...the rise of these sheiks, collectively called the Awakening, is already touching off new conflicts that could deepen without U.S. military backing for the movement. They have stripped traditional tribal leaders of influence. They have carved up Sunni areas into fiefdoms, imposing their views on law and society and weakening the authority of the Shiite-led central government. Divisions are emerging among the new breed of tribal leaders, even as they are challenging established Sunni religious parties for political dominance.
Their ascent reflects how the struggle for local and regional centers of power is increasingly shaping Iraq's future. And their growing clout ensures that large segments of Iraq will remain influenced by tribal codes, rather than modern laws, posing an obstacle to the democratic foundations that many would like to see built here.
Sweidawi and other Awakening leaders seek to transform their anti-insurgent credentials into political clout. They plan to challenge the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political group and part of Maliki's ruling coalition, in provincial elections scheduled for next year. At stake is the leadership of a rudderless Sunni minority that is still wrangling for a political toehold in the new Iraq.
"We know our people are better than them," Sweidawi said. If the Awakening leaders triumph, they would infuse clan-based, secular values into a sectarian political system ruled by Shiite religious parties. In recent weeks, Islamic Party officials and offices have been attacked, as have Awakening leaders, raising fears of a wider intra-Sunni conflict.
The Awakening movement is itself rife with tension. In interviews, several Awakening founders said Ahmed Abu Risha, who took over the movement's founding council after the death of his brother, was not qualified to lead because he had not fought against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Two influential founders left to form their own political parties. Sweidawi also recently had a falling-out with Abu Risha. "Unfortunately, the strongest and bravest do all the work and the fruits of our work is given to the cowards," Sweidawi said.
He is consumed by one overriding question: What will happen if his American backers leave? He gloomily predicts chaos in the provincial elections. "There are al-Qaeda sleeper cells in the province. Our borders are still being infiltrated," Sweidawi recently told Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, who commands U.S. forces in Anbar.
Of course beyond the internal strife and political uncertainty, is the interminable strife between the Sunnis and the Shiites, who largely distrust members of the Awakenings movement and are reluctant (at best) to provide them political power or integrate them into Iraqi security forces. From roughly 2004 to late 2006, American forces protected the fledgling Iraqi government from Al Qaeda and insurgents who appeared to be able to strike at will. But between late 2006 and now there appears to have been a stunning reversal, as American forces appear to have become a bulwark to some extent against the government, which would at with greater vigor against Awakenings members if they had the opportunity. Hence movement leader Sweidawi's fears that were American forces to leave, the political situation might revert back to where it was prior to the Awakenings movement, only this time thanks to the intransigence of the national government. This appears to be borne out by those Shiite political leaders who are demanding firm withdrawals for American troops. Clearly, they at least feel they are in the position to handle the Sunnis even were they to resume the insurgency; it's also possible that Shiite hard-liners don't have a problem with this outcome, since they believe they are now in a better position to crush the Sunnis.