IRBIL, Iraq: Sheikh Ali Hatem Suleiman, one of the leaders of the Sunni revolt against the Shiite-led government of Iraq, sat cross-legged on a couch, lit another Marlboro Red, and discussed the struggle against the government. He was talking to visitors from his home city of Ramadi, where the uprising began late last year. Instead of taking delight in the rebellion’s progress, though, the 43-year-old began lamenting the fact that Iraq’s patchwork quilt of ethnicities and religions was being torn apart. “How do we guard what we still have?” he asked his visitors.
Suleiman has become one of the public faces of the rebellion. But the brash figure also encapsulates the contradiction at its heart, which is why Iraq will be so difficult to put back together.
Suleiman described how ISIS fighters and his Sunni rebels gradually came together. He expressed deep concerns about the ability of the ‘tribal revolutionary’ groups he leads to stand up to their more extreme allies.
“If any place is open, ISIS will take it over,” he said. “ ISIS isn’t strong compared to the tribes, but they are strategic. They have military equipment and they use it against the [tribal] revolutionaries.”
In some ways Suleiman is a reminder of a more hopeful era, a pioneer of the 2006 revolt against al-Qaeda and of the U.S.-backed effort to reintegrate the Sunni community into Iraq’s political mainstream.
But his alliance with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fell apart in 2010, as resentment against Maliki grew in the Sunni community. Suleiman threw himself into anti-government protests that erupted in late 2012, joining crowds or huddling with tribal and religious figures.
The tribal leader swung between war and negotiation. He plotted a military confrontation as early as February 2013, convinced that the government would attack Sunni demonstrators. That April, government security forces shot dead at least 40 demonstrators in the northern city of Hawija, sparking violence around the country. In the following weeks, Suleiman mobilized a militia to defend the protesters.
Tensions rose. ISIS, born from the ashes of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, began a series of suicide bomb attacks against Baghdad. Last December, the army invaded Ramadi to clear the protest camps. Suleiman commanded fighters in Ramadi and dodged Iraqi government attempts to kill him. A series of failed attacks by helicopter gunships firing what Suleiman called U.S. missiles confirmed his status as a voice of the revolt.
The regime’s offensive turned into a drawn-out fight. In its first six months, at least 6,000 government soldiers were killed and some 12,000 deserted, according to medical officials and diplomats.
A tribal rival of Suleiman, Ahmad Abu Risha, broke with the uprising and joined Maliki. Abu Risha now heads political coalition New Awakening and works in tandem with his own uncle, Iraq’s Defense Minister Saadun al-Dulaimi.
The chaos also presented an opportunity to ISIS, which sent forces into Ramadi. At first Suleiman and his followers ignored the more radical organization, but by April the two groups had begun fighting alongside each other.
Suleiman said the alliance was a necessary evil. He may have once fought al-Qaeda, but he recognized that ISIS had tactical experience from Syria’s civil war.
Suleiman nominally heads two large organizations – the Anbar General Military Council and the Tribal Revolutionaries – that loosely connect about 10 different armed factions. Some believe in conservative Islamist principles and an Iraqi Sunni identity. Others are offshoots of Saddam’s old Baath party regime. What links the factions is military leadership from former officers.
“The participation of officers facilitated matters,” said an Islamist preacher associated with the Sunni insurgency. “They are the brains who fought the 1980s war with Iran, so the presence of one officer in a group of 30 to 50 people was enough. He is the one who does the planning.”
Suleiman, who is often called Sheikh Ali or Ali Hatem, straddles the groups and provides a badge of legitimacy; his grandfather fought in the nation’s 1920 uprising against the British and was a friend of King Faisal, the founder of modern Iraq.
“The revolutionaries need someone to stand out, such as Ali Hatem,” the preacher said. “He grasps the tribal mentality and talks in a language that tribes relate to and understand.”
But his powers have limits.
“If Sheikh Ali had agreed with people to stop the revolution, would it stop? I don’t believe anyone would heed his call,” the preacher said.
ISIS is smaller – between 8,000 and 20,000 fighters, compared to an estimated 30,000 Sunni tribal and nationalist fighters – but it increasingly dominates the insurgency.
“Leadership is in the hands of ISIS,” said one-time Sunni insurgent, Abu Azzam al-Tammi, now an adviser to Maliki. Suleiman, said al-Tammi, was a “genuine tribal and popular figure,” one of the “revolutionaries with genuine demands.”
But, he believes, ISIS will ultimately defeat all other Sunni groups. He also questioned Suleiman’s ability to marshal large numbers amid the sea of Sunni factions.
An intelligence officer in Ramadi told Reuters Suleiman had fooled himself in championing a war he could not win. “When he speaks about the rebels controlling land he means, without saying it, ISIS,” the officer said.
A fighter loyal to Suleiman agreed, telling Reuters that any distinction between the Sunni tribes and ISIS has effectively vanished. The groups now share weapons from ISIS’ haul of Iraqi military equipment, he said.
For now, Suleiman rules out confrontation with ISIS because Maliki and his special forces and Shiite militias remain a bigger threat. “We have bad people in our Sunni areas, but who gave the government the right to bring militias to our land to kill our people?” Suleiman demanded of his guests.
One insurgent in Baghdad described Suleiman as inspiring. In Diyala province, a fighter who had defected from the government-funded Sunni Awakening movement called him one of the country’s most respected tribal figures.
A U.S. military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he believed if Iraq broke down along sectarian lines, the future of Iraq’s Sunni regions rested with those like Suleiman who bore a badge of tribal legitimacy.
“Ali Hatem is the only serious Anbari sheikh,” the officer said.
Suleiman himself is realistic.
In early May, he sat in an Irbil hotel room sipping coffee and fiddling with his iPhone. He recounted plotting ambushes against Iraqi special forces, in which he said more than 100 were killed.
Fresh from the battlefield, his skin looked gray and his frame emaciated. An attempt at mediation between the government and Sunni tribes in Anbar had just failed. Mosul would not fall for another month, but Suleiman already sensed Iraq was headed toward a major change. He saw no way to halt the momentum or to remove himself from the process.
“All the communities will be divided. It is going to be too late and the people are going to lose,” he predicted. Civilians across Iraq’s Sunni region would soon be trapped in a war between the government and a multitude of armed factions.
He lay back on his couch and fell silent, his baritone voice for once not bragging about the power of tribes and armed groups. He blamed Sunnis close to the government for sabotaging the chance at compromise.
“Who hurts the Sunnis a lot in Iraq, who damages them? Do you know who?” Suleiman asked. “The Sunnis themselves.”