Latest News

Disenfranchised Sunnis may lash out at U.S. after Saddam's arrest

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Among the first acts of U.S. chief administrator L. Paul Bremer when he arrived in Iraq last May was to disband the old Iraqi army and push forward a tough program to purge members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from their jobs—putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work.

To many, it felt like an assault on Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority, which had controlled Iraq's political system for most of the last century. Sunnis are believed to be behind the insurgency that has claimed nearly 200 U.S. soldiers' lives since May 1, and drawing them into any reformed political system is key to restoring order.

"We the Sunni leaders are increasingly put in a corner by the mistakes of the Americans," said Adnan Munam al Rasheed al Janabi, a moderate Sunni and head of the Janabi tribe in Mahmoudia. "We are increasingly going into corners we don't like, such as not fighting publicly against the opposition to what is called occupation. We don't like to deal with the American military. We accepted them. We dealt with them, but now it is difficult for me to be seen too often talking with American military people."

Those in the so-called Sunni Triangle who aren't Saddam sympathizers have turned hostile as a result of America's get-tough military stance. Clerics say they're having a hard time controlling their unemployed young congregants. Moderates are finding it tougher to speak out publicly against opposition to the occupation. And tribal leaders such as Munam say they're left with few options as the country's major secular institutions are wiped out.

"In Iraq, you have the army, the Baathists and the Sunni. The three of them are a cocktail that can destroy not just a building but the whole country," said Ghassan Atiyyah, a moderate Sunni imprisoned by Saddam in the 1960s who's returned from 16 years of exile. "You have to bring in the Sunnis to make them feel you are partners, bring them inside the building, not outside throwing stones."

The loudest voices are coming from people such as Mohammad Ahmed, 27, a jobless resident of Adhimiya, a Sunni stronghold where some people celebrated Saddam's memory Sunday evening, shooting gunfire into the night sky and carrying Saddam posters.

"There is no one in Adhimiya happy about Saddam's arrest. It's impossible. First of all he was a Muslim; secondly he was the leader of the resistance," Ahmed said. "Without jobs, with American tanks in the street, without representation in government, no one will be happy at this moment."

Coalition officials repeatedly have said they expect attacks by desperate insurgents to increase as those working to rebuild Iraq rack up more successes.

"We do not expect at this point in time that we will have a complete elimination of those attacks," Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top military commander in Iraq, said Sunday. "Those will continue for some time, but with the cooperation of all the Iraq people and our coalition I believe that we are now much closer to a safe and secure environment here in the country."

Not all those attacks are by Sunnis. But they are among the most disenfranchised groups that are trying to get the coalition's attention. The public perception is that the Shiite Muslims and the ethnic Kurds are the victors of the war, and the Sunni are the vanquished.

"I am not a Baathist. But there are almost a million party members. When they hear that they are outcasts, how do you think they are going to behave? The Americans handed Saddam new friends by doing this," Atiyyah said, referring to the purge of the Baathists and disbanding of the army.

Some Sunni leaders are trying to meet in January in the so-called Sunni Triangle, the central area of Iraq where most Sunnis live. Others, such as Atiyyah, are talking about forming umbrella groups composed of former military officers who opposed Saddam along with university professors and lawyers.

About 2,000 Sunnis will meet in Fallujah or Ramadi early next year to elect about 20 to 50 people to speak for the Triangle area, said Sadoun al Dulame, the executive director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies.

The Sunnis on the U.S.-appointed Governing Council aren't leaders of large tribes or people with large followings. As a result, many Sunnis think the council is ineffective and unrepresentative of them.

A few are pointing to new warning signs such as tensions between Sunnis and the Shiite majority that flared after an explosion in a Sunni mosque last week killed three of its members. Relatives of the dead didn't specifically blame the Americans for the unexplained blast, which was described as a rocket-propelled grenade attack or a car bomb, but some posted a banner from Sunni supporters who called for revenge. The mosque's cleric blamed the Shiites, then backed away from his accusations and complained that he couldn't control his disenfranchised, angry, anti-American congregants.

"The Baathists are not ideologues; they joined just to get a job. And we should not make 2 million Iraqis our enemies. Each has a family of five, so we will gain 10 million enemies without a reason," said Hatem Mukhlis, a physician from upstate New York who founded the Iraqi National Movement two years ago as a Sunni-dominated split-off from Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, a former exile group. Mukhlis now lives in Baghdad.

The solution is simple, Mukhlis said.

The American Army should stop conducting destructive raids, breaking down doors and detaining people with no explanation. "They just disappear, and no one hears about them. That should stop immediately. People will compare this with what it was like under Saddam, when detainees also just disappeared," Mukhlis said.

As for the resistance, the disenfranchised group who lost the influence and power they had under Saddam could be won over with money and jobs, Mukhlis said.

Restoring jobs to members of the old Iraqi army, rather than merely creating a new army, and continuing to turn security over to the Iraqis will enable the Iraqis to fight saboteurs and other foreign terrorists, he said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.