Tensions Simmer In Anbar As U.S. Handoff Nears The U.S. military touts the relative security of Anbar — once one of the most restive areas in Iraq — after working with tribal sheiks to combat al-Qaida. But the rise of the sheiks has set off a new political conflict, and tensions still simmer beneath the surface.
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Tensions Simmer In Anbar As U.S. Handoff Nears

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Tensions Simmer In Anbar As U.S. Handoff Nears

Tensions Simmer In Anbar As U.S. Handoff Nears

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And in Iraq, American soldiers will soon hand over security control of Anbar Province to the Iraqis. Anbar was once one of the most violent places in Iraq. Sunni Arab insurgents were dominant there. Then tribal sheiks allied to al-Qaida in Iraq began to turn against the insurgents and work with the Americans.

Now it's being touted as a model for the rest of Iraq. Still there are dangers. A suicide bomber last week killed at least 20 people, including three Marines, in the Anbar town of Karma. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Anbar's capital, Ramadi, that other tensions are also simmering.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am standing in a market street in the center of Ramadi. At the height of the fighting right here there were running battles between Marines and insurgents. The shops were completely shuttered. Now around me is the bustling life of commerce. There are small stalls selling clothing, plastic trinkets from China, spices.

There is a measure of security here, but the battle for Ramadi has left both visible and unseen scars.

Mr. MAHIR MAHMOUD KARIM(ph) (Merchant): (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mahir Mahmoud Karim sells soap to a female customer. He used to only be able to open the shop two hours a day, if at all. Now he's able to sell his household supplies from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Still, he's wary of the future.

Mr. MAHMOUD KARIM: (Through translator) The current situation is good, very good, but problems will come. There is a power struggle going on here. They shouldn't do the handover of security during the present time, I think.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That struggle pits the tribal chiefs of the Awakening Movement, as the anti-al-Qaida forces are known, against the members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, who control the provincial council. The prize is not only political power, but also the millions of dollars U.S. forces fork out here. Very little comes from the Shiite-led 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 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.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a bright hot morning and a squad of Iraqi police here are running through their drills.

(Soundbite of clicking)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Inside a nearby building, the head of the provincial police talks on the telephone.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Unidentified Man #2: Hello?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Above the door leading to Major General Tarek Usaf al-Assel's(ph) office is a picture of the founder of the Awakening Movement, who was assassinated last year, a clear sign of where his loyalties lie. Appointed eight months ago, General Tarek has been fired by the provincial council. He's refused to go, so the governing council is now suing the Interior Ministry to enforce their edict. Major Tarek says he's not worried. If they try and remove him, he says, his troops will rise up to defend him.

Major General TAREK USAF AL-ASSEL (Iraqi Army): (Through translator) The Islamic Party ran the province totally from 2004 till 2006. There were mass killings, destruction, no electricity and no petrol. Life stopped. Those were the achievements of the Islamic Party.

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

Mr. ABDUL JABBAR ABUL RICHA(ph) (Sheik): (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sheik Abdul Jabbar Abul Richa sits on what looks like a golden throne as he greets members of the tribal delegation from the Shiite city of Kut. The Abul Richa clan are like royalty in Anbar. 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.

Mr. ABUL RICHA: (Through translator) 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sheik Abdul Jabbar Abul Richa says he wants to legitimize his power through the ballot box. His newly-formed party is making alliances all over the country and will be fielding candidates in every province in the upcoming provincial elections.

Mr. ABUL RICHA: (Through translator) The Awakening began as a militia but it will end as a political group. 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Ramadi.

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