Anbar province saw some of the most heated disputes before and after the January 2009 provincial elections. The Anbar Awakening broke up into different factions, alliances shifted back and forth, and then when early voter returns said that the ruling Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) had come out with a plurality, many leading sheikhs claimed the party had cheated and threatened violence. Authorities had to impose a curfew until the final results showed that the tribes had won. The bargaining for positions on the provincial council has continued since then with no less acrimony. The Awakening of Iraq and Independents list of Sheikh Abu Risha came out on top, and he has been trying to name a governor, but the other tribes have objected, leading to a new controversy in the province.
At the end of March 2009 Sheikh Abu Risha put forward two candidates for governor of Anbar. Both were ex-Baathist engineers. One was Arkhan Khalaf Tarmouz who was the former director of presidential sites under Saddam. The main candidate was Muhammad Qassem who was the head of the chemical section at the Military Industrialization Commission under the old regime. He fled to the United Arab Emirates when fighting broke out in Anbar after the U.S. invasion. The other tribes in the province have rejected both candidates. Many have criticized Qassem for example, for fleeing the country. Abu Risha has responded by saying that not only is Qassem a qualified candidate, but that his business contacts could increase investment in Anbar and help modernize the governorate.
The dispute over the governorship is part of a larger struggle for power between the different tribes and sheikhs in Anbar. Some have accused Risha of trying to create a dictatorship and enrich himself after his party won the most seats in the provincial election. Risha has threatened to expel all of his critics from the Awakening movement. These divisions began in late 2008 as the provincial vote neared.
The Anbar Awakening was a confederation of several different tribes led mostly by young sheikhs who rose to power with the backing of the United States. There were two major factions in the movement; one was led by Sheikh Abu Risha, the brother of the founder of the Awakening, and the other by Sheikh Mohammad al-Hayes. In November 2008 Abu Risha agreed to join with the Islamic Party (IIP). The Islamic Party had come to power in Anbar in January 2005 when only around 3,800 of 574,000 residents voted due to the Sunni boycott. The IIP ran largely unopposed in 2005 and came away with 34 of 41 council seats. When the Awakening arose in 2005-2006 they challenged the party’s claim to power, and began pushing for elections. Realizing their weakened position, the Islamic Party tried to divide the Awakening and court sheikhs to their side. They were successful in wooing Risha and others, who were then denounced by the rest of the Awakening leaders. The Islamic Party went on to allow the tribes to name 15 of their 29 candidates, and okay the others.
The Islamic Party and tribes continued on with their dispute right up to the voting day and beyond. First the two sides accused each other of trying to bribe voters. Sheikh Hayes went on to form his own list to run in the election known as the Iraq Tribes, made up of eleven different parties. The sheikh, always the most boisterous leader, threatened violence before the election if he didn’t win. After the actual voting at the end of January 2009 was completed, and early reports said that the Islamic Party had won a plurality, Hayes was incensed. He said there would be an uprising against the IIP if they remained in power, and that the tribes would go to war against them. The tribes also claimed there was voter fraud perpetrated by the Islamic Party. Hayes was one of the main accusers, but showing the opportunistic nature of many of the sheikhs Abu Risha broke his alliance, accused the Islamic Party of cheating, and said that the tribes would form their own government if the IIP won. The situation was so tense that the police imposed a curfew in Ramadi, U.S. Marines returned to the streets for patrols, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent an envoy to try to negotiate with the parties and keep the peace.
The negative campaign and ever dividing sheikhs appeared to turn off and confuse many voters. A member of the Iraqi Election Commission predicted low voter turnout as a result in late 2008. The official said that the people didn’t trust either the Islamic Party or the tribes, and all the infighting and divisions wasn't helping. There were also so many tribal groups, at least four major ones, that the public couldn’t tell one from the other. The official proved prophetic. Only 40% of voters turned out, the lowest percentage in the country.
When the final results were announced in mid-February Abu Risha’s Awakening of Iraq and Independents List came out on top. They were followed by parliamentarian Saleh al-Mutlaq’s Iraqi National Project, and the Islamic Party’s Alliance of Intellectuals. Sheikh Hayes’ Iraqi Tribes List finished tied for last.
Anbar Election Results
1. Awakening of Iraq and Independents – Sheikh Abu Risha: 8
2. Iraqi National Project – al-Mutlaq: 6
2. Alliance of Intellectuals and Tribes – Iraqi Islamic Party: 6
4. National Movement for Development and Reform - al-Karbouli: 3
5. Iraqi National List - Allawi: 2
5. Iraqi Tribes List – Sheikh al-Hayes: 2
5. Iraqi National Unity: 2
After that Abu Risha set about trying to form a ruling coalition. He reached out to Saleh al-Mutlaq, a former Baathist, and ex-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s secular Iraqi National List. Sheikh Hayes also expressed interest in joining the alliance. What unified them was a desire to the shut the Islamic Party out of power. When Abu Risha announced his candidates for governor however, all the divisions rose again.
The maneuverings in Anbar highlight the political immaturity and opportunism of the tribes there. Many of the Awakening leaders are new to power, haven risen to positions of prominence with the help of the U.S. in opposition to Al Qaeda in Iraq. When they were fighting the Islamists they were united, but after the insurgency was largely defeated the sheikhs’ political ambitions came to the fore, and they began to argue. With the provincial elections, the Awakening shattered into different factions that would move back and forth in ever changing alliances. Abu Risha and Hayes were semi-rivals before, and that came to the fore with the election. Abu Risha broke with Hayes to join the Islamic Party, but when it was reported they won, he split with them and joined Hayes’ attacks. Now with Risha’s List announced as the victor he’s getting a taste of his own medicine as the other tribes have rejected his choices for governor.
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