Iraq's Sunnis, long dissatisfied with the Shiite-led government, seek more power, respect and a bigger share of oil wealth in upcoming elections. But disunity among their political leaders and the sheer force of Shiite numbers threaten to derail those hopes.
The result, some analysts and Iraqis fear, could be increased
violence as some embittered Sunnis try to destabilize the
government and gain power.
Sunday's bombings that killed 155 people in Baghdad sent a chill
across the country, with an al-Qaida-linked group claiming
responsibility. Three years ago, Iraq descended into intense
violence when Sunni extremists launched bombing campaigns that
aggravated the underlying Sunni-Shiite tensions, fueling a vicious
cycle of sectarian reprisals that brought the country to the edge
For now, mainstream Sunnis seem willing to seek what they want
through the ballot box in a nationwide vote scheduled for January.
But analysts caution that fringe al-Qaida-linked groups, like
Islamic State of Iraq which claimed responsibility for Sunday's
attacks, could play off the simmering Sunni fear and anxiety,
especially if the January election proves bad for Sunnis.
"They want to make this government dysfunctional," said Riad
Kahwaji, head of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf
Military Analysis, discussing attacks by Sunni extremists.
Al-Qaida in Iraq, which once held sway among Sunni insurgents in
the country, "wants to make a comeback, and they seem to be making
a comeback in a very noisy and bloody way," he said.
Sunnis, who make up 20 percent of the overall population, have
never accepted their status as a minority after generations as the
politically dominant group in Iraqi society. They lost that status
when the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein and propelled the
Shiites, who make up an estimated 60 percent of the population,
In addition, Sunnis complain that the Shiite-led government
keeps them from positions of power such as the police, doesn't
share the country's oil wealth sufficiently with Sunni areas and
targets Sunnis for arrest.
Intensifying fears of violence is the fact that a law to govern
January's elections remains caught in a deadlock. It has been
during periods of political impasse that Iraq becomes particularly
vulnerable to renewed violence.
In 2006, months of political wrangling over the country's first
permanent post-invasion government allowed al-Qaida linked
insurgent groups, backed by some Sunnis, to provoke Shiite militias
into a near-civil war.
So far, Shiites in Iraq do not seem to be responding, even when
provoked by the recent rash of extremist al-Qaida-linked attacks.
Yet, "there is always that danger that the sectarian factions
can revert to violence. So, it's vital to keep the political
process going," said Terrence Kelly, a senior analyst at the RAND
Corp. "Al-Qaida's goal has always been to keep a democratically
based political process from taking hold."
The attackers have targeted mostly government buildings - a
potent target since the government is Shiite-led, but less outright
sectarian than attacking Shiite markets and neighborhoods as in the
bloody days of 2006 and 2007.
Iraq's mainstream Sunnis have been quick to distance themselves
from the horrific bombings, and analysts note that groups like
al-Qaida in Iraq which claimed the attacks, should not be confused
with the Sunni population or political groups.
Yet there is no question that many Sunnis are disaffected as the
January vote nears, and looking to the election to regain some of
their lost power. Sunnis, who led the country under Saddam,
boycotted a critical first nationwide vote in 2005, resulting in a
"Despite the existence of some Sunni figures in the parliament
and government, we are still suffering from obvious exclusion from
the political environment, and we have no influential say in the
decision-making process of the country especially in the security
side," said one Sunni from Baghdad, Khalil al-Obeidi.
In a key turning point of the war in late 2006, one-time Sunni
insurgents denounced violence, turned on their former
al-Qaida-linked partners from abroad, and began working with the
U.S. military to root out insurgents.
That was viewed as a critical factor, along with a surge in U.S.
troop levels, in pulling Iraq back from the brink of civil war.
Multiple Sunni parties plan to take part in January's election,
which analysts consider a good sign. But the Sunnis also make clear
they expect something for their part in making the country safer.
"They are now willing and ready to play a role, and they expect
to be given a piece of the pie," said Kahwaji.
Lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq, who leads a Sunni bloc of 11 members
in parliament, said Sunnis are looking for transparent elections
that serve "all Iraqis of all sects and religions."
He warned that if Iraq's political makeup remains the same after
the election - meaning a Shiite dominated government - the country
will remain "unstable."
The problem is that the Sunnis are not necessarily able to bring
about change at the ballot box. They are fragmented and on the
defensive, said Joost R. Hiltermann, from the International Crisis
The Shiite-led government has won praise for some outreach to
Sunnis. But it has never done as much as the United States has
urged to allow former Baathists allied with Saddam, mainly Sunnis,
to regain a role in Iraq's government.
"I don't think the Sunnis want a delay in the elections - I
don't think anyone in Iraq wants this," Hiltermann said. "But the
Sunnis are on the defensive."
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