BAGHDAD - Eight bodyguards with machine guns guard the entrance to his three-story stone Baghdad office.
Six months ago Sheikh Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman al-Dulaimi predicted that tribal leaders would defeat al-Qaeda in Anbar province, the Sunni tribal heartland. Now the young prince of the Dulaim, one of Iraq's largest tribes, exults that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has been driven out of Anbar by tribal fighters aided by American troops.
The sheikh receives guests in a large reception room decorated with historic photographs of his father and grandfather in traditional flowing robes, meeting respectively with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and King Faisal II of Iraq. A young man with a trim goatee, in a gray suit and open-collared shirt, Ali Hatem's hand is constantly hitting the "off" button on his cell phone.
That's because tribal sheikhs all over Iraq are constantly calling him for information about the movement in Anbar, sometimes called the Awakening (
in Arabic). "People I've never heard of before want relations with the sahwa," says Ali Hatem. "The sahwa is not just an awakening of force but an awakening of heart and spirit, an awakening from sectarian hatred."
Perhaps. But what's certain is that the sahwa movement - which already has about 70,000 Sunni men under arms and may add 35,000 more - is a dramatic new element on the Iraqi scene.
The striking improvement in Iraq security is closely connected to the rise of these forces. Tribal leaders in Anbar province who once supported AQI against the United States turned against the Islamic radicals when they overreached and started repressing the locals. At first, top U.S. military leaders rebuffed requests for aid by Anbar sheikhs, distrusting their motives.
But even before "the surge," U.S. Marines in Anbar had begun aiding the tribal fighters, and in recent months the tribes have become the key to chasing AQI out of Baghdad and surrounding areas. The United States is now paying salaries for thousands of tribal fighters - lumped under the rubric "Concerned Local Citizens" - who are providing intelligence to the U.S. military or chasing down AQI fighters.
Many Sunni tribal leaders once hostile to the American presence and hospitable to insurgents, have become, for now, America's allies. Tribal youths who were once shooting at Americans, or killing Shiites, are now on the U.S. payroll. But everyone is asking: What will happen to those tens of thousands of newly empowered Sunni fighters if al-Qaeda is gone?
Here's where it gets really interesting. U.S. military and civilian officials want the Iraqi government to put the tribal fighters on the government payroll, co-opting some into the army and police and providing the rest with vocational training or jobs. The idea is that such a program will give Sunnis reassurance that they have a role in a country now governed by a Shiite-led coalition.
The government, however, fears the nascent power and the numbers in the sahwa. Shiite parties in government fear they will become a new militia; Sunni parties see the movement's popularity as a threat to their base.
Under U.S. pressure, Iraqi money has just been appropriated for a jobs program, but some U.S. officials worry that it won't be implemented. They fear that disillusioned tribal fighters could be tempted back on the payroll of militant groups.
None of these fears have stopped sheikhs like Ali Hatem from planning the expansion of the sahwa movement. He would like to see it spread to the north, where there are still AQI elements hiding out in cities like Mosul. More dramatic, he says fed-up Shiite sheikhs from the south of Iraq, where existing Shiite religious parties are squabbling viciously over power, want information on how to form sahwa movements of their own.
The Iraqi government has said it won't tolerate any sahwa groups in the south of the country, and recently arrested a Najaf politician for suggesting a preliminary meeting.
But Ali Hatem - and other sheikhs with whom I spoke - are looking at an awakening that goes beyond groups of fighters. They talk of forming a new political party - nonsectarian - built on a tribal base that includes Sunnis, Shiites and others. "The political people in authority in Iraq have failed," he says. "We cannot wait."
Such a development may have to wait until Iraq holds provincial elections. But the ferment aroused by the sahwa movement is already shaking up Iraq's political scene. No one knows whether the movement will morph into one or several parties, or into job banks and army units or new militias. It has become the new military and political wild card in Iraq.