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Iraq: Faces of Resistance

8 minute read
Bobby Ghosh/Baghdad

The two raised voices bounce off the latticed walls of the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad, where hundreds of Sunnis have gathered for the first night of Ramadan. Korans snap shut, and heads turn toward the corner, where a quiet discussion among a group of Sunnis is getting contentious. The subject preoccupies Sunnis across Iraq: whether to vote in this week’s referendum on a new constitution. “The best way for us to show our opposition is to boycott,” says Majid al-Bayati, 63, a retired lawyer, as some congregants mutter approval. “It’s a complete waste of time.” Upon hearing this, construction worker Samir Abdel-Haadi, 33, pushes back. “That is the kind of thinking that got us where we are today,” he says, referring to the elections last January that produced a victory for religious Shi’ite parties. This time around, he says, Sunnis should stand up and be counted.

The Bush Administration would probably hail this kind of exchange as a sign that some of Iraq’s Sunnis–who make up 20% of the population but the bulk of the anti-U.S. insurgency–are willing to participate in a political process they have until now largely rejected. But the Sunni dilemma reveals deep anxieties that cannot be resolved simply by holding elections. Whether or not Sunnis come out to vote in large numbers in Saturday’s referendum, the underlying tensions that have pulled Iraq to the brink of civil war aren’t likely to disappear. Few Sunnis have faith in the U.S.-sponsored political process or the Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders who have risen to power in Baghdad. The vote on the constitution–which Sunni leaders oppose because it paves the way for a semiautonomous region in the south (like the one already created in the Kurdish north)–may serve only to heighten Sunni estrangement, since it will probably pass no matter how many Sunnis come out to vote against it. It’s no wonder that ordinary Sunnis increasingly believe they have no say in the political events sweeping through their country. “There is a sense that we are losing control of our destiny,” says Hatem Mukhlis, a prominent Sunni politician. “We feel marginalized, victimized and completely alone.”

For the U.S., those are worrisome sentiments. The U.S. exit strategy in Iraq hinges on convincing moderate Sunnis that it’s in their interests to embrace democracy and accept political setbacks with grace. Few Sunnis say they support the terrorist atrocities that are perpetrated daily by followers of al-Qaeda leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, but many still regard attacks against U.S. and Iraqi troops as legitimate resistance. At the Abu Hanifa mosque, the most prominent Sunni mosque in Baghdad, a banner hangs from the clock tower calling on worshippers to pray in the name of Muhammad, imam of the mujahedin. Over the door to the main prayer hall, another banner paraphrases the Koran, exhorting God to deliver the faithful from the infidels–a not-so-subtle call to drive U.S. troops out of Iraq. Says Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer, the highest-ranked Sunni in the government: “An angry community that feels helpless and powerless–it’s not hard to see how the terrorists and insurgents will exploit the situation.”

And yet while expressions of Sunni anger are common in Iraq, identifying the precise sources of that anger and what it will take to defuse them remains a huge challenge. Though a numerical minority in Iraq, the Sunnis have ruled the country for centuries, giving them a strong sense of entitlement–and an equally powerful resentment at their abruptly reduced status. Sunni leaders couch their demands in politically correct language, citing specific grievances and mistreatment by the Shi’ite majority, but in private they argue that Iraq would not be experiencing its current convulsions had the U.S. left the Sunnis in charge. Nazer al-Koudsi, a Sunni political activist in Baghdad, voices a common Sunni perception when he describes the current government as “a mix of Shi’ite fanatics from the south and Kurdish traitors from the north, none of whom have any experience in ruling Iraq.” In that view, the Sunnis are the preordained ruling class, groomed for the task under Ottoman and British colonial tutelage, while the Shi’ite majority are ignorant, superstitious rabble.

The Sunnis’ belief in their natural right to rule makes the current reality all the more depressing. At the Abu Hanifa mosque, al-Bayati and Abdel-Haadi bemoan the Sunni plight. “Look at how we live now, like prisoners,” says al-Bayati. Outside the mosque, the Adhamiya district has fallen silent at 8 p.m., a contrast with Ramadans past, when the neighborhood came alive at the end of the day’s fasting. Now, few Sunnis dare step out for fear of harassment by Iraqi security forces made up mainly of Shi’ites. The security measures are probably warranted: Adhamiya has a history of harboring Sunni insurgents. But locals don’t see it that way. “We are being singled out,” says Abdel-Haadi. “If you are a Sunni, the government automatically assumes you must be a terrorist.”

The Sunni sense of victimhood is not entirely imaginary: Iraqi police and security forces are certainly guilty of profiling. Hundreds of innocent Sunnis have been detained in antiterrorist sweeps and later released without apology. In recent weeks, Sunni groups have complained that people picked up by the Interior Ministry’s special forces have been turning up dead, their bodies bearing signs of torture and execution. The assassinations of many Sunnis have been attributed to Shi’ite death squads; the government seems to be doing nothing to investigate, much less apprehend, the guilty. “Sunnis feel that they are not being provided the protection of the state,” says Mukhlis, the Sunni politician, “and instead the state is protecting their killers.”

But while the Sunnis are swift to air their grievances and point to everything that’s wrong with the government, few have articulated an alternative, democratic vision for Iraq. Community leaders have not yet figured how they can best fit into the new order. They have a strong sense of what they don’t want–a government that’s run by Shi’ite religious parties, a constitution that weakens the center and hands more power to non-Sunni provinces, the presence of foreign soldiers on Iraqi soil. But their ability to push their interests was damaged by their boycott of the January election. It gave the Shi’ites and Kurds disproportionate influence over the drafting of the constitution, which Sunni leaders have refused to support.

Some Sunni leaders acknowledge that the boycott was a mistake and are urging their followers to turn out this Saturday–to vote against the constitution. In Sunni-dominated Anbar and Salahuddin provinces, up to 75% of eligible voters have registered to vote. If two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces vote no, the draft constitution will be thrown out and a new government, elected on Dec. 15, will go back to the drawing board to produce a new charter. The Iraqi parliament tried to change the rules last week so that it would take two-thirds of the registered voters–not just those who actually vote–to defeat the constitution, but reversed itself after the move was condemned by the U.N. Still, if Sunnis do turn out in high numbers and the referendum passes despite their opposition, the losers probably won’t be philosophical in defeat. “What worries me the most is the scenario in which the Sunnis make a maximum effort and fall just a bit short,” says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The possible reaction is, ‘It’s all rigged against us.’ That’s the troubling scenario, and it’s also the most likely.”

Moderate Sunni leaders are pushing for an 11th-hour compromise on the draft constitution’s wording under which the Shi’ites and Kurds drop their key demand for federalism in exchange for Sunni support. “We will keep negotiating until the last minute,” says Saleh al-Mutlaq, the lead Sunni negotiator. “If we can get a compromise, our people will be happy to vote yes, and we can all move forward as Iraqis.” But the Shi’ites and the Kurds have shown little inclination to compromise, and there is enough Sunni mistrust to fuel the insurgency for years. At the Abu Hanifa mosque, al-Bayati and Abdel-Haadi continue to argue over the way forward, with the younger man saying he is not prepared to give up on politics. “We have to be inside the system, not shouting on the outside,” he says. But after a few more minutes of discussion, al-Bayati cuts him off and makes it clear that Sunnis like himself, at least, aren’t ready to stop fighting. “There will be 20 drafts of the constitution,” he says as he rises from the carpeted floor to leave. “But the last one will be written by the mujahedin.”

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