BAGHDAD – He is a former Sunni Arab mujahid from Ramadi who until recently was fighting the US occupation. He has only a secondary education and is married with two wives. Now he is praised even by urban, secular, highly educated Shi’ites as a “conscious man”, or “the kind of man we need now in Iraq”. Sheikh Abdul Satter Abu Risha is the leader of the Anbar Sovereignty Council, a powerful coalition of Anbar tribes, including at least 200 sheikhs, that is fighting the Salafi jihadis of al-Qaeda in Iraq/the Islamic Emirate of Iraq in the volatile province.
Abu Risha set up the council after his father and two brothers were killed by al-Qaeda’s extreme methods last autumn. In an exclusive telephone interview with Asia Times Online, he stated, unambiguously, that al-Qaeda “has abused our traditions and generosity” and, he alleged, they even “take drugs” – a mortal sin in conservative Islam.
Sheikh Ali Hattan al-Suleiman, also from the council, was even more direct: “I’d like to see an al-Qaeda bomber e-mail me or telephone me and talk about his education. They just came here with money. They gave money to the unemployed. They are not Iraqis – only Arabs. They are bastards. And the people who follow them are also bastards.”
Abu Risha totally dismissed rumors that the Anbar council is forcing families in the region to give their sons to the cause, or is engaged in summary execution of captured jihadis. “We only accept volunteers. And we work by ourselves, like a team, by shifts. When we arrest people from al-Qaeda or Iraqis working for al-Qaeda, we take them to the Iraqi Army or the Ministry of Interior.”
It’s fair to assume, though, that once these jihadis end up in the hands of the ministry’s death squads, torture and death are inevitable. Resistance to capture also means jihadis are killed on the spot. And when the going gets really rough, “sometimes we call for American air strikes”.
With young, disfranchised Iraqis who have been seduced by al-Qaeda’s rhetoric and financial muscle, it’s a different story. “When we capture these teenagers, we try to convince them they were wrong, they just were seduced by money, and we try to give them back to their families.”
The Sunni Arab resistance in Iraq is at least 100,000-strong. Salafi jihadis, mostly foreigners – from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Palestine, North Africa, and a few “white Moors” (European Muslims) – may be no more than 1,000. And a small percentage of these are Iraqi recruits.
Abu Risha swore that the Iraqi Army and US forces now control Ramadi. Fallujah is a very different story – according to Iraqi journalists who have been to the front line. They say the outskirts of west Baghdad are safe up to Abu Ghraib, but not Fallujah, which has been an Islamic State of Iraq stronghold. According to the sheikh, al-Qaeda in Iraq is particularly active in al-Rahwa (a big city near the Syrian border), Tilal Himrin (a village also near Syria), the village of Elbu Baly, and the big city of Balad.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had promised more than US$100 million for rebuilding Ramadi this year. Abu Risha said, without elaborating, that “support from the government has not been enough”, whether financially or militarily. It is well known in Baghdad that the sheikh has been traveling to Syria and Jordan to rally Sunni tribes to the council’s cause – and he added, “The borders with Syria and Jordan are all patrolled by our forces,” implying the difficulty for jihadis to cross over.
Abu Risha insisted he gets active cooperation “from all tribes” – and that includes border surveillance. The fact is, 80% of these tribes are sub-clans of the powerful al-Dulaimi tribe. Al-Qaeda’s close relationship is with the al-Mashadani, a big tribe very much present near Samarra and Balad. The Mashadani tribe detests the Maliki government, and the Ibrahim Jaafari government before it. They used to be very close to Saddam Hussein. Now, they have an alliance of circumstance with al-Qaeda.
Abu Risha certainly has political aspirations. “If the government is weak, they should move aside and leave space for other, prepared people.” The sheikh wants to set up a tribal political coalition, which would be called “Revivals of the Sheikhs of Iraq”. Now the Anbar Sovereignty Council has even changed its name to “Iraq Awakening”. It plans to take government matters into its own hands, and distribute food rations to the population of Anbar province.
Now, whose corpse is this?
The relentless info war in Iraq degenerates virtually every day into total confusion. This Thursday, it all started once again, at lunchtime. Two days after breaking the news of the killing of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu al-Masri – which in the end turned out to be false – state-run Al-Iraqiyah TV broke the news of the killing of none other than Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic Emirate of Iraq, which includes al-Qaeda. The greenish photo of a very bloated face in an open coffin, with visible specks of blood, was published.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier Abdul Karim Khalaf once again was sure: this was Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and he had been killed in west Baghdad, in Ghazaliya, which has been controlled by the Sunni Arab resistance for quite a long time.
Later, information circulated that his body had been handed over to his own tribe – and they were already setting up a huge funeral street tent in their home town, Duluiyah, between Baghdad and Samarra, as is custom in Iraq.
Was it Baghdadi? Well, maybe not. It was for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the SCIRI-controlled Ministry of Interior – and apparently for no one else. The Interior Ministry maintains that the corpse was recognized by residents of Duluiyah as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The Pentagon, once again, would not confirm anything. Instead, the Americans announced that “Masri” – who might have died two days ago – was in fact al-Qaeda in Iraq’s minister of information, Abdel Latif al-Jubouri, his identity confirmed on Wednesday by DNA tests and photos. His corpse was then handed to his tribe. Masri as well as Baghdadi still seem to be alive.
Interestingly enough, Abu Risha reportedly had also been “sure” by Wednesday that Masri was dead. Initial reports attributed Masri’s killing to Abu Risha’s forces. Then the Pentagon claimed it was US forces who actually killed Jubouri. To add to the inextricable mess, Iraqi Interior and Defense Ministry officials started spreading the news that Jubouri and Baghdadi were the same person. The fact is that regarding the shady world of al-Qaeda, nobody knows anything for sure.
What people do know and have started to notice is the increasingly high profile of Sheikh Abu Risha. He may not be Iraq’s savior, but as the larger-than-life tragedy of Iraq stands, a Sunni sheikh leading a tribal coalition fighting alongside a predominantly Shi’ite Iraqi government against Salafi jihadist terror is better news than any “international community” rhetorical flourishes emanating from Sharm al-Sheikh, where the international community was debating Iraq’s future.