Iraq's Sunni Arabs Seek Their Voice

The divided minority is trying to stake a claim in a system now dominated by Shiites and Kurds.

By Richard Boudreaux

Los Angeles Times

March 28, 2005

BAGHDAD — Nearly two months after most of them sat out Iraq's historic election, 200 Sunni Arab leaders gathered to consider a belated plunge into democratic politics.

It was not a civil discussion. As a legal scholar was explaining how they could help write a new constitution, a tribal chief cut him off, shouting, "Long live the resistance!"

The chief, Mazin Jaber Nima, said the Sunni Arab-led insurgency against American troops would falter if Sunni Arabs joined in the U.S.-backed creation of a new political order.

Applause filled the Babylon Hotel's ballroom, but the next speaker was undeterred. "The subject today is how to represent the Sunni people in the political process," argued Sheik Isam Sheikhli. "Do we do it with slogans? If we go on like this, we will not achieve a thing."

After three hours of raucous debate, advocates of the political boycott gave up. The conference, one of several such Sunni Arab initiatives, endorsed a vague plan to lobby for government posts and a role in drafting the constitution.

Tardy though it is, the shift is encouraging news for the U.S. effort to spread democracy in the Middle East.

Perhaps the hardest challenge here is to persuade the Sunni Arabs, a long-ruling elite minority disenfranchised two years ago by the fall of President Saddam Hussein, to stop fighting and accept a stake in the new system.

But Sunni Arabs, who make up nearly one-fifth of Iraq's population, are so divided and disorganized that the effort could fail. They seem incapable of picking a coherent, representative group to engage quickly in Iraq's fast-moving political game.

Sunni Arabs are splintered into dozens of groups and parties, some with just a few members. There are insurgents and politicians, religious and secular parties, joiners and enemies of the interim government, Sunnis who ran in the Jan. 30 election and Sunnis who shunned it, Sunnis who want U.S. troops out of Iraq now and Sunnis who would feel safer if the soldiers stayed a few years longer.

The airing of those differences at the recent conference was disorderly and inconclusive. Many in the room simply vented frustration over what unites them now: the sudden empowerment of the Shiite Muslim majority.

"Sunnis have had no voice since the war. We are targeted as insurgents, humiliated and accused of wanting to return to the former era," Ismail Dulaimi, the conference moderator, told delegates who came from all over Iraq. "We are suffering because of our boycott. If we do not stand up as Sunnis in the next election, we will suffer even more."

Organizing this fractured Sunni Arab universe will be a maddening task, says Hassan Bazzaz, whose new Middle Democratic Party is involved in the effort.

"Don't try to keep track of all these Sunni groups or figure out which ones are representative," he cautioned. "You will get a headache."

The disarray is one reason the winners of the election have yet to form a transitional government to lead Iraq for the rest of this year.

Shiite and Kurdish coalitions together hold more than two-thirds of the seats in the new National Assembly.

In their prolonged negotiations to form a government, the two blocs have reached out to Sunni Arab groups, only to be stymied by Sunni Arab disunity.

Two Sunni Arab factions have come forward as intermediaries, each claiming more respect among their sect. This has confounded the Shiite and Kurdish negotiators, who have been shuttling between factions trying to pick a Sunni Arab to become one of Iraq's two vice presidents and a few others to be Cabinet ministers.

"Unfortunately, the Sunnis do not have a reference point as the Shiites do" with their unified religious leadership, said Ibrahim Jafari, the Shiite politician expected to become prime minister. "So we are having some difficulty negotiating with them."

"We will try to bridge the gap," Jafari added, "but they will have to accept whatever we can do."

Sunni Arabs dominated Iraq until the ouster of Hussein, a Sunni Arab who ruled with his clan and Sunni Arab tribes. But he barely held their fractured community together.

Shiites, who split with the Sunnis in the 7th century over who was the rightful heir to the prophet Muhammad, were repressed by Hussein's regime. So were the Kurds, who also are mostly Sunnis but set themselves apart as a non-Arab ethnic group with its own language.

Hussein's fall gave once- clandestine and now victorious Shiite and Kurdish movements an instant edge over the disparate Sunni Arabs, who began taking up arms to resist what they feared would be U.S.- imposed Shiite rule.

Most Sunni Arab groups shunned the election in hope of undermining the new government's legitimacy. An estimated 85% of eligible Sunni Arab voters stayed home, out of principle or fear of insurgent attack.

But an overall voter turnout of 58% made the election a success and prompted a change of heart among Sunni Arabs, who won just 14 of the assembly's 275 seats.

"The Sunni community made a mistake not supporting the elections," said Iyad Samarrai, assistant secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which withdrew from the ballot. "Now it wants to get into politics, so we are organizing."

The party will not nominate any of its members for the transitional government but will recommend other Sunni Arabs, Samarrai said.

Like other groups that opposed the vote, it wants to help write the constitution and run in the election of a full-term government at year's end.

One such group, the Muslim Scholars Assn., which includes members who condone attacks on U.S. troops, has begun denouncing insurgent violence that kills civilians — a stance that better positions it for a role in politics.

The two factions bargaining for Sunni Arab representation are led by Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister, and Sharif Ali bin Hussein, a cousin of Iraq's last king, Faisal II (overthrown and killed in 1958) and head of a party that advocates restoring the monarchy.

Neither had stressed his Sunni belief until both emerged this month as rival brokers for the Sunni Arab cause, each campaigning to become vice president.

"The Sunni Arabs are like a horse that everybody wants to ride," said Hachim Hassani, a Sunni Arab who is interim minister of industry. "Nobody talked about the interests of Sunnis in the past. Now everybody is claiming to belong to this sect."

Pachachi's faction includes an official of the Iraqi Islamic Party and interim President Ghazi Ajil Yawer, the only prominent Sunni Arab elected to the assembly.

Bin Hussein, who sponsored the recent Sunni Arab conference in order to raise his profile, claims to speak for "the grass-roots of Sunni society" while portraying his rivals as too close to the Americans.

The factionalism worries U.S. officials, who want Sunni Arabs represented but have refrained from refereeing the makeup of the next government.

"I could conceive of them wasting time debating … while the process moves forward" without them, a senior U.S. Embassy official said. "I could see Shiite outreach being genuine, but the Sunnis blowing it."

With Iraq crippled by violence, the stakes are high.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hoped that Sunni Arab representation would prompt many of the tens of thousands of Sunni Arab insurgents to lay down their weapons. But this is far from certain, especially if the government does not press for a deadline for U.S. military withdrawal.

Moreover, no Sunni Arab leader known to have direct ties to the insurgents has taken part in the political talks or been mentioned for a possible role in the government.

Still, some politicians believe the insurgents could be pacified if the right Sunni Arabs get roles in governing and writing a constitution. They say the violence is as much a reaction to a loss of Sunni Arab power as a rejection of the American presence.

"If people with credibility in the Sunni community are chosen" for government posts, Hassani said, "then it becomes more difficult for insurgents who are Sunnis not to respect that decision."

Sunni Arabs worry that a more lasting — and some say intentional — legacy of U.S. intervention will be an increasingly violent sectarian and ethnic division of Iraq.

At the recent conference, Sunni Arabs railed against violence by Shiites and Kurds but left themselves open to alliances. Several speakers advocated a strategy to draw Shiites wary of their sect's pro-Iranian leaders into a pluralist movement.

"Let us unite all Iraqi nationalists," said Hatim Jassim Mukhlis of the Iraqi National Front. "Otherwise, Iraq and its democracy will be lost."

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Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin contributed to this report.