Global Policy Forum

Sunnis' Exclusion from Political Process


By Tom Lasseter

Knight Ridder
March 28, 2005

While American officials point to the bargaining among Shiite Muslim and Kurdish politicians over an interim Iraqi government as evidence that democracy is taking hold in Iraq, some Iraqi analysts and politicians are increasingly worried about the group that's missing from the equation: Sunni Muslims. Almost two months after national elections, Iraq's Sunni minority remains fragmented and largely alienated from the horse-trading. If that continues, the group that's long dominated Iraq could find itself shut out of December's prime ministerial election as it was on Jan. 30, when Sunnis won only a few seats in Iraq's new parliament.

Lawmakers had planned to meet this weekend to form a coalition government that's expected to be dominated by Shiites and Kurds, but the session was postponed at least until Tuesday. On Sunday, Shiite and Kurdish leaders said that many of the key decisions about the new government had been made. Both groups stand to receive most of the key positions - prime minister, president and the major cabinet posts - leaving the Sunnis further estranged.

Asked about Kurdish demands for 25 percent of the nation's oil revenues, Faraj al Haidari, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party, said that the Kurds are entitled to a considerable stake of the country's wealth because of their suffering under former dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. "We have to take in consideration that Kurdistan has suffered a lot in the past and it has to get what it deserves now," he said.

Saad Jawad, a senior Shiite political official, said that Kurdish demands for control of the oil-rich Kirkuk area, a crucial issue for Sunni Arabs, have been scaled back to a referendum to be held there at a later date. Most Iraqis expect the Kurds to bus in as many of their own people as possible to win the vote and make Kirkuk part of an autonomous Kurdistan. The Kurds have agreed, on paper at least, to absorb their Peshmerga militia into the nation's security forces, but the militia members will remain in Kurdistan.

Politicians and analysts in Iraq agree that the insurgency could broaden and intensify, and perhaps even threaten civil war, if mainstream Sunnis continue to feel disenfranchised. "A defiant Sunni population would be dangerous," said Mazen al Ramadhani, a political science analyst and professor at Baghdad University. While Sunnis make up some 20 percent of Iraq's population, they comprise most of its bureaucratic, technological and military elite, largely because of favoritism by Saddam.

"Our presence and representation in the next government is an important and necessary thing to stabilize this country," said Hassan al Hashimy, an official with the Iraqi Islamic Party, a main Sunni group. Jawad Talib, a senior adviser to the presumptive Shiite prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, agreed. "If they don't participate, it will destabilize the country," he said. "I hope that the Sunni clerics won't submit to the terrorists."

In many predominantly Sunni areas, however, Sunni religious organizations called for a boycott of the Jan. 30 elections, and poor security made voting difficult. In Anbar province, voter turnout was in the single digits. There have been several attempts to gather the Sunni factions at the table and draft a common platform, but the effort has been plagued by disagreements between Sunnis willing to join the political process and those who dismiss it as a sham. Now there are signs that some Sunni groups may be digging in their heels.

Leaders of the Muslim Scholars Association, an influential group of hard-line clerics that called for a boycott in January, continue to denounce the bargaining over a new government as an American fabrication. A conference last week intended to bring major Sunni parties together was poorly attended, and the scholar's association representative used it to rail against the U.S. presence in Iraq and anything connected to it.

"We held the conference for the Sunni people after we started to feel that the sectarian divide is widening and after we realized that we're about to be marginalized," he said before putting in a good word for the Sunni-led insurgency. "There are bad intentions to distort the reputation of the true, honorable resistance, which should be a crown on the heads of all Iraqis. This resistance is a legal act according to all the religions."

Some Sunni leaders have floated the idea of creating a federation of three Sunni provinces, which, under a clause in the nation's transitional law, could veto any constitution passed by the Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated assembly. But even that's been stymied by infighting among Sunni politicians and tribal sheikhs, some of whom consider any political engagement, even a veto, a tacit acknowledgement of the government's legitimacy.

The naming of the new transitional government, negotiated by the Shiites and Kurds, appears likely to exacerbate the situation. Although the Kurds, who are Sunnis but identify primarily with their Kurdish ethnicity, are also about 20 percent of the population, they mounted a massive get-out-the-vote drive and gained significant leverage with the Shiite majority.

Muayad Dulame, a Sunni barber in Baghdad, said he worried that the Sunnis are falling further and further behind. Sitting in a restaurant next to his shop, Dulame said he hoped that Iraq wouldn't go the way of Lebanon, where a 15-year civil war killed thousands. "We shouldn't be like Lebanon, where the Sunnis, Shiite and Christians are all divided," he said. "But every time we hear the news, we hear that a Sunni mosque was hit; a Shiite mosque was hit; a Sunni sheikh was killed; a Shiite sheikh was killed."

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