Monday, March 09, 2009

Iraq's Sunni Awakening movement takes first place in Anbar province elections

Pro-U.S. group, which switched sides in 2006 to fight Al Qaeda, says it's ready to govern By Liz Sly Tribune correspondent RAMADI, Iraq — The tribal leaders who turned their guns against Al Qaeda in Iraq and helped turn the tide of the war are now facing a radically different but perhaps equally formidable challenge: the task of governing the vast and historically volatile province of Anbar. Final results in Iraq's provincial elections gave first place to a slate of candidates fielded by the Awakening movement, the Sunni group of tribesmen who switched sides in 2006 and joined the U.S. in the fight against Al Qaeda. With 25 percent of the vote and eight seats on the 29-seat council, the Awakening will have to govern in coalition with smaller parties. But its first-place showing will give the tribes who defeated Al Qaeda a leading role in the administration, an outcome that Awakening leaders believe is their due after their heroic efforts. "We are the sons of the province, and we are ready to run the province," said Ahmad Abu Risha, who inherited the leadership of the Awakening movement after his brother, Abdul Sattar, was killed in a suicide bombing in 2007. Fighting Al Qaeda and running a provincial council are entirely different matters, however, and there is skepticism whether the tribal movement is up to the job. Things are already off to an inauspicious start. With the vote count still incomplete but showing the rival Islamic Party in the lead, Abu Risha accused the party of ballot-stuffing and threatened war if its lead was upheld. The final result helped soothe Awakening tempers but stirred the ire of the Islamic Party, which has governed Anbar since 2003. It alleges the result was fixed to mollify the Awakening and head off the threat of violence. "People think the results were made up—a deal with the government in Baghdad and also the Americans to satisfy Abu Risha," said Khamis Ahmed Abtan, the outgoing deputy head of the provincial council, who is affiliated with the Islamic Party and who worries that an Awakening-led administration will introduce tribalism to local government. "Anbar is going to be ruled according to emotions and according to affiliations of tribes," he said. "We're already seeing it. People are saying, 'We're of X tribe, so we've got to have X job.' I don't think this is good for the security of the province." Abu Risha disputes that. All his candidates for seats on the council have been chosen according to their qualifications and not their tribal affiliations, he said. In any case, "this is Anbar. Everyone is from a tribe," said Abu Risha, who lives the life of a typical sheik in a pink mansion decorated with cream columns on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Ramadi. On the walls of his office, alongside pictures of his tribal ancestors and colonial-era shotguns, hang photographs of his slain brother, who was killed in an Al Qaeda suicide bombing, and of himself meeting with former President George W. Bush and the chief of U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus. But the danger that Awakening rule will stir tribal tensions has already become apparent, according to Mohammed al-Hayess, a rival sheik who lives in a similar pink mansion nearby. He was among the original founders of the Awakening, but had fallen out with Abu Risha and fielded a separate slate of candidates in the election. "The competitiveness of the elections created divisions between the tribes, and even within tribes," said Hayess, who also keeps photographs of himself meeting Bush and Petraeus on his walls. "It's because politics is something new to us." Abu Risha nonetheless said he is confident that the Awakening will do a better job than the previous administration, which neglected to improve the province's ravaged infrastructure and services. Downtown Ramadi still looks like the war zone it was a few years back when U.S. Marines, then the tribes, fought street battles with insurgents. Apart from a few licks of paint here and there, little has been done to repair the damage. Residents receive three hours of electricity a day, water supplies are intermittent, and health care is almost non-existent. Compounding the challenge, the collapse in the price of oil, and consequently Iraqi revenues, means the new council is going to have to deal with a budget barely half that of the previous year. Abu Risha says he plans to compensate by luring foreign investors, something the Islamic Party failed to do. But Abtan, the departing deputy provincial leader, shook his head in disbelief. "Foreign investors want electricity 24 hours. They want paved roads, reliable banks and a good hotel to stay in," he said. "These are the main requirements for foreign investment, and none of them are available in Anbar. "It's impossible," he added. "They have serious problems ahead."

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