The Sunni Muslim paramilitary leader’s campaign slogan holds the promise of imminent rescue: “Hold on, we are coming.”
But the aspiring parliamentary candidate, Mustafa Kamal Shibeeb, may not be in a position to deliver on his slogan: He’s a fugitive, with murder charges hanging over his head from events at the height of the U.S. troop buildup two years ago.
Already, police commandos have tried to grab him twice, only to be blocked by an Iraqi army unit, with tacit support from U.S. forces.
Shibeeb’s story reveals the volatility of today’s Iraq, where Sunni-Shiite tensions are just one of the conflicts at play. His vulnerability illustrates how the Iraqi government and security forces remain subject to competing political and tribal pressures, and score-settling, that risk igniting new violence.
If Shibeeb is jailed, it could leave a power vacuum in Dora, a region of sprawling urban neighborhoods and pristine farmland that served as a launching pad for suicide attacks into Baghdad before Shibeeb asserted control.
His incarceration also could be seized upon as further indication of the limits of reconciliation in Iraq, where Sunni former military commanders and insurgents are viewed with suspicion and sometimes targeted because of old grudges or political rivalries.
Shibeeb believes he’s being pursued now because of the country’s electoral season and his enemies’ wish for vengeance, an assessment shared by other leaders of the Awakening movement that supported the Americans during the troop buildup, Sunni politicians and some U.S. military officers.
“This is a matter of political conflicts, those who want to keep occupying the arena,” Shibeeb said, rifling through a bulky briefcase and wearing a leather ammunition belt slung over his chest and a 9-millimeter Smith & Wesson pistol tucked in a hip holster.
With stocky shoulders and a touch of gray in his mustache and hair, Shibeeb barks his creed, in a rebuke to critics who accuse him of slaughtering people during his war with Al Qaeda in Iraq: “My slogan is not to kill. I am a man of peace. . . . Even in the battle, if I have the chance to spare someone’s life, I would do that.”
Shibeeb faces arrest over an incident in October 2007 when men under his command say they came under fire and killed five known Al Qaeda in Iraq gunmen in battle.
A few months later, locals complained to the U.S. Army that Shibeeb’s men had actually besieged their area and then arrested and beat at least 30 suspected insurgents, executing five of them. The tribe of the dead men has pressed charges against Shibeeb, who insists that he did not order his men to kill anyone.
Shibeeb bristles at the notion that he is facing trial over deaths during a war. He has hired a lawyer and is battling the case in court, with affidavits from the U.S. military identifying the five dead men as Al Qaeda in Iraq militants.
But the battle goes well beyond a simple narrative of Awakening fighters locking in combat with Islamic extremists. Shibeeb’s Jabouri tribe and the dead men’s Ithawi clan have a feud that predates the American-led invasion in 2003 and even saw Saddam Hussein dispatch mediators to try to resolve their tribal disputes.
Their ill will endured after the U.S. invasion as Baghdad’s southern belt turned into an enclave for armed nationalist groups that were later dominated by Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In June 2007, Shibeeb, a brigadier general under Saddam Hussein, decided to openly break with Al Qaeda in Iraq and forge a pact with the Americans to fight the militants. Over the summer, Shibeeb would lead fellow Jabouri tribesmen and other clans against those who stayed aligned with the insurgents, including the rival Ithawi tribe.
Now, with the Americans exiting, Shibeeb is being targeted for his role in those battles. It is also the perfect opportunity for established political parties to use the standing warrant to marginalize the former general.
“Any number of people [from rival tribes and armed groups] are looking to kill Gen. Mustafa,” said one senior U.S. officer, who requested that he not be identified. “Whoever in this government is seeking to hunt down people suspected of Baathist ties, or new figures emerging with political clout, would want to arrest him.”
Some Awakening members argued that fellow Shiite rivals of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, including the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, are determined to go after prominent Sunni leaders such as Shibeeb, whom they view as enemies because of their affiliations with the old military and the insurgency.
“Maliki is against SIIC’s behavior, but at the same time he doesn’t want to collide with them or make conflict with them,” said Abu Azzam, a paramilitary leader turned politician who has cultivated close ties with Maliki’s office.
One senior Sunni lawmaker in parliament agreed that any number of factors could be at play: rival political parties seeking to make Maliki’s life more difficult, factions wishing to eliminate charismatic populist figures, or simply those around the prime minister being deeply suspicious of former Baathists.
For their part, SIIC supporters have fiercely denied involvement. Those close to Maliki are cautious in what they say about the current dynamics. Abbas Bayati, a member of Maliki’s slate for national elections, simply acknowledged that legal cases can be used as a weapon to target public figures, but called on better security checks to stop such machinations.
In a savvy move, Shibeeb has reached out to the prime minister by pleading his case through his district’s tribal support council, an organization founded by Maliki, and through his contacts with Cabinet officials.
Those efforts have paid some dividends. After the last two arrest attempts, the Baghdad operation command, which falls under the prime minister’s control, has called off efforts to jail him.
Shibeeb and U.S. officers familiar with his case believe that the Ithawi clan has been able to lobby its own family members in the Interior Ministry to send commandos to arrest him. In turn, U.S. officers and the local Iraqi army commander have warned Shibeeb when the police were coming. The Iraqi army even prevented the elite commando unit from approaching his house.
The U.S. commander in Shibeeb’s rural district, Lt. Col. Forrest Grimes, knows there is little he can do to protect Shibeeb. That’s why he thinks it’s better to let events play out now and hope the court process clears Shibeeb’s name.
“The way this is handled could have an impact in the security arena,” said Grimes, who warned that Al Qaeda in Iraq would try to exploit Shibeeb’s absence if he were arrested. “Mustafa wields a lot of influence on the population. I’ve seen him appeal for calm and to not let the population get carried way.”
On Friday, Shibeeb came to central Baghdad in a gray suit and tie for meetings accompanied by two bodyguards. He faulted the Americans for failing to secure amnesty for the Awakening fighters for their actions during the major fighting two years ago.
“That’s why I’m blaming the United States. I fought with them in the same trenches, but they are not supporting us politically,” Shibeeb said.
He slumped on a couch and acknowledged that he had little faith in the current system in Iraq. “Everyone thinks about their self-interest. Nobody thinks about Iraq first.”
Usama Redha and Raheem Salman contributed to this report.