5 Min Read
By Waleed Ibrahim and Fadhel al-Badrani
RAMADI/FALLUJA, Iraq, Jan 23 (Reuters) - They rose up against al Qaeda, flushed out suicide bombers and brought relative peace to western Iraq. Now, the Sunni Arab sheikhs of Anbar province want to take charge of it, through the ballot box.
Sitting beneath a photograph of his smiling son, killed by al Qaeda militants two years ago, Sheikh Amir Ali al-Sulaiman said he couldn't wait to stand for a seat in Jan. 31 local elections, after he boycotted the last ones in January 2005.
"We are determined to participate to reclaim what we missed out on before," the Sunni tribal leader said in Ramadi, capital of the vast desert province bordering Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. "We urge people to vote this time."
The shops, homes and blastwalls of Ramadi and Falluja, the province's two main cities, are festooned with posters and campaign slogans -- a stark contrast to the last time around, when no politician dared to campaign openly for fear of attack.
Anbar's overwhelmingly Sunni Arab population stayed away from the last vote, which took place months after two devastating U.S. military assaults on Falluja killed hundreds of people and left much of it in ruins.
The central government had to appoint local councillors, most allied to the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), the largest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament. Soon after, al Qaeda seized control.
But due in part to local chiefs, like Sulaiman, who eventually teamed up with the U.S. military, al Qaeda was driven out. By trading on their war hero image, the sheikhs hope they will now be rewarded at the polls at the IIP's expense.
"Our goal is to get rid of the IIP," Sheikh Hameed al-Hayyes told Reuters. "We will fight them with all the power we have."
Analysts say they stand a good chance.
"The working assumption is that the IIP will get wiped out in Anbar," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq specialist at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The provincial vote, set to take place in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces, will apportion 440 seats across the country to councils that elect powerful regional governors.
The Sunni boycott of the last vote also resulted in Kurds controlling the northern province of Nineveh even though they form only a quarter of the population there and in Shi'ites running Diyala province at the expense of Sunnis.
Both those areas remain among Iraq's most volatile.
Officials hope this month's vote will reconcile minority Sunni Arabs, dominant under Saddam Hussein, with the rest of the country and especially the majority Shi'ites. But rising intra-Sunni tensions in Anbar may re-ignite bloodshed there.
"The mutual animosity and contempt is easy to perceive," said Dodge, and any hint of vote fraud could lead to "profound instability" there.
The sheikhs, many of them former insurgents, gained new wealth and prestige when they formed U.S.-backed "Awakening Councils", also known as "Sahwa", to fight al Qaeda.
Many were in charge of thousands of fighters paid by the U.S. military in bundles of cash channelled through the sheikhs.
They now want to use that influence to take Anbar's 41 council seats, of which 18 are filled by IIP rank-and-file members and most of the rest by politicians allied to them.
Despite forecasts of a surge in assassinations in Iraq as the vote nears, violence has been relatively muted. Two of the 14,431 candidates nationwide have been killed, neither in Anbar. A suicide bomber killed a Sunni party leader in the north.
Senior Anbar tribal Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha predicted a big win for his Sahwa and Independents' National Alliance.
"The Anbar governor and the Iraqi Islamic Party have utterly failed to provide people with services," he said. "We will take over the province."
The Iraqi Islamic Party leaders say that's wishful thinking.
"(The tribal leaders) don't have the ability to lead; they lack the presence and organisation. We are sure we will win," said Othman al-Kubaisi, deputy head of the IIP's Falluja branch.
Many voters in Anbar speak well of the sheikhs and the security that they and their gunmen restored to the streets.
"They are true patriots," said Yaseen Jasim, 44, a teacher. (Additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Baghdad; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Michael Christie and Samia Nakhoul)