By: Omar al-Mansuri
Sheikh Hatem al-Suleiman, 43, is one of Anbar province’s most influential tribal sheikhs and is chief of the powerful Dulaim tribe in Ramadi.
Suleiman is founding member of the Anbar Salvation Council, a key group in the Sunni Awakening that collapsed after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to include the group in state and military institutions. As the leader of Anbar’s Tribes Revolutionary Council, he is a key leader in the Anbar insurgency and a sharp critic of Maliki. As early as 2006, he became a leader in mobilizing Sunni Arab rebels against Al-Qaeda.
In an exclusive interview with Rudaw, Suleiman claimed the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) and Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribes have drastically different philosophies. He says that armed tribes can easily push out ISIS but that Maliki must first leave office.
Rudaw: How will things pan out with the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) if Nouri al-Maliki is no longer in power?
Sheikh Hatem al-Suleiman: I’m very surprised by the media attention the so-called Islamic State has received. We don’t care if ISIS scares other nations. Our experience in Anbar with Al-Qaeda in 2006 is a perfect example of our ability to deal with ISIS. We’ve postponed fighting ISIS until we get rid of Nouri al-Maliki. As for the Anbar tribes, we consider Maliki to be more dangerous than ISIS.
I believe that Maliki is responsible for ISIS coming to Iraq; the evidence is that he freed scores of detainees in Abu Ghraib and Badush prisons.
Rudaw: Is it true that ISIS in Mosul asked the rest of the armed groups to join them and operate under their sole command?
Sheikh Hatem al-Suleiman: ISIS’s growth in Iraq is very dangerous and they don’t believe in the political process. Iran contributed to and has supported ISIS’s expansion in Iraq; Iran’s intelligence has clearly played a role in promoting ISIS.
Rudaw: In an alliance between the rebel tribes and ISIS, who then makes the decisions or gives military orders: you or ISIS?
Sheikh Hatem al-Suleiman: Rebel tribes have no alliance with ISIS because they don’t believe in the concept of tribes. ISIS only tries to exploit the name of the tribes because of our revolution. We fundamentally disagree with ISIS’s military vision. For example we have in the past released many of Maliki’s soldiers and prisoners. We helped shelter and treat the wounded and opened the door for dialogue with everyone. This isn’t ISIS’s philosophy, as it doesn’t believe in any kind of dialogue.
Rudaw: Who leads the military operations on the ground: the tribes or ISIS?
Sheikh Hatem al-Suleiman: ISIS has created a successful media campaign and even took advantage of social networking sites to promote themselves as if they’re in control on the ground. But this isn’t the case: we have control of the land. We have a quite different policy and approach from that of ISIS.
The rebels are the ones who started the revolution, and then ISIS came in to take advantage of those victories on the ground. This is what happened in Mosul.
Maliki’s unjust policies forced people to accept ISIS. The point is that Maliki’s tyranny and the lack of strong leadership forced some Sunni cities to accept ISIS over Maliki’s sectarian government.
Rudaw: Do you think that in the future fighting will break out between the tribes and ISIS?
Sheikh Hatem al-Suleiman: As we have stated to the international community and the United Nations, we’re opposed to terrorism and won’t accept it. If it comes from ISIS, we will confront them in the future. We just want the revolution’s international support and recognition; it was a popular revolution led by Arab tribes that came out against the tyrant (Maliki) who has fueled injustices against a particular group of people: the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. As for ISIS, as time will show they aren’t any match against rebel tribes.
Rudaw: What about the next stage of this war, especially given that rebels are threatening to take the battle to Baghdad?
Sheikh Hatem al-Suleiman: Obama, in one of his recent speeches, spoke about protecting Baghdad as if Baghdad is currently the only place under threat. Maliki also said that Baghdad was a red line. We say that there is no red line for tribal rebels. However, we don’t want Baghdad nor do we want to threaten security. We just want our rights, and if we attain them all of this will end.
We call on Obama and the international community to remove Maliki in order to form a government that represents all people, without discrimination.
Rudaw: What are the goals of the revolution?
Sheikh Hatem al-Suleiman: We want to remove Maliki and form a national salvation government to administer the country until elections are held. Of course, this isn’t in line with Maliki’s vision — he recently said a national salvation government would be a coup against the constitution. Maliki has forgotten that he is the one who turned on the constitution. Ayad Allawi won the previous election but Maliki manipulated the constitution and became prime minister. The other important issue is that Maliki isn’t only the prime minister; he is the minister of defense, interior, the federal court and all state agencies are under his command and authority.
As for the revolution’s objectives: we wanted to achieve our goals constitutionally and in a civilized manner through our yearlong sit-ins and without inciting violence. But Maliki didn’t acknowledge our demands and this forced us to take up arms. Now we have more than 2 million displaced families; our homes and cities have been destroyed by explosives; and Maliki has brought militias who are flooding our cities and country and don’t even speak Arabic.
Another one of our goals is to establish a federal state, which is part of our platform and isn’t a new idea.
Our primary goals are regaining our civic rights and to not be treated like a minority. We didn’t approve the current constitution and it needs to be changed and amended. We want anti-terrorism laws to be absolved, including article 4. (Article 4 is an anti-terror clause under which many Sunnis have been imprisoned.) We also want detainees released and a fair share of ministerial posts, given that Maliki only wants Sunni Arabs as slaves.
We must ask the question: why is there a revolution and why did we take up arms? It’s because Maliki robbed us of our rights. Also, Sunni Arab politicians failed to represent the people, so we are going to form a political interface, a real representation, and participate effectively in the political process.
Nouri al-Maliki always twists the constitution as he wants. Initially we rejected forming regions or federal states, but the Shiites were the ones who wrote the constitution and put the federal paragraph. Now we ask for federalism to protect our rights.
Rudaw: What is the strength of the private Shiite militia group, particularly Asaib Ahl al-Haq?
Sheikh Hatem al-Suleiman: These militias are deliberately threatening people; they commit treachery and kidnap innocent people. Their leader Qais al-Khazali’s threat against Iraqi sects doesn’t even deserve a response.
Rudaw: Who are the rebel tribes or armed groups fighting now?
Sheikh Hatem al-Suleiman: First they are the sons of true tribes and their affiliates, including many armed factions. For example the Islamic Army, the Naqshbandi Army, police officers who defected and stood alongside their people, and former experienced army officers who train and lead attacks and military operations.
Rudaw: How confident are you that you can stop ISIS?
Sheikh Hatem al-Suleiman: Our experience in expelling Al-Qaeda in 2006 is the best evidence. The ISIS issue will end easily once we get rid of Nouri al-Maliki.
Incidentally, ISIS doesn’t even represent 7 or 10 percent of the fighters. The only thing ISIS has ownership of is suicide bombers.
The goal of this revolution isn’t to have the Baath Party return to power. We do not aspire to be a Sunni government and a regime.
In addition, ISIS can’t be allowed to become a tool for avenging Sunni injustices because sooner or later ISIS will brutalize Sunnis as well. We won’t give up on our cause, as we just want our stolen rights back.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of MuslimVillage.com.