Tensions Simmer In Anbar As U.S. Handoff Nears

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The U.S. military touts the relative security of Anbar — once one of the most restive areas in Iraq — after working with Sunni tribal sheiks to combat the al-Qaida in Mesopotamia extremists . But the rise of the sheiks has set off a new political conflict, and tensions still simmer beneath the surface. Last week, a bomber blew himself up at a sheiks council meeting, highlighting the problems of infiltration in the ranks.

In a market street in the center of Ramadi, There are small stalls selling clothing, plastic trinkets from china, spices. Maher Mahmood Kareem sells soap to a female customer. He used to be able to open his shop for only two hours a day, if at all. Now, he is able to sell his household supplies from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

At the height of the fighting, there were running battles here between Marines and insurgents. The shops were completely shuttered. Now, the commerce is bustling. Still, Kareem is wary of the future.

"The current security situation is good, very good, but problems will come," he says. "There is a power struggle going on here. They shouldn't do the handover of security during the present time, I think."

That struggle pits the Sunni tribal chiefs of the "Awakening" movement — as the anti-al-Qaida forces are known — against the members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the previously dominant Sunni political party that controls the provincial council.

The prize is not only political power but also the millions of dollars that U.S. forces fork out here. Very little comes from the Shiite-led central government. Instead, the U.S. military pays for equipping and funding local forces — be they police or tribal militias — and for the lucrative reconstruction contracts.

Ramadi , the capital of the predominantly Sunni Anbar province, has always been a conflict zone, and now, ahead of the handover, the fight for influence and funds has even embroiled the provincial security forces.

On a bright, hot morning, a squad of Iraqi police runs through drills. Inside a nearby building, the head of the provincial police talks on the phone. Above the door leading to Maj. Gen. Tarek Youssef al-Asel's office is a picture of the founder of the Awakening movement, who was assassinated last year.

Appointed eight months ago, Tarek has been fired by the provincial council but has refused to go. So the governing council is now suing the Interior Ministry to enforce their edict. Tarek says he is not worried. If they try to remove him, he says, his troops will rise up to defend him.

"The Islamic Party ran the province totally from 2004 till 2006," Tarek says. "There were mass killings. Destruction, no electricity and no petrol. Life stopped. Those were the achievements of the Islamic Party."

He acts confident with reason: He has the backing of the powerful Awakening groups who are now asserting their control in Anbar.

Sheikh Abdul Jabbar Abou Risha sits on what looks like a golden throne as he greets members of a tribal delegation from the Shiite city of Kut. The Abou Risha clan are like royalty in Anbar these days. Abdul Jabbar's brother, who was killed last year, was one of the founding members of the Awakening movement.

He says bluntly that the elected officials who are in the provincial council are not the ones who call the shots in Anbar.

"The Awakening is the one that is controlling the security, and it can impose things. Sometimes we impose things that we see as legitimate, and they can't stop us," Abdul Jabbar says.

The sheik says he wants to legitimize his power through the ballot box. His newly formed party is forming alliances all over the country and will be fielding candidates in every province in the upcoming provincial elections.

"The Awakening began as a militia, but it will end as a political group," he says. "The Iraqi people have started to come to us and ask us to serve them because they saw that the Awakening has something to offer them."

Still, the possibility of political violence is very real. The roof of the Islamic Party's Fallujah headquarters was blown off after bombs were planted there earlier this month.

Sectarian violence for now is on the wane here. But the battle for power among Sunni groups is only just beginning.

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