Bridging religious divide to build a postwar Iraq
RAMADI, Iraq - The Abu Risha clan paid a heavy price in the uprising against Al Qaeda that helped turn the tide of the Iraq war: 30 relatives were killed, including the clan leader.
Yet in the family home these days, the talk is less about the war and more about a possible new alliance that would step across the religious divide to stabilize Iraq and build peaceful postwar politics.
That the Abu Rishas are Sunni and their would-be partner, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is a Shi'ite says much about the way these politics are evolving, putting a hope of religious reconciliation into sharper focus.
The United States has urged political cooperation between Sunnis and Shi'ites, and the goal appears more urgent now as it prepares to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
Outlining the plan to reporters, Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, current leader of the clan, said he and Maliki already have discussed joining up in the government that will emerge from this year's parliamentary elections.
"We agreed in principle, but we still have to lay down the foundations for such an alliance," he said. "This is not a sentimental decision. That man helped us save Anbar at its hour of need."
Their respective forces both did well in the Jan. 31 provincial elections, strengthening Maliki's prospects for another term. Now Abu Risha's Iraq Awakening movement also wants to go national. The movement, based in Anbar, plans to back candidates from secular regional parties in 13 of the country's 18 provinces, Abu Risha said.
Maliki already has Sunni coalition partners but is exasperated with their public criticism of him. He's also at odds with his main Shi'ite coalition partner. By joining up with Abu Risha, he could outflank them.
"Maliki is looking for weak representation of the Sunni Arab community," said Mustafa al-Ani, a Dubai-based expert on Iraq. "He found in Abu Risha an ambitious man with little political experience while enjoying popular support because of his fight against Al Qaeda."