Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Understanding Anbar Before And After The Awakening Pt. VII Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman

Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman is from the Dualim tribe one of the largest in Iraq’s Anbar province. His story is symbolic of what beset the Awakening after its successful fight against the insurgency. Once it secured the governorate, the Awakening attempted to enter politics, and that brought out all kinds of personal rivalries, and ended up dividing and ending the tribal movement. Sulaiman went from threatening the Iraqi Islamic Party that ruled Anbar, to making a deal with it. He was an ally of Sheikh Abu Risha then became his critic. He then allied with Premier Nouri al-Maliki only to turn on him. He is currently part of the Anbar protest movement where he has made a number of inflammatory statements against the government. It seemed like fighting the insurgency was the easy part for the Awakening, because when it attempted to take control of Anbar and gain a voice in Baghdad the movement fractured.

Sheikh Sulaiman addressing a protest site in Anbar Feb. 2013 (LA Times)

Sheikh Sulaiman claimed that he was an early opponent of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In 2004 the Islamists began emerging in Anbar, and he went to the Americans about it. Sulaiman was not happy with their presence because he believed they were a threat to the country. In 2005 the sheikh met with the Defense and Interior Ministries and asked to create an Anbar protection force made up of local tribes to counter the insurgents. Baghdad gave its permission, but then the sheikhs failed to come up with the manpower. Sulaiman thought that Al Qaeda had intimidated the tribes. The sheikh didn’t give up, and in 2006 he went to U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad unsuccessfully asking for aid for a tribal defense force. Around the same time Sheikh Hamid al-Hayes started fighting Al Qaeda. Those two would later join with Sheikh Abdul Abu Risha in the Awakening towards the end of 2006. Before the Awakening there were several attempts by tribes in Anbar to rise up against the insurgency. Other sheikhs like Sulaiman also went to the authorities and the U.S. military asking for assistance to varying degrees of success. The problem was none of these attempts had staying power.

Sulaiman envisioned the Awakening as an indigenous movement that would exploit the excesses of Al Qaeda to gain popular support. The sheikh brought up one incident involving the wife and daughter from the Albu Ali Jassim tribe who were stopped by Al Qaeda and dragged by their hair in front of a crowd. Stories like that were spread by the Awakening to get other tribes to join. Sulaiman also wanted to keep his distance from the Americans so that it would not look like the tribal revolt was a tool of the U.S. An important turning point was when Sulaiman, Hayes, and other sheikhs met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asking for the Awakening to be incorporated into the local security forces, and the premier agreed. There were many stories about the crimes that Al Qaeda committed in Anbar that eventually turned the people against them. Its murder of anyone that didn’t agree with it made Anbaris go from seeing the Islamists as their allies to a threat, and that was a major reason why the Awakening was able to organize tribes against them. The tribal revolt also eventually got the support of Baghdad, because it was seen as a local initiative. That was crucial because it legitimized the Awakening fighters when they joined the security forces.

The real challenge for the Awakening didn’t come from fighting the insurgency, but attempting to enter politics. Soon after forming in 2006 many of the Awakening leaders accused the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) that was in control of the provincial council of abandoning their posts during the violence. The sheikhs demanded that the Islamic Party step down from office and that Awakening leaders assume their positions. Some like Sulaiman went as far as threatening the council members if they didn’t. Marine General John Kelly stepped in and negotiated a compromise between the two sides that allowed some Awakening members to join the council. By 2008 Sheikh Sulaiman and others had allied with the Islamic Party, which led them to be denounced by other Awakening members. Sulaiman then became a critic of his former ally Sheikh Abu Risha claiming that he got more attention then he deserved. Before the 2009 provincial elections, the sheikh ended up aligning with the prime minister by forming a pro-Maliki tribal support council in Anbar. He then created the Flags of Iraq coalition that joined the premier’s State of Law list for the 2010 parliamentary vote. Afterward the two split, and Sulaiman went on to become an opponent accusing Maliki of working with Iran. Eventually the sheikh became an opportunist and joined the Anbar protest movement that started in December 2012 after Baghdad attempted to arrest some of then Finance Minister Rafi Issawi’s bodyguards. After the government raid upon the Hawija protest site in April 2013, Sulaiman called for his tribesmen to carry weapons and defend the protest sites, and later called for an uprising to force the army and police out of Sunni areas of the country. The sheikhs’ path since 2006 showed how the Awakening movement fractured when it tried its hand at politics. Sulaiman followed a twisting path of never ending alliances with one group after another, often to turn on them later on. In the process he alienated many, and seemed driven by jealousy and personal rivalries as much as political differences with parties and individuals. That happened with many other Awakening members and accounts for why there are no longer a unified group.

Sheikh Sulaiman was one of many Anbar notables that saw that Al Qaeda in Iraq was a threat. His early attempts to get government and U.S. support for fighting the Islamists failed, but by 2006 he joined the Awakening and helped secure the province. That was the height of his success. When he took on politics it was a much different picture not only for him, but for many of the Awakening sheikhs. Over and over he would go from attacking a personality or party to then aligning with them, and then ending that relationship later on. Currently the sheikh is part of the Anbar protest movement, and he’s made a name for himself by some of his fiery speeches about challenging Baghdad and taking up weapons. That hasn’t brought him the standing that Sulaiman has been looking for over these many years. Instead it seems like he will be caught up in internal Anbar rivalries for the foreseeable future like many other former leaders of the Awakening undermining any chance to play a larger role in Iraqi politics.


International Crisis Group, “Iraq’s Provincial Elections: The Stakes,” 1/27/09

McWilliams, Chief Warrant Officer-4 Timothy, and Wheeler, Lieutenant Colonel Kurtis, ed., Al-Anbar Awakening Volume II, Iraqi Perspectives, From Insurgency to Counterinsurgency in Iraq, 2004-2009, Virginia: Marine Corps University, 2009

Parker, Ned, “Iraq’s Nouri Maliki may gain power with U.S. security agreement,” Los Angeles Times, 11/24/08

Sadah, Ali Abel, “Sunni Iraqi Leaders Accused Of Supporting Terrorism,” Al-Monitor, 3/11/13
- “Sunni Tribes in Anbar, Kirkuk Prepare for Battle,” Al-Monitor, 5/3/13

Saeed, Samer Elias, “Inside Iraq: Sunni tribes call for arms,” Azzaman, 4/26/13

Visser, Reidar, “Why an Allawi-Hakim Alliance would Mean Retrogression in Iraq,” Iraq and Gulf Analysis, 9/21/09

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