In Iraq’s Anbar province, the Awakening grapples with a new role
At the pink mansion that is home to Anbar Awakening leader Ahmed abu Risha, the talk these days has shifted from how to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq to more mundane matters such as balancing a budget.
“The Awakening is an economic and political entity now, and our strategy is financial and economic,” said Abu Risha, who has led the Awakening since his brother’s assassination in 2007.
The Awakening, called the Sons of Iraq by the U.S. military, might be simmering with resentment at the way it has been sidelined by the country’s Shiite-led government. But here in Anbar province, birthplace of the Awakening movement, the Sunni Arab paramilitaries who turned their guns on fellow Sunni insurgents have become the government.
The Awakening’s slate of candidates won first place in provincial elections in January, giving it the right to appoint the governor and form an administration. As the new provincial council finally gets down to business, the challenge is for the Awakening to prove it is as adept at running a province as it was at crushing the Al Qaeda in Iraq organization.
It promises to be quite a transformation for a movement that started out in 2006 as a tribal uprising against the insurgents who had sought to impose a vicious interpretation of Islamic law on the western desert province. Photographs on Abu Risha’s wall show his slain brother, Abdul-Sattar, who founded the movement, dressed in robes, slung with bullets and surrounded by Kalashnikov-wielding militiamen.
The political transition didn’t get off to an auspicious start, with allegations of vote-rigging on all sides, and threats of violence by Abu Risha if the Awakening was not declared the winner.
It was -- and since then, the move has gone remarkably smoothly, by Iraqi standards.
Abu Risha has chosen as governor an urbane, soft-spoken businessman who wears a suit and tie, and spent most of the years of the war running a construction company in the United Arab Emirates. Initial objections to the appointment of someone who had been abroad during the dark days of Anbar’s struggle against insurgency have been quashed, over many glasses of strong black tea sweetened with promises of political inclusiveness and new beginnings for the province.
After some rambunctious sessions, the provincial council elected Qassem Mohammed Abed Hamadi as governor by a vote of 24 to 3. He has now formed a coalition administration, including all the other parties in the council, with the exception of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Sunni party that led the previous administration.
“Those who opposed me were very few, and I have been surprised by how much support I have in the province,” said Hamadi on his first day on the job, as he received greetings from well-wishers at his office bedecked with plastic flowers.
In his crisp gray suit, the English-speaking Hamadi seemed out of place among the robed tribesmen in their red checkered kaffiyehs, but residents say that may be exactly what their province needs to pick itself up from the ravages of war -- a technocrat with experience of the outside world who can run the government and entice much-needed foreign investment.
It’s not going to be easy, as Hamadi is the first to acknowledge. The streets of Ramadi still bear the scars of the fierce battles fought here between Marines and insurgents. The provincial council headquarters has received a lick of paint, but elsewhere in the city homes and buildings are still riddled with the holes left by bullets and rockets. The province still receives only a few hours of electricity each day, the water is undrinkable, and the sewage system has all but collapsed.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Hamadi said. “I feel we are in need of a new awakening, a reconstruction awakening, because we are in need of everything. Everything has been damaged in these past years; there’s no infrastructure, no sewage, no water and nothing has been done.”
With provincial government estimates putting the cost of reconstruction at $11.3 billion, and a budget of just $110 million, the Awakening has ambitious plans to woo foreign investment, not an easy sell in a province whose name routinely hit the headlines just a few years ago as the epicenter of the insurgency.
A suicide bombing at an army base in eastern Anbar last month and the deaths of three Marines in combat last week came as a reminder that Al Qaeda in Iraq still poses a threat.
But for now, even the Awakening’s political foes appear to be willing to give the new administration a chance.
“He’s a professional, he has knowledge of business, and he’s very fit for the job,” said Amjad Rashid, an Islamic Party member who lost his seat on the provincial council. “Of course they say they will do good, and they have many promises, so we will have to see whether they can implement them.”
Caesar Ahmed of The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.