As Anbar Counts Votes, Sheiks Voice Defiance

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 5, 2009

RAMADI, Iraq, Feb. 4 -- In a palatial house replete with guns, flags and other manifestations of tribal power, America's key ally in once-volatile Anbar province explained what he would do if the counting of votes in Saturday's election failed to show his party as the victor.

"We will form the government of Anbar anyway," vowed Ahmed Abu Risha, his voice dipping to a quiet growl. The tribesmen seated in his visiting room, where photos of U.S. generals and Sunni monarchs adorn the walls, nodded in approval. "An honest dictatorship is better than a democracy won through fraud," Abu Risha said.

Here, in the cradle of the Sunni insurgency, tribal leaders nurtured and empowered by the United States appear ready to take control the old-fashioned way -- with guns and money -- if their political ambitions are frustrated.

Abu Risha and other leaders of the Awakening, the U.S.-backed Sunni sheiks who rose up to quell the insurgency, charge that Sunni politicians of the Iraqi Islamic Party have committed electoral fraud, which party officials deny. The allegations, coupled with threats to use arms, have prompted provincewide curfews and strict security measures. Although the United States handed responsibility for the security of Anbar to the Iraqi government in September, U.S. Marines this week returned to Ramadi in observation roles, patrolling areas from which they had largely withdrawn.

Iraqi election monitoring officials have found the allegations serious enough to investigate, and election commission chief Faraj al-Haidari said initial assessments could be released as early as Thursday. But he also suggested that the allegations might have been driven more by the struggle for power than by evidence, saying there would be no need to hold new elections in the province.

"The case of Anbar is taking a political direction," Haidari said. "We don't interfere with politics."

Abu Risha appeared unwilling to countenance a defeat. What would happen if his rivals win? "Disaster," he warned.

Ever since they turned against the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq more than two years ago, a dozen of the sheiks who founded Awakening have considered themselves the saviors of Anbar. Enriched by U.S. contracts and courted by U.S. military commanders eager to preserve security gains, the tribes are more powerful than at any time since the demise of Iraq's monarchy half a century ago.

Now, they seek to transform their anti-insurgency credentials into political power. But democracy is a new concept for the Anbar sheiks, who are participating for the first time in elections. In 2005, they ordered their tribesmen to boycott the polls, allowing the Iraqi Islamic Party, a religious Sunni group, to take control of the province amid paltry voter turnout.

The tribal leaders' inexperience has shown. In a world of byzantine allegiances and fickle loyalties, the original Awakening leaders have split up, bickering over who has the authority to lead them. Several Awakening parties competed in the elections, dividing their vote. At least four founding sheiks were candidates.

Abu Risha reached out to Islamic Party candidates, further alienating him from other Awakening leaders, though he remains the most powerful because of his American support.

On Wednesday, in this oatmeal-colored provincial capital bisected by the Euphrates River, the Awakening sheiks were united, perhaps for the first time in months, by the fraud allegations.

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