RAMADI, Iraq – The Abu Risha clan paid a heavy price in the uprising against al-Qaida that helped turn the tide of the Iraq war: 30 relatives were killed, including their leader.
Yet in the family home these days, the talk is less about the war and more about a possible new alliance that would step across the religious divide to stabilize Iraq and build peaceful postwar politics.
That the Abu Rishas are Sunni and their would-be partner, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is a Shiite says much about the way these politics are evolving, putting a still distant hope of religious reconciliation into sharper focus.
The U.S. has urged political cooperation between Sunnis and Shiites, and the goal appears more urgent now as it prepares to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
Outlining the plan to The Associated Press, Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, current leader of the clan, said he and al-Maliki already have discussed joining up in the government that will emerge from parliamentary elections expected late this year.
"We agreed in principle, but we still have to lay down the foundations for such an alliance," he said. "This is not a sentimental decision. That man helped us save Anbar at its hour of need."
Their respective forces both did well in the Jan. 31 provincial elections, strengthening al-Maliki's prospects for another term. Now Abu Risha's Iraq Awakening movement also wants to go national. The movement, based in Anbar, his home province, plans to back candidates from secular, regional parties in 13 of the country's 18 provinces, Abu Risha said.
Al-Maliki already has Sunni coalition partners, but is exasperated with their public criticism of him. He's also at odds with his main Shiite coalition partner. By joining up with Abu Risha, he could outflank them.
"Al-Maliki is looking for weak representation of the Sunni Arab community," said Mustafa al-Ani, a Dubai-based expert on Iraq. "He found in Abu Risha an ambitious man with little political experience while enjoying popular support because of his fight against al-Qaida."
It's that popularity that counts. Sunnis have been in the government and politics from the beginning of the post-Saddam Hussein era, but have tended to lack legitimacy and broad appeal within their own community.
Abu Risha may fare no better in partnership with al-Maliki. But if he does, it would be a sea change in Iraqi politics and a sign that sectarian hatreds are receding.
The 44-year-old chieftain is a portly, beetle-browed man in ornate robes and headdress. He lives in a heavily guarded family compound with a swimming pool, and his day is filled with a stream of visitors and constant calls on his two cell phones and two landlines from Awakening commanders, politicians and reporters.
Since the 2007 car-bombing that killed Abu Risha's younger brother, Abdul-Sattar, who had founded and led the Anbar Awakening, the family home has been a fortress of sandbags, watchtowers, armed guards and three checkpoints on the approach road.
The Abu Rishas are known to have made their fortune in commerce, contracts from the Americans to build roads in the early days of the occupation, as well as smuggling fuel and sheep across the border with Syria.
Abu Risha was a lieutenant in Saddam Hussein's army but deserted because, he says, he did not want to be part of the Kuwait invasion that triggered the 1991 Gulf War. He lived in Baghdad under a false name until Saddam was toppled, and came to prominence when he succeeded his brother.
He doesn't have Abdul-Sattar's charisma, but people who know the family say he is more media-wise and politically skilled.
Abu Risha and al-Maliki appear to be on the same page politically. Both want nationalist policies, a strong central government, a non-interfering Iran and good relations with the U.S. On a wall in Abu Risha's sumptuous house is a picture of him with President George W. Bush at the White House last year, and of Barack Obama visiting him in Ramadi last July while running for president.
Salim Abdullah, a senior Sunni Arab lawmaker, dismisses the proposed alliance as al-Maliki's way of wooing Sunni votes. But his own Iraqi Islamic party, the chief Sunni partner in al-Maliki's coalition, lost much ground to regional groups in the provincial election as voters spurned both Sunni and Shiite religious parties.
Although Abu Risha has close ties to al-Maliki, not all the Awakening Councils are enamored of the Iraqi prime minister. Salaries of many of the 90,000 Awakening fighters have been delayed for up to two months, and al-Maliki is cracking down on Awakening members wanted on criminal or terrorism charges.
Differences came to a head last weekend in central Baghdad when the arrest of an Awakening leader triggered a shootout with U.S.-backed Iraqi forces.
Abu Risha has made a point of turning his paramilitaries in Anbar into a police force from the start and suggests that al-Maliki should do the same.
"I have warned the government repeatedly: You cannot allow civilians to carry arms and then ask them to go back to being just civilians," he told the AP. "We did it differently in Anbar: When we recruited fighters we made sure that they joined the police force from day one."