Sheikh Abdul Abu Risha and Sheikh Wissam Abdul Ibrahim Hardan were the brains behind the Anbar Awakening. The two met in 2006, and decided to organize the major tribes in the province against the insurgents. The problem was that many of the sheikhs were reluctant at first to join in Abu Risha and Hardan’s scheme. The Awakening also had to convince the Americans of their sincerity, and deal with the Iraqi Islamic Party that controlled Anbar. Once they overcame these difficulties, and were successful in expelling the militants however, the Awakening began breaking up. Those divisions are still apparent today as Hardan has now become an ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and opposes his former Anbar brethren. The Awakening experience for Hardan then was a disappointment. He became a hero for fighting militants, but then failed to gain the local and national power that he hoped for.
Sheikh Hardan had his own views on opposing the insurgency before the Awakening was formed. He felt that the militants were using indiscriminate violence. They killed former military officers and sheikhs in Anbar, along with pushing out many of the province’s Shiite residents. Many of these people became refugees in neighboring countries or within Iraq itself. Sheikh Hardan finally had enough, and in 2005 gathered around 500 ex-soldiers to fight the insurgents. He went to then Defense Minister Sadoun Dulaimi who was a relative of his to ask permission for his fighters to carry weapons, but he was turned down. That put an end to Hardan’s initiative for the time being, because without government support his men could be arrested and killed by the security forces. Hardan’s main motivation was his belief that the insurgents had gone too far in Anbar. His first attempt at challenging them failed, but he did not give up.
In 2006, Hardan was stirred into action again, this time by Sheikh Abdul Abu Risha. The two were connected by marriage, as Hardan’s wife was Abu Risha’s cousin. Abu Risha contacted Hardan to meet with him about an idea to get the sheikhs in Anbar organized against the militants. Hardan was reluctant at first, but they eventually got together and came up with a plan. The first step was that they needed to convince the tribes that the time had come to confront the insurgents. The second was that they had to get popular support. Hardan then went about contacting the clerics in the province such as Abdul Malik al-Saadi and Ahmed al-Kubaysi. Hardan eventually got a fatwa condoning attacks upon the militants. This was the first move towards forming the Awakening. Many American accounts of Anbar stress the tribes, but fail to mention the role of the religious establishment in transforming the province. Abu Risha and Hardan knew their importance, and that was why they went to them first. Their personal relationship was also important, because Abu Risha was a young sheikh from a minor tribe. He came up with the idea of a new tribal revolt, but lacked the standing to convince others of his idea. That was why he reached out to Hardan who was far more prominent to talk to the sheikhs. He became the elder statesman of the Awakening.
Next on the agenda was a trip to Amman, Jordan to convince the sheikhs who had fled the fighting in Anbar to come back and join the revolt. Sheikh Hardan was again at the forefront contacting tribes and their leaders trying to get them to commit 50 fighters each. Many did not want to work with Abu Risha, because he had contacts with the Americans, and was therefore considered a collaborator with the occupation. Others accused Hardan and Abu Risha of not being real sheikhs, and attempting to usurp their power over their tribes. Hardan used the murder of Sheikh Khalid Araq Ataymi from the Albu Aetha tribe by Al Qaeda in Iraq as a rallying point, saying that the other tribes needed to avenge his death. Ataymi was thinking of his own uprising at the time, and was killed as a result. Finally a meeting was set in September 2006, which led to the formation of the Anbar Salvation Council. 41 sheikhs were chosen to be on the council with Abu Risha named governor of Anbar since the group claimed the real one was illegitimate, Hardan was made his deputy, and Sheikh Hamid Farhan al-Hayes was made head of the group. Hardan’s standing in Anbar and the continued violence of the insurgents helped turn opinion in Abu Risha’s favor, and led to the creation of the Awakening. Hardan also claimed that he was given a speech by the Americans to deliver to the sheikhs. If true, that might have convinced some to join as well, because that meant they would get the military support of the U.S.
