Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Why Anbar’s Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman Joined Iraq’s Protest Movement

Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman is one of the leaders of the Dulaim tribe, one of the largest in western Iraq that stretches into neighboring Jordan. Sulaiman has attached himself to the protest movement in Anbar, and has become known for his inflammatory speeches. It wasn’t that long ago however, that the sheikh was an ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His path that led him from a supporter to an opponent of the government is due to Sulaiman’s opportunism, and desire to become a prominent sheikh throughout Iraq like his grandfather once was.

Sheikh Sulaiman has been trying to return to his family’s once prominent position in Anbar  (Los Angeles Times)

Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman has joined the Anbar protest movement in his latest attempt to gain power. Sulaiman has worked his way into the demonstrators by befriending their spokesman Said al-Lafi. The sheikh has been known to give outrageous speeches in the city, often threatening violence. As a result, he was removed from the electoral list for the 2013 provincial vote, which has been delayed in Anbar. In January, Sulaiman started off by simply repeating some of the main demands of the movement such as releasing female prisoners. By March, he was accusing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of working for Iran. In April, he said that tribes in Anbar should arm themselves, warned that the security forces should not leave their barracks, because people wanted their blood after the government raid upon the demonstrators in Hawija. Then in May he demanded that Maliki be replaced, and said that the Pride and Dignity Army was ready to defend the protesters if the authorities attacked them. Sulaiman has embraced the Ramadi movement, and given these types of speeches in order to raise his profile in Anbar. That city’s protests have been more moderate than in others, some of which are connected to the insurgency. In order to make himself stand out, he has turned to more virulent accusations against Baghdad, and made reference to taking up the gun. That was a turn for Sulaiman who was once aligned with the prime minister.

Before, Sheikh Sulaiman’s plans involved attaching himself to the Americans, and then the Maliki government. Sulaiman was one of the founders of the Anbar Awakening Council that involved tribal fighters that turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq in the province. In 2008, he formed a Tribal Support Council in the governorate as part of Prime Minister Maliki’s strategy to build up support amongst sheikhs. By 2010, he joined the premier’s State of Law list for that year’s parliamentary elections. At the time, Maliki was looking for Sunni allies to expand his base outside of his traditional Shiite followers. That was a decision that was not going to win the sheikh many supporters, especially when the prime minister backed the banning of candidates before the vote for being former Baathists. That marriage of convenience didn’t last as Sulaiman quickly quit the alliance after the balloting. The next year, he joined the call to make Anbar a region in response to a wave of arrests of alleged Baathists by Maliki. By the end of 2011, he had his house in Baghdad raided, and some of his guards were arrested for ties to the former regime. He blamed Maliki, and accused the premier of using the security forces for his own political ends. All of these moves were aimed at gaining notoriety and power. Allying with the Americans through the Awakening movement opened up a new source of money and weapons, and rode the wave of Sunnis turning on the insurgency. Then working with Baghdad added Sulaiman to Maliki’s patronage network through first the Tribal Councils, and then as part of the prime minister’s party. That paid little dividends in Anbar however as the prime minister had few supporters there. That led Sulaiman to break with Maliki, and become a critic. The sheikh therefore has been characterized by key strategic moves along with a healthy dose of opportunism in his attempt to restore his family’s standing.

Since 2003, Sheikh Sulaiman has tried to pick winners in the ever-changing sea of Iraqi politics, and ride that wave until another force emerges. That explains why he went from being a supporter of Prime Minister Maliki to an opponent. His tactics have brought him wealth and a good share of notoriety, but probably not as much as he would like. Other Anbar sheikhs such as Ahmed Abu Risha have had much more success, which likely bothers Sulaiman to no end. That’s because Sulaiman would like to have the same status and power of not only them, but of his grandfather who was one of the leading tribal leaders in Iraq during the late Ottoman and British mandate period. It’s this memory that is a driving force for the sheikh. That’s probably why Sulaiman has emerged as a firebrand speaker at the Ramadi protests. How else might the former try to adhere himself to the masses other than making himself stand out with addresses aimed at attacking the prime minister’s rule, and threatening violence if the government doesn’t change? Whenever the protests end, the sheikh will have to find another cause in an attempt to become an influential leader not only in Anbar, but nationally as well as Sulaiman aspires to.


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Unknown said...

Your article ignores the risk that Sulaiman and all opponents of Maliki take, opportunism maybe the main motivation of his supporters but not his opponents. Sulaiman and many others are under constant threat, opposition parties lost over 20 candidates by assassinations.

Joel Wing said...

Haven't assassinations been a constant in Iraqi politics long before and probably long after the protests end?

Faisal Kadri said...

Yea, all assassinations are the same.. And now Maliki's army is surrounding Sulaiman's farm getting ready to lynch him, the poor opportunist!!


Joel Wing said...

I'm not trying to make light of the violence, but just trying to point out that it's always been there. Sulaiman I think had 8 attempts on his life when he was part of the Awakening fighting insurgents. One time his house was blown up.