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Political Fight Threatens Anbar Peace

Nirmeen Hamid
As provincial council elections draw near, political conflict in Anbar province is raising fears of a return of violence to the former al-Qaeda stronghold.
19.11.2008  |  Anbar

The long-standing conflict between tribal Awakening forces and the Islamic Party, which currently holds power in the provincial government, is escalating. Meanwhile, tribal forces are themselves witnessing division as some of them ally with the Islamic Party.

Observers now worry that the conflict may facilitate an al-Qaeda return to the province. Already security conditions seem to be deteriorating and some analysts say that the awakening councils, who played a key role in defeating al-Qaeda, are no longer effectively cooperating with each other and government forces.

In recent months, and despite the seeming defeat of al-Qaeda militants, a series of bombings, ranging from car bomb attacks to suicide operations, have occurred, resulting in the death of tens of people including members of the Islamic party and Awakening leaders. Meanwhile, a U.S. military plane recently crashed east of Ramadi city in circumstances that have yet to be revealed. These incidents have raised fears that al-Qaeda militants and violence may be returning to the province.

This deterioration in security comes on the back of intense political confrontation as local elections, now scheduled for January, approach. At the forefront of this political battle is the competition between the Islamic Party, which stood unopposed in 2005 elections, and the Awakening Council, which only recently formed a political entity.

According to the Awakening Council, the Islamic Party is fraudulently abusing its municipal power-base in an attempt to secure an electoral victory. The Council claims that the party is paying off voters and distributing government land and assets in order to gain support. The Islamic Party has leveled similar accusations against the Council, while at the same time trying to politically divide the entity by attracting some tribal leaders to its side.

As a sign of the divisions afflicting the tribal camp, a recent council conference was boycotted by 40 tribal leaders who withdrew in opposition to the alliance between Sheikh Abu Risha, the head of the Awakening Council, and the National Independent Gathering, a political entity of the Islamic Party. According to one opponent, Sheikh al-Hamishi, the alliance does not serve the Awakening movement and was concluded without consulting other tribal leaders. Al-Hamishi criticised Abu Risha for the move, saying it contradicted the Awakening approach “which prohibits alliances with other parties.”

According to Sheikh Ali al-Dulaimi from the Al-Hatm clan, "the Islamic Party has began penetrating clans and pouring in funds in an attempt to gain electoral votes.” Another tribal leader, Sheikh Hamid, claimed that the Islamic party was engaged in “secret deals with some conservative tribal elders to persuade them to enter the electoral list as independents, while being secretly linked to the party." Hamid said he would soon reveal the names of the tribal leaders working with the Islamic Party.

The Islamic Party has rejected all the claims, describing them as "media fanfare" and criticizing the tribal figures for their rhetoric and accusations, blaming it on their political inexperience. The groups are "new on the political map and believe that politics means an exchange of accusations," said one Islamic Party voice.

Yet as inter-tribal divisions and conflicts between the Islamic Party and tribal forces escalate, observers fear that cooperation between local government partners in maintaining provincial security will be undermined. The U.S. army has announced that it will transfer all security responsibilities to Iraqis after the election and some observers fear that this security vacuum will not be adequately filled because of electoral divisions.

Residents of Anbar province are cautiously looking ahead to the election. While they are supposed to mark the beginning of an era of peaceful, democratic rule, some fear they will instead provoke a return to darker days.

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