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September, U.S. Marines this week returned to Ramadi in observation roles, patrolling areas from which they had largely withdrawn.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.
Hamid al-Hais, another founding sheik, held court in his own large compound with two mansions, including a pink one with a Spanish tiled roof. He pored over photocopies of confidential polling station records obtained by his loyalists. While the electoral commission estimated that Anbar had 40 percent voter turnout, Hais said the province had only half that.
"At least 100,000 votes have been faked," he declared. "There's no trust in the electoral commission. Everyone knows the Islamic Party controls them."
Haidari, the election commissioner, denied the charges, saying, "They should bring members, documents or evidence to show me where this fraud has taken place."
Hais, swarthy with a thick black moustache, is convinced that his party has enough support to win six seats in the province's 29- seat council, which controls the local government's finances and distributes jobs and contracts.
Hais said he has a plan if the election results don't match his expectations. First, he would try the peaceful route, building a coalition with smaller parties. Next, he would ask Iraq's central government to intervene and remind leaders that fundamentalists thrived under Iraqi Islamic Party rule.
If it stays in power, disaffected Sunnis could revive the insurgency. "We don't want Anbar to be handed over to the Iraqi Taliban again," Hais said.
Ultimately, if he didn't succeed, he said, he and his tribesmen would revolt. "We will use every way to make the project fail," he added. "We will have our way."
The Awakening sheiks have a source of leverage in the police. An estimated 30,000 tribesmen have joined the provincial police, but most remain loyal to their tribes. Police guard Hais's compound; Abu Risha has his own loyalists in the police force.
"As Iraqi police, we have a special loyalty to the Awakening," said police Col. Saad Muhammad. "The current provincial government, controlled by the Islamic Party, they don't do anything to help us. We can see with our own eyes that the people have elected the Awakening."
Hais said he was open to an alliance with Abu Risha to gain victory over the Islamic Party. "Everything is possible. The enemy of my enemy is my friend," Hais said.
"May God not let us go to him," intoned Jassim al-Sweidawi, an Awakening founder. "He is another face of the Islamic Party."
"Only," declared Faris Ibrahim, another tribal leader, "if he gets rid of all the Islamic Party members on his list."
Abdul Rahman al-Jenabi stood up, his voice rising in anger. His tribesmen, he said, had paid a high price for turning against al-Qaeda, and they wanted to see change in the province's leadership. "We don't want to use force, but I am afraid that if the situation erupted, we could not control our tribesmen anymore. They don't want to see this corrupted government continue," Jenabi said.
At Iraqi Islamic Party headquarters, the doors were locked. An armed guard peeked from the roof of the building and said, "No one showed up to work today."
At the electoral commission headquarters, Fadhil Muhammed Mutlaq, an Islamic Party election monitor, watched workers count the votes of policemen and soldiers who cast ballots in a separate election. He dismissed the allegations of fraud, although he conceded that there might have been irregularities at some polling stations.
"The Awakening thought they would get more votes," he said. "But we will be in first place, and they will be in second. They should respect the will of the people."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sent representatives to ask Abu Risha to avoid confrontation. Abu Risha, however, is not prepared to lose. He said he expects at least 17 seats on the council. The Islamic Party, he said, would have only three. He has met with former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, and Saleh Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni politician, who have both done well in the voting, to discuss forming a government without the Islamic Party.
"We will ask the central government to recognize our government," Abu Risha said. "We will never deal with a fraudulent government."
Special correspondent Zaid Sabah in Baghdad contributed to this report.