Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
Published: December 13, 2011
RAMADI, Iraq — Meeting various neighbors and supplicants on a recent evening, America’s staunchest ally in Iraq, Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, sat in a tent sipping tea from an implausibly tiny glass cup. He greeted each new visitor with a hearty outburst of “dear one” and a kiss on the cheek.
At one point a young man walked in carrying an M-16 rifle, leaned over and kissed the sheik on the cheek, too, in a clear sign of loyalty from a member of a tribal militia.
Mr. Abu Risha is often credited with helping turn the tide of the Iraq war beginning in 2006 by rallying local tribal leaders to fight Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, which has some foreign members. He still commands, by his own estimate, about 80,000 militia members.
With two weeks left before the United States military completes its withdrawal from Iraq, these units, known broadly as the Sunni Awakening, still remain outside the new Iraqi police force and army. Ragtag groups of men wearing jeans and carrying rifles at dusty checkpoints throughout western Iraq, they are a loose end left by the United States.
Some Awakening members are former insurgents and members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party who fought in a nationalist wing of the Sunni uprising early in the war, a matter of grave concern to the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Without the buffer provided by the Americans, relations between the Awakening and the central government, always touchy, are growing increasingly strained, and the government now wants the Awakening to disband by Dec. 31, the deadline for the exit of the United States military.
Mr. Abu Risha, in an interview in his compound beside a lazy bend in the Euphrates River, said members of the tribal militias in western Iraq were not likely to disarm quickly — and certainly not by the end of the month.
“I don’t think the Awakening members will give up their weapons,” he said, contending that the problem was a lack of government protection against Al Qaeda. “They want to defend themselves. The weapons they carry are their personal weapons.”
In the tradition of the endless negotiations, feints and shifting alliances of desert tribes, the Sunni chieftains in Anbar Province unexpectedly switched sides in 2006 and 2007, in perhaps the most important single step for establishing stability here after the war and the insurgency. Once on the American side, they were an enormous help in hunting down their former insurgent allies, members of the Islamic militias, including Al Qaeda.
Members of the Abu Risha family first caught the eye of American commanders in Anbar Province by attacking trucks carrying Qaeda militants passing on the highway in front of their compound in 2006.
These were acts of vengeance more than politics; Al Qaeda had killed eight family members. But they illustrated that the tribe and the United States had a common enemy. Soon, platoons of Marines were dropping into the Abu Risha compound for feasts of lamb and rice, and fighting side by side with former insurgents and Baathists they might have been battling just months before.
But the pendulum is now swinging back toward repression of Baathists, something being discussed over tea in places like Mr. Abu Risha’s tent, pitched in the courtyard of his fortresslike compound.
The Shiite-dominated central government has arrested prominent Sunnis on accusations that they are secret members of the long-disbanded Baath Party, which has alienated Sunni elites. Meanwhile, a Sunni revolt a few hundred miles to the north of here against the Shiite-aligned government in neighboring Syria is gathering force.
Last month, government police officers wounded two guards and detained two others in a raid on the home of a Sunni, Sheik Albo Baz, in Salahuddin Province, prompting a protest by several thousand Sunnis in Samarra, a city divided by sect.
This followed the roundup by police officers of 600 suspected Baath Party sympathizers in October; they were accused of planning a coup.
Distressingly for Sunnis, the government paraded some of those arrested on state television in a bizarre spectacle: relatives of their supposed victims were invited into the room and screamed at the suspects, and demanded their execution. Such a program was a tradition on Mr. Hussein’s state television, though the suspects then were more likely to be Shiites.
In the interview, Mr. Abu Risha produced an envelope containing photographs of shrapnel damage on an armored sport utility vehicle, proof, he said, that he was the target of an assassination attempt two months ago on a highway in Abu Ghraib.
He said a Shiite-dominated police brigade that is part of the central government was responsible, because the roadside bomb that struck his car, ineffectually, was set 50 yards from one of the brigade’s watch towers.
The government has denied this, though the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr agreed to open an investigation into the unit, called the Muthana Brigade.
Mr. Maliki and other Shiite politicians insist that they are legally fighting sedition among former Baathists, and that the police are evenhanded with Sunnis.
Mohammad Rida, a member of the Sadrist party in Iraq’s Parliament, said in an interview that the government had documents indicating that Baath Party sleeper cells intended to stage a coup after the American withdrawal. The police obtained the names of hundreds of conspirators in a confession by a former Baathist detained in July, he said.
In addition, Mr. Rida said, documents found in the ruins of the Libyan intelligence office after the fall of Tripoli corroborated the plot. “Iraq did what any other country would do,” he said. “We responded.”
Mr. Abu Risha’s compound is less than a mile from what used to be Camp Blue Diamond, home of the young United States Army officers who first struck up a friendship with him, and who brought him to the American side. (A grandfather of Mr. Abu Risha had chosen a different path, choosing to fight the British occupation in the 1920s.)
About 30,000 former Awakening militia members have received jobs in the Anbar police, and thousands more have entered the army. Mr. Abu Risha said about 80,000 remained in irregular tribal-based units. The central government has put thatfigure at 50,000.
Mr. Abu Risha has entered politics, with nine supporters in Parliament, but he does not hold public office, wielding power instead in informal gatherings over tea or feasts at his house.
He often cites the Iraqi Constitution in asserting rights for Anbar Province and describes himself as an Iraqi patriot opposed to any foreign meddling in Iraq, whether from Syria or Iran.
In the latest calibration of his loyalties, Mr. Abu Risha has become a steadfast supporter of Kurdistan-style autonomy for the Sunni desert regions of western and northern Iraq, a position gaining traction in provincial councils. This, he said, would resolve disagreements with the central government about the expected wealth from natural gas fields in the desert and the future of militias, with regions being granted the right to field their own guard units.
“We will form a region,” he said.
Omar al-Jawoshy contributed reporting.