majority enclaves in Baghdad and other provinces as a means of Sunni self-defense. The U.S. military gave $300 monthly salaries to fighters, many of them former insurgents, to patrol areas and stop attacking American troops.

U.S. military officials have handed Awakening tribal leaders reconstruction contracts for their areas, building up their influence. They have assisted tribal operations against al-Qaeda in Iraq with airstrikes and other military and logistical support. On one day, Sweidawi recalled how U.S. officers promised to pave the road that led to his house.

American commanders credit the movement as key to the decline in violence; some believe it played a more significant role than the U.S. "surge" offensive of 30,000 troops last year.

This month, the U.S. military handed over to the government control over about half the Awakening groups, now totaling roughly 100,000 mostly Sunni fighters. But the government, increasingly confident that it can provide security on its own, has refused to enroll most Awakening members into the police or army. In recent weeks, Iraqi security forces have arrested some Awakening leaders who were former insurgents, out of fear they will take up arms against the government.

"There are good Awakening members. But there are others who have simply changed their T-shirt, who don't want progress, who do not believe in a new Iraq," said Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite lawmaker in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party. "We don't want these elements to infiltrate our security forces."


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