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Sunni Join Forces Against Al-Qaeda

Tribal leaders in Anbar province are joining forces to fight off the extremist insurgent group and build ties with the United States military and the Iraqi government.
More and more Sunni tribal leaders in the beleaguered Anbar province of Iraq are turning against al-Qaeda and cooperating with the Iraqi government and United States troops.

While reports that Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, has been killed in a battle with a rival militant group in Anbar have yet to be confirmed, they will, if true, be further evidence of the growing chasm between Sunni groups.

Increasingly, Sunni tribal leaders in the restive western province – which has been a hotbed of insurgent activity– are cooperating with United States-led coalition forces and the Iraqi authorities to curb al-Qaeda attacks, and are re-engaging in the political process.

Iraq’s interior ministry said on May 1 that it had received intelligence reports that Masri had been killed by an "internal battle" between militants. An Iraq government spokesman said that the body had yet to be formally identified, while the US military said on May 3 that it could not confirm reports of Masri’s death.

Masri – who had a five million US dollar bounty on his head – took over as leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq in June 2006, when former leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in an air strike.

His death at the hands of Sunni hardliners would be a welcome development both for Washington and the Iraqi government. While it might not mean an end to al-Qaeda attacks – the group is decentralised and is thought to consist of numerous semi-autonomous cells – it would be evidence of growing enmity between al-Qaeda and other Sunni insurgent groups operating in Anbar.

This split could benefit the US and Iraqi authorities, who are keen to nurture the emerging cooperative mood among Sunni leaders, and to use this to win local support and bring peace to the province.

In recent months, the increasing numbers of attacks on civilians have alienated Anbar’s tribal sheikhs from al-Qaeda.

On April 6, a suicide truck bomb loaded with chlorine gas exploded in a residential area of the provincial capital Ramadi, killing as many as 30 people, some of them children. Timed to devastating effect, the bomb exploded just as many people were on their way to the mosque for Friday prayer.

Those behind the incident, the sixth chlorine bomb attack in the city since January, are thought to be “takfiris” – al-Qaeda militants who regard other Muslims, even Sunnis, as unbelievers if they disagree with them.

Partly in response to such attacks, 200 Sunni sheikhs claiming to represent Arab 50 tribes from all over Anbar, gathered in Ramadi on April 18 and 19 to form a new party aimed at opposing al-Qaeda and re-engaging in Iraq’s political process.

The party - dubbed Iraq Awakening – also says it will try to improve the image of the US-led forces among local people, as well as support attempts to re-open the local court in order to restore law and order.

The party will hold its first convention in May, and plans to contest provincial elections in Anbar later in the year, as well as the next national elections scheduled for 2009.

Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha – who has been seen as the driving force behind Iraq Awakening and is the head of the largest tribe in Anbar – said he began gathering support for his party after his father and three brothers were killed by insurgents last year.

The sheikh said he was locked in a bitter fight to the death with al-Qaeda militants.

“We are now fighting the takfiris, so either we will survive or they will,” he told IWPR during an interview in his home – now converted into a military base – as mortars rained down on all sides.

This volte face among Sunni leaders, many of whom were previously involved in resistance against US troops, began with the formation of the Anbar Salvation Council last autumn to combat attacks from groups linked with, or claiming links with, the al-Qaeda group.

The Salvation Council effectively took over from the province’s elected council after that body relocated to Baghdad in the face of growing attacks from insurgents. It brokered a deal between the central authorities and tribal, social and religious leaders in Anbar to take a common stand against the al-Qaeda insurgents.

It also enjoyed the backing of armed groups, such as the nationalist 1920 Revolution Brigades, which were previously part of the resistance against US forces in the region.

Once established, the Salvation Council cooperated with American forces by opening US-funded military training centres for volunteers. The US military agreed to back its fight against al-Qaeda, and also paid the salaries of the local police and other forces.

The council has since struck a similar deal with the Iraqi government, which in turn agreed to provide it with supplies.

Ramadi has regained some stability since the Salvation Council came into being. The greater cooperation it has fostered has produced a surge in recruitment for the Iraqi police and army, and has also meant far fewer insurgent attacks on US and Iraqi forces. Since July 2006, 14,000 civilian volunteers have joined the police and the National Guard in Anbar to quell attacks by al-Qaeda insurgents and help restore order.

Falih al-Dulaimi, a member of Anbar Salvation Council who has also joined the provincial council, said that since the middle of last year, 70 per cent of Anbar province has been cleared of al-Qaeda fighters.

Former police chief Colonel Hamid Hamd al-Shawke claims that since December, security forces have succeeded in safeguarding the borders with Syria and Jordan and the highway to Saudi Arabia.

He sees law and order being restored, and predicts that the court in Ramadi – which was previously closed down by al-Qaeda – will reopen.

“Many police centres have been opened, many militants have been killed and arrested and we hope that the court resumes its job and the force of law [is restored],” he said.

The new mood of cooperation is also leading to reconstruction in the province.

In March 2007, Anbar’s elected council – now reconstituted in Ramadi – held a conference with a US non-government group, the Local Governance Programme, LGP, to train participants on how to plan reconstruction in the area.

Some 85 people – including heads of government institutions, social figures and clerics attended the conference, which took place in the Kurdish city of Erbil for security reasons, to plan for US-funded reconstruction work that will include health centres and schools.

LGP trained participants on how to prepare a strategic reconstruction plan, one of the organisers told IWPR.

“We are in touch with the Anbar council and trained several of its representatives,” said the source, who did not want to be named. “It was a good chance for all members of the local council to meet for the first time, as some of them live in Baghdad and others in Syria and Jordan.”

Dr Hussein al-Fahdawi, a member of the provincial council, said, “The [local] officials are determined to rebuild the province on a firm scientific basis [and transform it]from destruction to development and prosperity.”

Fahdawi added that the government in Baghdad has already allocated funds for reconstruction and are making it a priority to restore basic services like power and water.

Provincial governor Mamun al-Alwani said the region had received 146 billion Iraqi dinars – about one million US dollars – so far, although the total budget for 2006 has not been determined yet.

Hamid Farhan al-Hayis, the head of the Anbar Salvation Council which is working alongside the elected assembly, confirmed that, “Anbar tribes and the US are conducting ongoing reconstruction work in areas cleansed of terrorists to build health centres, maintain schools and provide sanitation, with 100 per cent American funding.”

Although the mutual benefits seem clear, it remains uncertain how long this spirit of cooperation between the Sunni population, the US military and the Shia-dominated Iraqi government will last.

Sunni extremist groups still strongly resent the prolonged presence of US forces in the region, despite their desperate need for support in fending off attacks both from al-Qaeda and from Shia militias.

There are concerns that the tactical compromise they have made to win this support is no guarantee that they will align themselves with their recent enemies in the longer run.

Yasin al-Dulaimi was an IWPR contributor from Ramadi. He was killed on December 30 by a car bomb in Baghdad. The material on the Anbar Salvation Council used in this story was the last reporting he did before his death. Dana Asad is an IWPR contributor in Erbil.

This article has been produced with support from the International Republican Institute (IRI).

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