washingtonpost.com
A New Breed Grabs Reins in Anbar
U.S.-Backed Sheiks Reshaping Own Areas and, Potentially, the Future of Iraq

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."

U.S. commanders worry that their tactical successes could evaporate if Iraq's leaders stop paying the Awakening fighters their salaries. "It could cause a fracture in this important program which would cause these guys to resort to violence," said Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, the U.S. military commander in charge of Baghdad. "Because there's always someone outside such as al-Qaeda and certain resistance groups who are willing to offer them a better deal."

In Anbar, Sweidawi and other founding Awakening leaders insist they will never return to violence; 20,000 fighters have joined the police here. Most remain more loyal to their tribes than the government, deepening the movement's control.

"I have no confidence in the Iraqi government," Sweidawi said. "There's a program to remove us from the security process in any way possible."

Turning Against Insurgents

Slim, with a thick mustache and a polite manner, a father of 11, Sweidawi spent three decades in the Iraqi air force, maintaining jets. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, he ran a profitable business protecting commercial convoys in Anbar, where the Sunni insurgency began. His favorite pastime was hunting for birds on his family's farm.

His critics say he was the ringleader of a group of highway bandits who stole cars. Sweidawi denies the accusation. The critics say that's how he met Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the Awakening movement's founder, who also had a reputation as a highway robber.

"Sheik Jassim is not educated. He's not an original sheik of the Albusoda," said Hamdi Mohammed al-Sweidawi, 45, who belongs to the same clan as the chieftain and teaches law at Anbar University. "Before al-Qaeda came, he was nothing."

Sweidawi said he despised the U.S. occupation at first. The U.S. military, he said, alienated the tribes by its heavy-handed tactics and mass arrests of Sunni men suspected of ties to the insurgency.

Many of his tribesmen joined the insurgency. Nasir al-Jenabi, a senior al-Qaeda in Iraq leader, said in a telephone interview that Sweidawi allowed insurgents to use his territory as bases. "Jassim is the kind of person who always stands with the strongest," Jenabi said. "When we were controlling Ramadi, he was pretending to be a nice guy who wanted to serve and satisfy us."

Sweidawi concedes that he was "covering for the militants and not informing the Americans or local authorities." But by 2006, he said, he began to view U.S. forces as the lesser enemy. Al-Qaeda in Iraq had overreached, carrying out beheadings and banning smoking, shaving and other behavior it considered un-Islamic.

In late 2006, during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, al-Qaeda in Iraq insurgents abducted seven of Sweidawi's brothers and cousins from his family home. They were killed that day, their bodies dumped into the Euphrates River, which snakes through Ramadi.

"After that, I started chasing them in the streets and capturing them," Sweidawi said.

Broken Lines of Succession

Backed by their American benefactors, the new tribal leaders, who included many former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, wrested territory from al-Qaeda in Iraq. They also ruptured ancient rites of succession. Taking over from a distant uncle, Abu Risha led his tribe until he was assassinated last year in a bombing. Raad Sabah Alwani, a burly, whiskey-drinking businessman, became his tribe's leader. "We became sheiks because we use force," said Alwani, at his heavily guarded mansion in Ramadi, where he openly displays pictures of himself with American commanders. "Iraq needs men who use force."

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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company