Ahmed Abu Risha, who took over leadership of the Anbar Salvation Council from his murdered
father, brother, obviously, gave a long interview to al-Arabiya this week. It's interesting to get a sense of how his political thinking is developing. He began by talking about his recent visit to Washington. He placed Abu
Musab al-Zarqawi and Joe Biden in the same category - really. He said
that first Zarqawi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir declared an Islamic State
in Anbar, and then Joe Biden declared a plan for partitioning Iraq, and
that he had gone to Washington to argue that neither was the reality of
Iraq. He said that he told Bush that he carried a message from all the
tribes of Iraq, Sunni or Shia, that they opposed partition of the
country - and that Bush told him three times that such a partition
would not happen. Somebody tell Abd al-Aziz and Ammar Hakim. Intriguingly, there is no indication in the interview that Abu Risha was made aware of the impending Bush-Maliki agreement, announced a couple of days after the interview aired, during these meetings with the President.
The most interesting parts of the interview revolved around the question of Sunni political representation. The interviewer asked Abu Risha who gave him, or the Anbar Salvation Council, the right to claim to represent anyone. Abu Risha replied that their success against al-Qaeda was the basis of their legitimacy, a fascinating mirror of the claims of the insurgency factions that their legitimacy derived from their military success against the American occupation. (He repeatedly praised the institutions of the Iraqi state, especially the the Army - but said little about the Iraqi government.) Power indeed flows from the barrel of the gun, in Abu Risha's answers, rather than the ballot box. Abu Risha dismissed the electoral legitimacy of both the local councils and the Tawafuq Bloc due to the low levels of Sunni participation in the elections. He pushed the idea of an Iraqi Awakening (Sahwa Iraq) as a "political entity" as the legitimate representative of all Iraqi tribes and all the various Awakenings. He claimed that there could be no conflict between the Awakening and the armed factions, but never got specific despite some pointed questions from the interviewer. Whenever the armed factions came up, he would change the subject to tribes - an obvious finesse of a politically major question. Finally, as always with the Awakenings, his position ultimately came down to money: he complained that under "the former government", Anbar received 870 million dinars a year from the central government, but in the 2007 budget (he claimed) it got only 289 million dinars, which weren't being spent appropriately. Hint, hint. [UPDATE - Nibras Kazimi, who seems oddly and obsessively but amusingly convinced that he's beefing with me - clearly, the guy spends a lot more time thinking about me than I do about him, and has talked himself into the most extraordinary ideas, but whatever rocks his boat - points out that Abu Risha said 289 billion dinars rather than 289 million. My mistake. The point stands - there's a serious economic component to what the ASC is looking for, and why wouldn't there be? - but I should have checked the transcript.]
The grand claims to political legitimacy made in Abu Risha's interview comes in the midst of an escalating series of skirmishes in the struggles over political power in the Sunni community. The placing of Tawafuq head Adnan Dulaimi, a bitter critic of Maliki, under house arrest over an alleged car bombing plot (Dulaimi has been accused of this sort of thing repeatedly over the years, though the charges have yet to stick). The latest effort to slide two of Anbar Salvation Council figures in to cabinet positions in place of the resigned Tawafuq ministers, blocked in Parliament for now. The head of the Sunni waqf closing down the Baghdad HQ of the Association of Muslim Scholars. Abu Risha denouncing the "corruption" of the Islamic Party. And much more.. should these be read as signs of healthy internal political competition or of a degenerating and fragmenting community? The response of Ali Hatem of the Anbar Salvation Council to John Negroponte's surprise visit to Anbar is telling in this regard. In an interview with al-Hayat, Hatem described his visit as worrisome, warning that the Bush-Maliki agreement might mean a long stay for the American forces in Iraq. But he seemed even more exercised by Negroponte's allegedly sowing internal conflicts among Iraqi leaders... which could be interpreted in a number of ways.
One last thing. There seems to be some confusion about whether the Iraqi government is planning to take over the bankrolling of the Awakenings (whose ranks suddenly dropped from 77,000 to 60,000, for reasons which may or may not be the ones officially given). The New York Times a few days ago reported government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh saying that the Iraqi government would start paying them some time next year: “It is an Iraqi responsibility, this is the right thing to do, it is not an American responsibility. And at the same time, the loyalty of these people should be to Iraq." That would be an important step linking these Sunni militias to the Iraqi state, the absence of which is seen by many as the Achilles Heel of the current strategy. But is this true? The only statement on the matter by Dabbagh in Arabic that I could find (reprinted in numerous accounts; here's the Al-Sharq al-Awsat version) is that he did not have any information about an Iraqi plan to pay such wages. Just a couple of days ago, the head of the Sunni Waqf Abd al-Ghafour al-Samarrai said that he was pained by the refusal of the Iraqi government to incorporate the Awakening fighters into the Iraqi security forces. So as of a few days ago, he didn't know of such a plan. Much more common is the drumbeat of warnings from Iraqi officials about al-Qaeda's "penetration" of the Awakenings and of the security forces, and about their fears of their development into a dangerous militia. I don't have any decisive information on this one way or the other, just questions... as with most things.
All right, back to real work now...