| RAMADI, Iraq
RAMADI, Iraq A senior leader in a Sunni Arab movement founded to combat al Qaeda in Iraq is edging away from the military activity of the past, toward a once unthinkable alliance with the country's Shi'ite prime minister.
Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha is head of the Awakening Conference, a political party born out of an armed movement that uprooted al Qaeda and other militants from Anbar province in western Iraq, once the deadliest place for U.S. forces in Iraq.
Abu Risha's renunciation of armed struggle and steps toward working with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki could be a landmark in new political cooperation between Iraq's majority Shi'ites and minority Sunnis after years of bloodshed.
"The prime minister's initiatives have been positive," said Abu Risha, who is considering an alliance with Maliki's State of Law coalition, which like the Awakening Conference made major gains in provincial elections in January.
Such an alliance before parliamentary polls in December could add momentum to nationalist political sentiment in Iraq, which helped propel Maliki to victory over religious groups.
"If we want a unified Iraq, we must work in that direction, on unifying Sunnis and Shi'ites to build one country," he said.
The sheikh, dressed in Arab head dress, robe and aviator sunglasses, fired a rifle into the air with one hand to herald his party's confirmation as head of a new coalition dominating Anbar's provincial council.
Abu Risha inherited the movement from his late brother, Sheikh Abdul Sattar, who from 2006 onwards rallied thousands of Sunni Arab supporters to take up arms against al Qaeda in Anbar.
The Sunni Arab militias, dubbed Awakening Councils or Majalis al Sahwa in Arabic, quickly found U.S. backing and spread across Iraq. The militiamen, who numbered up to 100,000, are credited with helping curb violence across Iraq.
Abu Risha says the time for militias has ended. "We are a political, not an armed, group," he said, even as his supporters' celebratory gunfire echoed across the countryside.
The Shi'ite-led government, keen to end the years of bloodshed which followed the U.S.-led invasion, wants to disarm militias, and has pledged to absorb a fifth of the Sahwa into its security forces and give others civilian jobs and training.
But the presence of many former Sunni insurgents among the Sahwa has led to tensions that recently erupted into violence after Iraqi forces arrested senior Sahwa members in Baghdad.
Abu Risha stressed that his party had nothing to do with the Sahwa militias that clashed with government forces in Baghdad.
"We are keen to ensure our name is not sullied," he said.
Abu Risha also warned that al Qaeda may be trying to foment strife between the government and Sahwa militias and prevent other possible alliances with militia members.
"Al Qaeda sometimes pushes people to report on the Sahwa because they carried out operations against them," he said.
"Al Qaeda's aim is for no one to stand with the government in future."
Despite its Shi'ite Islamist roots, Maliki's nationalist, non-sectarian message played well in January's polls, and Abu Risha now appears keen to embrace the same platform.
The Islamic Party, Iraq's biggest Sunni Arab party, has dominated Anbar's council for four years, but came in third in January's polls. Abu Risha dismissed the party.
"It is a party of religion and dogma. We are about politics and economics," he said.
(Editing by Jonathan Wright)