From a podium decked in flowers and the Iraqi flag, a Sunni Muslim sheik in a pinstriped suit politely welcomed the Shiite guests who had driven up from Baghdad, before launching into a tirade about the lack of jobs and essential services in this former insurgent bastion.
The focus of his anger, however, was not the Shiite-led national government, but fellow Sunni Arabs on the Anbar provincial council.
Anbar is the success story of the U.S. strategy to combat the insurgency from the ground up by striking alliances with local leaders. But though the tribal sheiks’ rebellion against the militants they once backed has calmed the region and opened the door to political dialogue with Iraq’s majority Shiites, it has deepened divisions among Sunnis.
As violence has faded, an argument has been raging over who really speaks for Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority: the province’s largely secular and fiercely independent tribal leaders, who resisted the U.S. invasion, or the main Sunni political party, an Islamist group led by former exiles who cooperated with the Americans from the start.
In just over a year, Anbar’s sheiks have helped accomplish what U.S. military might, and endless rounds of political negotiations, could not: driving out the extremists who had flourished in Iraq’s western desert since the invasion in 2003. Pockets of resistance remain in Anbar, but the U.S. command says many of the Sunni insurgents, now allied with the group calling itself Al Qaeda in Iraq, are seeking new sanctuaries north of Baghdad.
Now, the sheiks say, it’s payback time. They want more schools, better healthcare, clean water and reliable electricity for their war-ravaged province. They want jobs for their followers. And above all, they want a stake in government for their Iraqi Awakening Conference movement.
“Anbar is a tribal society, and the Awakening came from the tribes,” said Sheik Ahmed abu Risha, who succeeded his slain brother, Abdul-Sattar abu Risha, at the helm of the movement in September.
The sheiks accuse the Iraqi Islamic Party, which controls the local councils in most Sunni areas, of hijacking development funds and monopolizing jobs for their own supporters.
“There is corruption up to here,” Sheik Hameed Farhan Hays said, raising his hand to his forehead, after delivering his speech during a recent visit by a representative of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government.
Leaders of the Iraqi Islamic Party countered that the sheiks had only themselves to blame for boycotting the 2005 elections that ushered in representative government in Iraq. And they challenged the sheiks to take their accusations of corruption to court.
“Those people now shouting and screaming, where were they in the past?” demanded Tariq Hashimi, Iraq’s Sunni vice president. “They should be ashamed about their history.”
Whether true or not, the accusations underscore the mistrust between the two sides. For now, it is a war of words. But some worry that the dispute could escalate.
Saleh Mutlak, who heads a rival Sunni political group that has joined forces with the Islamic Party in parliament, said the sheiks asked him to convey a message to his allies.
“Unless there is a solution . . . then we will use our guns to displace the Islamic Party from Anbar,” he quoted the sheiks as telling him.
U.S. officials play down the danger posed by the power struggle, noting that the province is recording its lowest level of violence since the war began. But they say such conflicts underscore the need for new elections to decide who controls Iraq’s provinces.
“Whether you’re looking at the south, and unresolved issues and tensions as to who will wield how much power, or places like Anbar, where the tribes having not participated in the previous elections find themselves in a position of some prominence yet without representation in established political structures . . . it’s probably going to be fairly important to have elections within the coming year as a means of regulating this competition,” U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told reporters in Baghdad.
With most Sunnis boycotting the January 2005 vote, the Islamic Party won control of the governing council -- and the $170-million budget -- in overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar with the participation of less than 5% of voters. The sheiks argue that the low level of support is grounds for new elections.
Iyad Samarrai, the Islamic Party’s secretary-general, said he was as unhappy about the vote as they are. The boycott gave the majority Shiites and ethnic Kurds a disproportionate share of provincial council seats in mixed parts of the country, as well as in the national parliament.
More Sunnis voted in the December 2005 parliamentary polls, which eased the imbalance at the national level, but new provincial elections have been postponed pending agreement on a law setting out the relationship between national and regional governments. That bill is one of several key power-sharing measures that have stalled in the fragmented parliament.
With no provincial elections in sight, the Islamic Party agreed over the summer to make room on the Anbar provincial council for nine sheiks. Maliki has also floated the idea of appointing sheiks to fill some of the vacancies in his Cabinet after the Iraqi Accordance Front, the Sunni political alliance that includes the Islamic Party, walked out in August after accusing him of refusing to share power. But the Islamic Party has warned that he could face difficulties getting the nominations approved by parliament.
Analysts say the Sunni political parties, which until recently had been the United States’ main Sunni negotiating partners, never have commanded the popular support of some of their Shiite rivals.
“I think we wasted a lot of time talking to the wrong Sunnis,” said Vali Nasr, an international politics professor and Iraq expert at Tufts University. “Ultimately these ones are not the ones who are in charge of the insurgency.”
The tribal Awakening Conference has shown that it can deliver, at least in Anbar.
Life is returning to Ramadi, a city of 400,000 about 60 miles west of Baghdad. Painters are sprucing up facades on streets still marred by demolished buildings. Children in crisp blue and white uniforms pour out of school. A white-gloved policeman directs traffic near the refurbished governance center, once the scene of heavy combat.
Shiite leaders have taken note, and there has been a flurry of meetings, aided by what the U.S. military refers to as its “helicopter diplomacy.” When the Sunni sheiks asked for a meeting with Ahmad Chalabi, Maliki’s new point man for restoring services, it took just two days for him to arrive in a convoy bristling with gunmen, accompanied by a large entourage of Shiite sheiks, aides and journalists.
At the meeting, the Sunni sheiks accused the provincial council of issuing reconstruction contracts to companies affiliated with its members and of handing out Islamic Party membership forms with job applications.
In November, Abu Risha pulled his nine followers off the provincial council, but later agreed to join a new advisory panel. He is now urging ministers in Baghdad to set up a committee to take charge of reconstruction in the province.
Vice President Hashimi said the claims of wrongdoing were baseless, but that he had ordered an investigation. Others in the party say it is too soon to expect results from a reconstruction process that began only six months ago.
“They need to be patient,” Samarrai said.
Times staff writer Tina Susman in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Ramadi contributed to this report.