From his hotel lobby in Erbil he appears on TV screens in crisp white attire, like an Iraqi Lawrence of Arabia. In fact his delusions of grandeur are almost as good as Peter O’Toole’s acting. But this ‘crown prince’, as one media outlet referred to him, is only a charlatan, who has time on his hands and some powerful sponsors. Ali Hatem Sleiman claims to be the leader of Iraq’s largest super-tribe, the Dulaim, which maybe number over 3 million members, and is a confederation of hundreds of tribes each with their own tribal elders and nominal leader. None of these recognise that Ali Hatem is the leader of the confederation yet somehow Hatem has managed to have his claim accepted as fact in the media, both Arab and foreign.
The issue of the tribal leader is overstated since the role does not exist practically, because the Dulaim confederation is not a single cohesive unit. A majority of the tribes in Anbar are part of the Dulaim confederation, yet each tribe has its own policies, such as fighting alongside the Iraqi security forces, or holding uneasy agreements with ISIS, as has been the case for the past decade.
To compound the point that Hatem is just for show, Hatem’s own great-uncles, who are actually recognised as leaders of the Dulaim, disowned him. Joel Wing, Iraq analyst at the blog Musings On Iraq, describes Hatem: “He is an opportunist. He aligned with the Anbar Awakening, the Americans, Prime Minister Maliki, the Anbar protests and now the insurgency all in his pursuit of personal power in Iraq. These moves have all failed him as today he holds no office, apparently has no real followers, and his own tribe ended up disowning him for his inflammatory statements.”
Kirk H. Sowell, a political risk analyst and the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics, has studied the various groups of the ‘tribal revolutionaries’ and says: “We find no evidence Hatem has any substantial military organization, and aside from his personal guards, and he may not have any at all. He is a pan-Arab media star and from what we can tell, nothing more. His group is called the ‘Arab Tribes Revolutionary Council’ and no one seems to be fighting on their behalf.”
But not only is Hatem just a façade, he has actually caused much infighting and discord among the tribes themselves. In fact a gathering of Ramadi tribal leaders passed a tribal death sentence on Hatem, referring to him as a criminal.
The poster boy is always highly sought after by the media, someone dashing and able to roll off top-notch sound bites on demand, and Hatem fits the criteria to the dot. He’s worked with the Americans before, he ‘fought’ al-Qaeda so has a badge of honour, he is the ‘leader’ of a large Sunni Arab ‘tribe’, and he is available pretty much all the time, perfect for filing a story the desk chief is breathing down your neck for. So if he claims he is the tribal leader, that’s what you write after his name, without the word claimed of course. As Joel Wing says: “Ali Hatem has some of the best press of any figure in Iraq. For some reason Sleiman has become the sheikh to talk to about the insurgency by both the western and Arab press.”
His sponsors paying for his name and image (and the hotel room) need him to threaten Baghdad with, or at least to use the media for that. Some are Americans raging on about getting the tribes aboard, arming them so they can fight ISIS, others are Gulf Arabs complaining about the lack of inclusivity and the need for Sunnis to lead the Sunnis. Were it possible that Hatem is actually capable of doing so and being that fighting leader then that might not be such a bad thing. But unfortunately it’s a case of his bark being worse than his bite.
In the end you cannot blame Hatem for trying. There is money, weapons, influence and political positions up for grabs. The Americans threw those at some tribes in return for outsourcing the battle against Al-Qaeda, creating the Sawha militias and calling them ‘Sons of Iraq’. They created yet another culture of money talks when dealing with Iraq, opening it up to corruption and abuse. This has plagued the good people of Anbar in particular, who suffer from poor leaders and a cycle of treacherous violence. Some US military officials say Hatem did a job then so he can do it again, but that job was America sweeping it’s dirt under Iraq’s carpet and walking away as if nothing happened.
So the next time you read Ali Hatem, head of the Dulaim tribe, don’t bother with the pinch of salt, just click back on your browser.
(photo credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)