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Iraq's Crooked Politicians: Talking With Sheik Ali Hatem, Leader of the Sunni Awakening Councils

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Sheik Ali Hatem Al-Suleiman is one of the most prominent leaders of the Sunni Awakening Councils, also known as the Sons of Iraq, the coalition of paramilitary groups that over the past several years contributed to improve security in Iraq by relentlessly attacking Al Qaeda. While in the early stages of the Iraq war Ali Hatem had backed the insurgency, he eventually turned against it because of its indiscriminate use of violence and its lack of respect for the sheiks of Al-Anbar province. In 2006, Ali Hatem entered a strategic alliance with U.S. forces, which, in combination with the "surge" in U.S. troops that began in early 2007, succeeded in re-establishing a modicum of security in Iraq.

FM: Since the March 7 elections, violence in Iraq appears to be rising again. Do you believe that the security gains of the past few years are now slipping away?

AH: Yes, and this is the fault of the irresponsible and self-interested Iraqi politicians. It was the Awakening that crushed Al Qaeda in Al-Anbar, in Baghdad, in Diyala. We did it. After that the Iraqi government told me that my men would be able to join the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police. Fine, I said, I want what is best for my country. But now it has become clear that the Iraqi government does not want to keep its word. The politicians just wanted to take credit for our military successes.

Thousands of former Awakening fighters are still jobless. And many of those who did join the Iraqi security forces have been kicked out. They accused them of being Ba'athists and terrorists, but these are just lies. It is the people who run the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense who are using sectarianism to advance their interests. They are thinking that if they exclude the Sunnis from the police and the army they will be able to give more jobs to the constituencies of their parties. No, I have no respect for these politicians. They are scum. And we are paying for their mistakes in blood.

FM: Do you think the marginalization of the Awakening Councils may lead some of its former members to return to the insurgency?

AH: We are already seeing this. And mark my word: Security will deteriorate further. You will see it in the coming weeks and it's not going to stop.

FM: When your followers ask you which side to support, what do you tell them?

AH: I want stability for Iraq. I am deeply attached to my land and to my people. I have lost family members and friends fighting Al Qaeda and the Ba'athists. I know who the terrorists are. They are cowards. They live off the blood of the people, and I will never support them. But now even if I see a terrorist in the street, I will not shoot him. What for? So that our self-serving politicians can claim success? No. Enough is enough. Now I am just going to sit back and watch. And that is what I tell my men: do nothing, just watch.

FM: What do you make of the lengthy negotiations for the formation of a new government?

AH: Like the terrorists, our politicians are only interested in power. And those who are now in power are not willing to give it up. Look, the two major forces in Iraqi politics today are the political parties and the religious establishment that supports them. And believe me, none of the two cares about the well-being of the Iraqi people. This is not democracy. This is just a show to keep the Americans thinking that all is well in Iraq.

FM: If you have no faith in the political process, why did you support Nouri Al-Maliki in the last elections?

AH: I supported Maliki because he is the best we have right now. But his party is rotten. And the religious parties, those that are scrambling right now to cut the best deal for themselves in the new government, they are even worse, corrupt and sectarian to the core. In any case, I want to be clear: I am not interested in Iraqi politics. Only treacherous liars and crooks can be politicians in Iraq today. I cannot do that.

FM: What do you think of U.S. policy in Iraq under the Obama administration?

AH: Obama came to see me in Anbar, and we talked about the Awakening and about the future of Iraq. Obama is a good man, but he cannot change the course of American politics in meaningful ways. The United States has empowered a bunch of crooks here in Iraq, people who used to live abroad in five-star hotels, while we were here suffering under Saddam. It was the United States that toppled Saddam, but these politicians took advantage of the confusion, they came aboard American tanks and claimed that they were the ones who defeated Saddam. Then they turned around and blamed the United States for everything that was going wrong in Iraq.

The American military did a good job with the Awakening, but the American political leadership has been poor, throughout the war. And now the American troops are leaving, and their departure is opening the door to Al Qaeda and Iran to fight their bloody wars. This hurts me. Every time I go out I feel a great sadness for my people. I look at the Tigris and the Euphrates, and I think about the bodies that have been dumped there. I see poor families living on pitiful salaries, I see the unemployed who cannot even feed their children, and I see a government that after all these years cannot even manage the electricity supply. I have fought for Iraq but now I have no patience left.