After several tribes rose up in Anbar, Hardan and Abu Risha tried to acquire government approval for their actions. Hardan contacted his friend Parliamentarian Mithal al-Alusi from the Ummah Party to get him to be a middleman with Baghdad. Eventually an appointment was made with Prime Minister Maliki, which went very badly. The premier did not want to give the tribes any aid, they in turn threatened him, and it seemed like nothing was achieved. Two days later, National Security Adviser Mowfaq Rubaie announced that the government was backing the Awakening. Hardan gave no explanation for this turn around. One of the goals of the Awakening from the beginning was to gain official recognition, something Hardan had tried and failed at in 2005. The group always wanted to be accepted by the authorities so that they could openly operate, and more importantly it wanted to put their men into the local police and army units, so that they could eventually take over Anbar. By controlling the security forces they would have a monopoly on the use of force a traditional way to power in Iraq. Maliki was weary of them at first, since they were Sunnis, and many had contacts with the insurgency, but they were eventually accepted as an indigenous Iraqi movement. That would later cause divisions in Anbar, as Abu Risha and Hardan were accused of being puppets of Baghdad. Those internal disputes would be the downfall of the Awakening.
Getting the support of the Americans and the Anbar provincial government proved much more difficult and divisive for the Awakening. Abu Risha was always in contact with Americans forces to inform them of his operations so that his units would not be attacked. They went back and forth, but eventually threw their lot in with the tribes. The governor of Anbar at that time was Mamoun Sami Rasheed from the Iraqi Islamic Party. He did not approve of the Awakening seeing it as a threat to his power. Hardan also warned Abu Risha about getting involved with politicians, believing that they could easily manipulate the sheikh. The Americans set up a meeting in Fallujah between Governor Rasheed, Abu Risha, General Richard Zilmer the Marine commander in the province, and a delegation from the U.S. Embassy. After a large argument between Abu Risha and Governor Rasheed, General Zilmer suggested a compromise between the two, which eventually allowed five members of the Awakening to join the provincial council. This deal caused a split between Hardan and Abu Risha and his brother Ahmed Abu Risha. Hardan accused Ahmed Abu Risha of being close to the Islamic Party, and selling out the tribes. Hardan claimed that this divide within the movement increased in the following months, and led to it being infiltrated, and Abdul Abu Risha’s eventual assassination in September 2007. The Americans did finally come around and support the Awakening after a rough start. The outreach to the Islamic Party proved much more difficult, and was perhaps the undoing of the organization. Ahmed Abu Risha continued to make deals with the Islamic Party such as before the 2009 provincial elections. This was condemned by other members of the Awakening such as Sheikh Hamid al-Hayes. It also led to the official break-up of the group as Abu Risha, Hayes, and two other prominent members Ali al-Sulaiman and Amer al-Sulaiman all ran separately in the vote. Abu Risha’s party ended up winning the most seats on the Anbar council in 2009, but at a price, the end of the Awakening. Today, the major sheikhs in the movement have all reverted to their own individual agendas. Abu Risha continues his ties with the Islamic Party, and is a major leader in the Anbar protest movement, while Hardan is now allied with Sheikh Hayes and Prime Minister Maliki in opposition. Once the unity of the sheikhs was lost, so were their hopes for greater power within the country. The break-up of the Awakening allowed the Islamic Party, Baghdad, and others to cut deals and play divide and conquer in Anbar. It is these continued splits within the province that help explain why Speaker Osama Nujafi’s Mutahidun, which was backed by Abu Risha and the protesters only won eight out of 30 seats in the 2013 provincial elections. There are simply far too many leaders in Anbar to win a decisive political victory there. From the start, Abdul Abu Risha and Hardan wanted national status. It seemed like they were going to achieve that when both Baghdad and the Americans supported the Awakening, they were able to place their men within the Anbar security forces, and gain seats on the Anbar council. That success however, led to jealousy and bitterness between the sheikhs, which still exist and divides the province.
Sheikh Hardan’s story highlights the rise and fall of the Anbar Awakening. He and Sheikh Abu Risha were the founders of the Awakening, and had a grand vision of turning their tribal revolt in Anbar into a national movement that would lead to influence in Baghdad. Their early success turned to disappointment when they got involved in politics. Hardan warned about cutting deals with the Iraqi Islamic Party, and that led to divisions within the movement, and its eventual break-up. Today there are several different Awakening groups in Anbar all competing with each other. Hardan leads one, and has aligned with Premier Maliki against Abu Risha and the protests. These internal rivalries have weakened the sheikhs, pitted them against each other, and opened the door to outside influence. That explains why the Awakening did not go from a local success story to a national power in Iraq.
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