WASHINGTON — As the United States sends bombers into the Middle East, an Iraqi tribal leader has sent lobbyists to Washington to create a semi-autonomous Sunni state and convince President Obama to consult with him on matters regarding the group that calls itself the Islamic State.
That tribal leader is Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleiman of the Dulaim tribe, the largest Sunni Arab tribe in Iraq. However, questions remain regarding what he represents and the efficacy of his claims.
“I see his name quoted all the time about Sunni tribes in Iraq and the relationship with IS and so-on,” said Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, while speaking with MintPress News.
Tamimi attributes this standing not to Suleiman’s understanding of the situation or his influence in the regions where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has taken control, but simply “because he’s in Erbil and easy to access.”
“In terms of actual influence on the ground, it is very very little,” Tamimi explained.
While Suleiman currently resides in Iraq and represents the Dulaim tribe, whose heartland is in Anbar province, he is not “on the ground” in Anbar and has little influence among tribesmen there, Tamimi contends.
However, Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent, told MintPress that it is not clear that Suleiman “is A) head of the [Dulaim] tribe; and B) that he has the influence he claims.”
“You get lobbying by guys that don’t dare go back to those areas themselves,” Cockburn said.
As for a separate semi-autonomous Sunni state, he noted: “If these things had been given by the Baghdad government before ISIS took over the whole area, there might have been real concessions, but I don’t see how the Baghdad government can offer as a real concession to share power in regions that it doesn’t have any power itself.”
In the Iraqi parliamentary election of 2010, Suleiman ran as part of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, a national non-sectarian political coalition, which did not win any seats in Anbar province. “That’s an early indicator of the limitations of his [Suleiman’s] influence,” asserted Tamimi.
In terms of the current fighting in Anbar, there is no evidence that Suleiman holds any sway, he added, adding that Ramadi remains out of insurgent control because of tribes that still work with the government, like Ahmed Abu Risha.
Tamimi waved off the notion that the Obama administration should consult with Suleiman regarding ISIS as “non-sensical.” As to Suleiman’s proposal for a semi-autonomous statelet, he said that the tribal leader is not alone in this notion — the governor of Ninawa (Nineveh) province, for example, has also proposed this.
Another problem for Suleiman, Tamimi argued, is that other insurgent groups, well-embedded with tribesmen in Anbar province, are against his proposal for a semi-autonomous region, making it difficult for him to produce any real results. “Look at the Naqshbandi Army [JRTN],” which is tied to the former Baath Party of Saddam Hussein and led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who was Saddam’s right-hand man, he said.
The JRTN, along with a wider network, are the “second largest insurgent group to IS in terms of influence,” he explained. They claim that any plan to break up Iraq is divisive and call for revolution against the central government instead. Indeed, there are large numbers of people from the Sunni insurgency, including the Islamic Army in Iraq, Tamimi said, who wanted a “federal region, but now they’re pushing this idea of revolution.”
He explained that the problem of conflicting agendas — especially from people who are on the ground in Anbar while Suleiman is not — presents a major problem for anybody proposing a semi-independent statelet. “It’s actually these people that believe in revolution that are going to have change their mindsets and come over to the semi-autonomy agenda,” if there is going to be any success in translating lobbying efforts to results on the ground, Tamimi said.
However, Suleiman’s proposal is not so outlandish — at least not hypothetically, claims Joshua Landis, director at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He told MintPress that the Dulaim tribe was the key to the Awakening Movement that helped the United States defeat al-Qaida in 2006 and 2007. “They have a lot of credibility with the United States and we owe them because we threw them under the bus,” he said.
After Sunni Arab tribes helped the U.S. defeat al-Qaida during the Awakening Movement and under occupation by U.S. troops, they were then handed over to the sectarian Shiite government in Baghdad in 2010 and 2011. Landis said they were “immediately treated like terrorists,” prompting their return to ISIS and al-Qaida.
