Political Rift In Iraq's Anbar Province

In Iraq, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency remains remarkably peaceful. Sunni tribes helped U.S. forces pacify Anbar province in western Iraq, and the same tribes won the provincial elections this January. But a political rift has developed among America's tribal allies.

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While the president was talking about pulling out American troops, there's turmoil building on the Iraqi political scene. In Western Iraq's Anbar Province, Sunni tribes joined with U.S. forces to calm the region. Those Sunni tribes won provincial elections in January, but now there's growing criticism that the leader there is using his political power to advance his own business interests. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Ahmed Abu Risha is the current leader of the Sahawa, or Awakening Council, that turned from the insurgency to align with the U.S. and push al-Qaida out of Anbar. Now, Abu Risha's Sahawa Council has won the right through elections to pick the next governor of Anbar Province. In the provincial capital, Ramadi, sitting under a portrait of his brother, who was murdered by al-Qaida for starting the Sahawa, Abu Risha explained why he picked an engineer and businessman named Mohammed Kassem for the post.

Mr. AHMED ABU RISHA (Awakening Council Leader): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: He's the most qualified candidate, says Abu Risha, the kind of governor Anbar Province needs after so many years of war. But not all the Sahawa members agree with Abu Risha. In fact, some of them mounted street protests against the choice, which they claim were put down by police with threats of violence. They complain that Kassem left Anbar when the tough fighting against al-Qaida began. Abu Risha says that shouldn't count against the nominee.

Mr. ABU RISHA: (Through translator): No, he was not here during the fight, but we want to turn the page on the fighting. We want a person to rebuild the province according to modern designs. Mr. Kassem has relations with the Arab and international companies, so he may support this province through investment.

LAWRENCE: In another tribal meeting hall at about the same time, several members of the Sahawa gathered to pledge their opposition. As they stir sugar into bottomless cups of strong tea, they denounce Abu Risha's choice in the strongest language.

Mr. HECKMAT SULIMAN(ph) (Opposition Member): He's an engineer? Well, the Anbar is full of engineers, but engineers not running away in front of any simple problem, not losers or runners, you know? Courage people touches people.

LAWRENCE: Heckmat Suliman(ph), an opposition member, says that the choice of Kassem is motivated by Abu Risha's own business interests. As he speaks, another half-dozen tribal sheiks nod in agreement. They think Abu Risha is trying to run the Sahawa Council as if he were its king, not its president. Heckmat says he's afraid the Americans are going to stick with Abu Risha as a force for stability in Anbar.

Mr. SULIMAN: Yes, they support the stability, yes, but stability to build a new dictator that means the lives we've lost, the money we lost, for nothing, just to exchange one with another. Do you think liberation of Iraq should end as of this result? To build a new dictator?

LAWRENCE: Abu Risha says the split is exaggerated, that very few of the Sahawa members oppose his choice of governor, but it doesn't seem that he's tolerating much dissent.

Mr. ABU RISHA: (Through translator) The general secretary will meet, decide to dismiss these members, and they will be dismissed because they have abandoned the patriotic course of the Sahawa.

LAWRENCE: Abu Risha says the protests have only drawn a few dozen people, but several hundred turned out for an opposition march early this week. All of the Sahawa leaders gained their positions through the barrel of a gun but so far, neither side has threatened violence. Observers in Anbar have suggested optimistically that the dispute can be solved in tribal fashion by cutting the opposition in on the action. That may also serve the American interest in keeping Anbar quiet as a troop drawdown begins.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Ramadi.

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