Alliance Building in Anbar: Sunnis Join Cross-Sectarian Trend




September 7, 2009


With national elections fast approaching alliance building in the Sunni province of Anbar is underway, characterized by a seeming desire across the province's political spectrum to reach across sectarian boundaries.

Registration for participation in January's parliamentary elections began in August and while there have been few public declarations as of yet, it seems that a nationalistic mood is prevailing.

The three dominant Sunni lists in the province, the Anbar Awakening Council led by Ahmed Abu Risha, the National Project Gathering led by Saleh al-Mutlaq, and the Coalition of Intellectuals and Tribes, the political face of the province's Islamic Party, have yet to declare their strategies but it seems that the first two, at least, are reaching out to Shia forces in a bid for electoral success.

Many political analysts say it is likely that Abu Risha's Awakening Council which came first in January's provincial elections, securing eight seats, will form a coalition with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition. Representatives from the two sides met recently to discuss forming "a national and non-sectarian alliance."

Following the recent break of al-Maliki, head of the Shia Dawa party, with the grand Shia Alliance, the Prime Minister has been reaching out to potential new political partners on a nationalistic platform. Abu Risha recently praised al-Maliki for his support in the battle against al-Qaeda in the province, as well as his crack-down on Shia militias.

But a senior Awakening Council official, Arkan Khalaf Tarmouz, told Niqash that "so far we have not made an alliance with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition and discussions are ongoing with a number of other political powers."

There had been talk that the Awakening Council would make an alliance with the National Project Gathering, which won six seats in the provincial elections, but according to a Gathering source, who would only talk on condition of anonymity, Abu Risha's talks with al-Maliki have made such an alliance unlikely.

Al-Mutlaq, a secular, anti-Iranian nationalistic figure, who at one point also considered an al-Maliki coalition, is now likely to ally with the Iraqi National Accord, led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

According to Salem al-Issawi, a provincial council member for the Gathering, there is a good possibility of such an alliance. "We believe that the Iraqi National Accord shares a similar approach to ours: we are both seeking an independent and national Iraq, far from sectarianism," he told Niqash.

Amidst this confusion, the Islamic party has not yet declared its electoral position. Party sources say the party hopes to "reintroduce itself as the most powerful Sunni party in Iraq." In 2005 provincial elections the Islamic party secured 36 out of 41 seats but in 2009 it only won six seats as tribal forces emerged to the fore.

According to the source "surprise" steps can be expected from the party's new leader, Osama al-Tikriti, who recently took over as General Secretary from Tariq al-Hashimi.

While the province's main parties remain cautious in revealing their election strategies, other provincial parties have already declared their positions.

The Anbar Salvation Council, chaired by Sheikh Hamid al-Hayes, has announced an alliance with the Iraqi National Alliance, the new grand alliance of many of the country's Shia parties.

While critics of the Iraqi National Alliance accuse it of being a sectarian body and say that the coalition is a dishonest attempt to present a nationalistic front, al-Hayes plays down fears. "[This alliance] is an attempt to dismantle abhorrent tribalism and sectarianism and to build bridges of love with various parts of Iraq, from north to south, from east to west," he said.

Al-Hayes was previously a member of the Awakening Council but left the party prior to the provincial elections after Abu Risha formed an election alliance - without consulting other Council Leaders - with the National Gathering of Independents, an Islamic party linked body. Al-Hayes subsequently founded the Salvation Council but it won no seats in the provincial elections.

Analysts say al-Hayes is hoping his new alliance with the Shia coalition will bring him new votes and a parliamentary seat.

Another former Awakening Council figure, Sheikh Hatem al-Suleiman, who left the party for the same reason as al-Hayes and who subsequently established the Anbar Salvation National Front is also transcending sectarian divisions and has announced an alliance with the independent Shia politician Yousef al-Habboubi from Karbala. The two figures have announced the formation of an alliance named Banners of Iraq, which includes 22 political entities including over 100 tribal leaders from across Iraq.

In a statement to Niqash al-Suleiman declared that the aim of the alliance is "a unified Iraq which serves and fulfils the ambitions of the Iraqi people without distinction between Shia and Sunni."

At the same time, a leader close to al-Suleiman revealed to Niqash that "al-Suleiman is trying to activate the political and national role of tribes and draw more attention to them." The tribal leader, who refused to be named, said that "al-Hayes does not want tribes to remain confined to Anbar alone."

Elsewhere, a new alliance of smaller parties, to be known as the Nationalist Alliance of Iraq - Anbar, is also being established.

Sheikh Fares Mohammed, head of the Democratic Society Movement, confirmed the formation of this alliance and told Niqash that "these parties are the Gathering of Justice and Unity, the Democratic Reform Movement, the National Gathering for Sons of Iraq, the Nasserite party, the Iraqi Communist party, the Iraqi National Stream, the Independent Iraqis, the Iraq Scholars and Intellectuals Group and the Democratic Society Movement."

While many of these smaller parties performed badly in past elections, Fares said that unity would give them new strength.