Volatile Anbar province a test of Iraq's future

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 17, 2009 

RAMADI, Iraq — The walls of Ahmed Abu Risha's office mirror the recent history of Iraq's volatile Anbar province.

They're covered with poster-size photos of his assassinated brother, a group picture of Ahmed with former President George W. Bush at the White House and another of him meeting visiting Sen. Barack Obama. In the center of the wall is Abu Risha's prize possession, the Independent High Electoral Commission's certification of his political slate in the country's provincial elections Jan. 31.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the predominantly Sunni Muslim province west of Baghdad was the breeding ground of the Sunni insurgency and al Qaida in Iraq. Many Sunnis in Anbar, however, rebelled against the militants when they grew too harsh, joined the Awakening movement and allied with their former enemy, the U.S. Now, after the provincial elections, Anbar is at the center of hopes that a unified, democratic Iraq can emerge from six years of sectarian strife.

The murder of Abdul Sattar Abu Risha paved the way for his brother's rise to the leadership of the Awakening, which made its reputation by eradicating insurgents and foreign extremists before it became a political movement.

Now it remains to be seen whether Ahmed Abu Risha and other tribal sheiks can move their National Coalition of the Iraq Awakening and Independents into the political mainstream, from which Sunni Arabs largely have been excluded.

"History has shown that it's hard to transition from a revolutionary to government," said Col. Harold Bass, the top U.S. military adviser to Iraqi forces in Anbar. "He's trying, but it's always hard. . . . I think the hopes of the people in Anbar are betting on him."

Abu Risha met his first challenge when he denounced what he charged was election fraud by the Iraqi Islamic Party, the religious Sunni political group that's ruled Anbar since elections in 2005, when most Sunni Arabs refused to vote under U.S. occupation.

Even before the results of last month's elections were announced, Abu Risha's supporters were unhappy. They gathered at a guesthouse just before the preliminary tally was announced and grumbled that if the results once again favored the Iraqi Islamic Party, they'd take power by force. They're owed political power, they think, after they restored order in the province when the Iraqi Islamic Party couldn't.

"They ruled for four years in this province," said Abdul Jabar Abu Risha, Ahmed's younger brother. "When they were leading this administration, al Qaida in Iraq was flourishing, parading in front of provincial buildings, and they (Iraqi Islamic Party leaders) were in Baghdad."

Ahmed Abu Risha, too, had threatened violence at first, but he changed his rhetoric. He seized a microphone and addressed his followers. Behind him hung an Iraqi flag with his murdered brother's picture in the center.

"If something happens besides the law, I will resign," he threatened.

Later, in his office, he told a visitor: "People will take their rights by law, not by guns."

Then he laughed; so much has been taken by guns in Iraq. "This is politics, and we are political leaders now."

His past threats to battle the Iraqi Islamic Party in the streets were meant only to scare, he said.

"Those who do not fear punishment misbehave," he said referring to threats he'd made on television and to a tribal sheik allied with the Iraqi Islamic Party. "It's about putting a limit. They have parliament seats; they have the deputy vice president; they have everything."

Abu Risha, 43, is a modern man who's spent most of his life in Baghdad. He deserted the Iraqi army because he was uncomfortable attacking other Arabs in Kuwait in 1990, he said. To alleviate pressure on his father by members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, he moved to Baghdad and hid in plain sight among army officers.

Five of his nine brothers were killed in the violence in Anbar.

There's a painting of Abdul Sattar and him in his home. Around Abdul Sattar are storm clouds and coffins draped in the Iraqi flag. Between them are Iraqis of all stripes on horseback. Behind Ahmed are greenery, skyscrapers and development, the images of what he hopes is the future of his movement and of Iraq.

When the preliminary results were read five days after the election, Abu Risha's group had won second place with 17.1 percent of the vote, almost 3 percent more than the Iraqi Islamic Party got. Sunni votes were fractured, and no group emerged as the sole power broker.

Abu Risha called Saleh al Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni politician whose party had taken the top spot in Anbar.

"Come stay here. I will send my guards for you," he said.

The next day, he announced an alliance with Mutlaq and four other parties to take control of the provincial council and isolate the Iraqi Islamic Party.

"They will be alone," Abu Risha said. "We do not want to mix religion with politics."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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