With Suleiman’s proposal, he said, “Here they [Sunni tribes] are telling us, ‘We’ll do it again [have another Awakening] but this time you’ve [the U.S.] got to give us our own… country.’”
The problem is that the U.S. cannot do that, Landis argues, because it would be going back on U.S. promises to the Baghdad government and because the only Sunni groups with serious support are violent extremists like ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra (the Nusra Front). There are also others, too, who want to overthrow the state, as Tamimi described.
The Iraq conflict, explained Tamimi, is about fundamental Sunni/Shiite relations and how they view power relations within the state. “Unfortunately, we’ve gone back to this stage where large numbers of Sunni insurgents have adopted this revolutionary agenda,” he said. Sunni Arabs cannot take over Baghdad, but as long as they keep pushing that idea, it’s going to be extremely difficult to form a cooperative movement against ISIS, he explained.
The Sunnis, who see ISIS’ creation of an alternative state as acceptable, are going to have to realize “what misery economically IS is going to bring to areas like Ninawa and Salah ad-Din and Anbar, and so-on,” he argued.
“I think what matters is what people think on the ground, not what Ali Hatem al-Suleiman thinks,” he concluded.
The Middle East and U.S. lobbying
Middle Eastern countries and proponents for change in the region often lobby the U.S. government and influencers in Washington for legislation or in a bid to boost their public image. Sometimes there’s also lobbying for direct military action.
The most famous lobbying group is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Also known as AIPAC, but often referred to simply as “the Lobby,” the group is so influential in Washington that in two separate surveys, one from 1997 and the other from 2005, it was ranked by Congress and congressional staff as the second most powerful lobby in the country behind AARP.
In their 2007 book “The Israel Lobby,” John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have documented how there is no strategic or moral reason behind U.S. support for Israel. They argue that the United States’ unwavering commitment to Israel — a country that continues to expand its occupation into the West Bank despite pronouncements by the United Nations that doing so violates the Fourth Geneva Convention and a country that haphazardly embarks on destructive wars against Gaza and other neighboring states — can only be understood in terms of the power of the Lobby in the U.S.
However, it is not only Israel and Iraqi tribal leaders vying for influence and policy change in Washington. Recently, Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement, formed in 1981 and inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, hired Burson-Marsteller, a lobbying, communications and public relations firm, to arrange “meetings between Ennahdha representatives and stakeholders [and to]; encourage support for free and fair elections” ahead of the country’s upcoming elections, according to documents from the Department of Justice. Indeed, Rached Ghannouchi, president of Ennahda, was in Washington on Monday and addressed the United States Institute of Peace, an independent national security institution, regarding political crises affecting the whole region and lessons from Tunisia’s political transition.
Ennahda’s American representative, Burson-Marsteller, is infamous. It owns Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healey, the firm that Ahmad Chalabi hired to help propagate the message that eventually led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. According to The Guardian, it was also “employed by the Nigerian government to discredit reports of genocide during the Biafran war, the Argentinian junta after the disappearance of 35,000 civilians, and the Indonesian government after the massacres in East Timor.” It worked for the Saudi royal family post-9/11, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant after the 1979 meltdown, “Union Carbide after the Bhopal gas leak killed up to 15,000 people in India, [and] BP after the sinking of the Torrey Canyon oil tanker in 1967,” among other controversial projects, explained The Guardian.
Every country in the Middle East and North Africa, except Iran and Syria (because they have no formal ties with the U.S. at the moment), are currently engaged in lobbying efforts to different degrees in the U.S. It is the pathway rich people and nations take to mold U.S. foreign policy to their interests. Saudi Arabia and Israel are both concerned about U.S. decisions not to strike Syria and the country’s commitment to nuclear negotiations with Iran; Qatar is concerned about transforming its image because of its support for Hamas and other Islamist groups, including the Taliban 5; and Egypt wants to maintain the continuity of its $1.5 billion a year in aid, despite a military coup and egregious human rights violations, as documented by Al Monitor.