Page 3 of 3   <      

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.

More tribesmen joined Sweidawi's fold, shifting their allegiance from their traditional leader, Sheik Mahmoud al-Jarbou, whose family had ruled Sweidawi's tribe for three centuries. "Sheik Mahmoud played no role at all in the battlefield," explained Maj. Gen. Hamid Hamadh al-Shoki, Ramadi's former police chief. "Sheik Jassim restored security, and security is the base of everything here."

Within weeks of launching his assault on al-Qaeda in Iraq, Sweidawi controlled the tribe, the second largest in Ramadi, and Jarbou quietly faded away. "Sheik Mahmoud is a weak man," Sweidawi said.

Reached in Syria, Jarbou asserted that most of his tribe was still loyal to him but acknowledged that his rival was trying to push him out. "He wants to take over someone else's position. It's not up to Jassim to evaluate me, it's up to my people," Jarbou said. "He's one who likes dictatorship."

Marine Maj. Adam Strickland, who works closely with the Awakening leaders, described Sweidawi as "a very influential individual" who is viewed as a key local ally. The U.S. military, he said, was "supporting his leadership." Some American commanders have called Sweidawi the "Lion of Eastern Ramadi."

Dispensing Tribal Justice

One day recently, Sweidawi's handpicked, heavily armed men, including three sons, piled into a blue and white Iraqi police truck. Some wore hats emblazoned with the old Baath-era Iraqi flag, rejecting Iraq's new flag. Sweidawi recalled he has survived 12 assassination attempts, including a bomb disguised as a gift that was delivered to his house.

They passed an empty field where they had fought a battle against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Seventy of his men died that day, said Sweidawi, with reverence. At the local electricity plant, employees welcomed the sheik as if he owned the facility. His tribesmen guard it and operate it. Sweidawi also controls nine police stations in his territory.

He later visited Juma Hussein, a 25-year-old unemployed man with no arms and legs -- a victim of a roadside bomb. As he prepared to leave, he tucked a $100 bill into Hussein's pocket. "If you need anything, let me know," he said.

Sweidawi has brokered land grabs, murders, inheritance disputes, police complaints, even fights among teenagers. He emulates traditional sheiks, using centuries-old Bedouin customs based on honor and reciprocity to dispense justice. "No one can abandon or get rid of tribal law," Sweidawi said. "The laws and the constitution are not permanent. They change with governments."

But ultimately his authority rests on his ability to punish. He said he used to interrogate al-Qaeda in Iraq suspects in his large greeting room. Now he uses one of his police stations. How does he extricate information? "We have our ways," he said, smiling coyly. Then he took off the thick, black cord made of camel's skin that held his tribal headdress in place and said: "I was using this, beating them twice, three times."

As he finished his sentence, he pulled out his black cellphone and played a video, set to haunting Arabic music, of insurgents executing a group of Iraqi policemen and soldiers. "One day, if I feel like showing mercy on them, this video will stop me. It will always remind me of their crimes," Sweidawi said.

A Move for Political Power

Sweidawi and other Awakening leaders seek to transform their anti-insurgent credentials into political clout. They plan to challenge the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political group and part of Maliki's ruling coalition, in provincial elections scheduled for next year. At stake is the leadership of a rudderless Sunni minority that is still wrangling for a political toehold in the new Iraq.

"We know our people are better than them," Sweidawi said. If the Awakening leaders triumph, they would infuse clan-based, secular values into a sectarian political system ruled by Shiite religious parties. In recent weeks, Islamic Party officials and offices have been attacked, as have Awakening leaders, raising fears of a wider intra-Sunni conflict.

The Awakening movement is itself rife with tension. In interviews, several Awakening founders said Ahmed Abu Risha, who took over the movement's founding council after the death of his brother, was not qualified to lead because he had not fought against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Two influential founders left to form their own political parties. Sweidawi also recently had a falling-out with Abu Risha. "Unfortunately, the strongest and bravest do all the work and the fruits of our work is given to the cowards," Sweidawi said.

He is consumed by one overriding question: What will happen if his American backers leave? He gloomily predicts chaos in the provincial elections. "There are al-Qaeda sleeper cells in the province. Our borders are still being infiltrated," Sweidawi recently told Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, who commands U.S. forces in Anbar.

Sweidawi would like to see Americans stay on bases here for years, even decades, as they have in Japan and Germany. Like many Sunnis, he fears that his country could fall under the influence of Iran's Shiite theocracy, which has forged close ties with many Iraqi Shiite leaders.

"If the Americans were not here, Iran will stretch to the Jordanian border," Sweidawi said.

In a motorized canoe, sliding slowly along the Euphrates, Sweidawi was recently keeping watch over his tribe and his land. "Evil exists everywhere," he said, squinting at clusters of tall reeds in the blazing sun.

<          3

© 2008 The Washington Post Company