2 Iraqis’ different paths lead to U.S. cooperation
One is from the city, a businessman with the hint of smuggling to his name.
The other is a wealthy sheik from the countryside.
Two years ago, they allied with the U.S. Army and Marines in a civilian uprising that broke Al Qaeda in Iraq’s reign of terror over this city once synonymous with the insurgency -- and in the process became heroes to the people of Ramadi and the American military alike.
Now, the two Sunni Arabs have taken on equally crucial roles in the remarkable rebuilding of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. And each has once again become an ally of the Americans, this time in the U.S. effort to put a more modern, Western face on Ramadi’s police and government.
Ahmed Hamid Sharqi, the businessman who turned his employees into a combat unit to calm central Ramadi, is now Col. Ahmed, commander of the Iraqi police’s North Precinct in Ramadi. He has emerged as a key player in restoring the rule of law and setting up a firewall between the security forces and the region’s influential, and often meddling, tribal leaders.
Sheik Ahmed Aboud, one of the tribal leaders who turned against the Sunni insurgent group in what is called the Awakening movement, is now trying to dislodge Ramadi’s old-guard politicians by forging a new political machine based on American-style grass-roots organization.
The unlikely convergence of their paths started in the last half of 2006 as the U.S. military moved on Ramadi, a city whose police force and government had collapsed under the heel of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The U.S. military took the city but was unable to dislodge the extremists, who launched relentless attacks and sent suicide bombers to strike at police recruitment drives.
As Al Qaeda in Iraq intensified its campaign of terror in the city, and his uncle and cousins were killed, Sharqi decided to enter the fight.
“They were trying to kill me too,” he said.
Sharqi ran a trucking business and a gas station near the Jordanian border, activities his Marine patrons consider tantamount to smuggling. But they judge him only by his current performance.
“He gets the response from his subordinates that you would expect,” said Capt. Jonathan Hamilton, commander of the Marines’ weapons company in Ramadi. “Because of his connection with the people, he knows what’s happening in North Ramadi.”
Unlike units pulled together by the sheiks, which received training from the U.S. military, Sharqi said, he led a true civilian uprising.
“We worked for our city,” he said. “No sheiks, no police.”
Sharqi, a former low-ranking officer in Saddam Hussein’s army, started with his own group of guards. He said he went to the Marines to gain authorization for his men to bear arms in public.
With the Marines’ backing, they set up the Warar police station near the center of the city, he said.
Clearing one neighborhood at a time, they put up barriers and checkpoints.
“We started recruiting people from the neighborhoods,” Sharqi said. “Each neighborhood we closed, we put some men with them,” he said. “We put around 100 men staying in checkpoints, both local and our people.”
By the spring of 2007, the city was secured. Attacks dropped precipitously.
Evidence of the fierce combat is still apparent in the partially collapsed buildings and bullet-riddled facades of Ramadi’s business district.
Yet compared with the nation’s capital, Ramadi is on the move today. The downtown market, once a stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq militants, is bustling with shoppers. Large pipes line the main thoroughfare in preparation for a sewage project. Colorful planters adorn the sidewalks around government buildings. Major commercial construction projects are popping up.
The key to the reconstruction remains in how well the U.S. military and Iraqi officials manage the twin challenges that followed the fighting: maintaining order and providing good governance.
As the Marines gradually pull back from the city, leaving the police to stand on their own, a new concern is that the police could get swept up in the tribal and political rivalries that are filling the leadership vacuum.
Sharqi, a small, intense man in his mid-30s, personifies the independence that the Marines consider essential. He speaks disdainfully of both the sheiks and the political parties wrangling for power in the city.
“None of them helped the people,” he said. “They are capitalists. They love power. They love making money.”
Yet as important to Ramadi’s recovery as Sharqi’s independent streak will be a resolution of the political chaos that still grips the city as the elected government that disappeared during the fighting now struggles to reclaim its authority.
Aboud, a minority member of the Anbar Provincial Council, has emerged as a leader of the opposition to the Iraqi Islamic Party, which won a majority of seats during the 2005 election boycotted by most Sunni Arabs.
He accuses the Islamic Party of steering contracts to members’ friends and political allies while snubbing the sheiks who helped liberate the city.
During the council’s absence, Aboud and other tribal leaders set up a separate local council system that continues to function as an unofficial government with the blessing of the U.S. military.
Although this political tension has sometimes been portrayed as a volatile mix that could lead to violence, Aboud, like many other civic leaders, says he is committed to a political solution.
With a dozen other sheiks, Aboud is building a political organization called the Awakening Conference to challenge the Islamic Party at the polls.
Aboud said the group has established 200 offices, with up to 3,000 members each. Although they are mainly in Anbar and Baghdad, the goal is to expand nationally, he said. Late last month, he said, it opened a new office in Najaf, a Shiite Muslim-dominated city south of Baghdad.
The party is soliciting professionals and technocrats to mount a slate of candidates for the fall provincial elections, he said, and hopes to take a majority of the provincial seats.
“If we have half plus one, we are dismissing the governor himself,” Aboud said. “He didn’t offer anything. He spent most of his time basically outside the city.”
The elections had been scheduled for October but are expected to be delayed until next year amid a stalemate in the national parliament over an accord on the elections law.
U.S. military commanders and Iraqi leaders see the coming campaign as a crucial test of the competence and independence of Ramadi’s police. The potential for politics to intrude on policing is evident in nearly every police station, where portraits of Sattar Rishawi, the martyred Awakening founder, hang prominently.
In a city with such a tendency to put its heroes on a pedestal, Sharqi himself is a charismatic figure who attracts an adoring crowd when he appears in public, his Marine advisors say.
If he chose to seek office, he could further tangle the political landscape.
But he is adamant that won’t happen.
“Police work is a better job than to be a politician,” he said.