May 8, 2005

For Some in Iraq's Sunni Minority, a Growing Sense of Alienation

By ROBERT F. WORTH

New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 6 - Fakhri al-Qaisi, a rumpled, 51-year-old dentist, is an unlikely statesman - and just the kind of person both Iraqi leaders and Americans say they need to enlist to bring Iraq's recalcitrant Sunni minority out of the armed resistance and into mainstream politics.

Mr. Qaisi has the street credibility that most of Iraq's more secular political figures lack. A hard-line Islamist, he helped form a political council of fellow Sunni Arabs - including tribal chiefs, clerics and former Baathists - that has the ear of both insurgent fighters and members of Iraq's new government. (He also has some enemies: he has been sleeping in his car for months, out of fear that the police will raid his home or kill him.)

But last week Mr. Qaisi gave up on his efforts to sell the new Shiite-led government to his fellow Sunnis. After nominating a number of Sunnis to run the Defense Ministry - a critical post - Mr. Qaisi and other Sunni negotiators were repeatedly blocked by Shiite leaders who said the candidates had been too close to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

"They offered us joke ministries," Mr. Qaisi said in an interview in a Baghdad hotel. "What will the resistance do when they hear of this? They will send a car bomb."

Mr. Qaisi's veiled bomb threats can make him sound more like a Mafia consigliere than a politician. (His own preferred analogy is Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army.)

But in his growing fury at the Shiite majority, his wounded pride, even in his comfort with violence, he speaks for many of Iraq's Sunnis, who ruled the region for centuries before the fall of Mr. Hussein and are still not reconciled to their new minority status.

In the end, the new cabinet was sworn in Tuesday with half of the six slots allocated to Sunnis still vacant. Many Sunnis saw the whole affair as a calculated insult, and the government's own top-ranking Sunni, Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, refused to attend the ceremony in protest. It took several more days of talks for Shiite and Kurdish leaders to agree on the rest of a cabinet.

And Mr. Qaisi was right: the resistance did send car bombs last week - a fusillade of them in Baghdad and elsewhere. American and Iraqi officials say the renewed violence was aimed at the new Shiite-led government, in which the Sunnis have almost no voice.

Partly for that reason, giving a stake to rough-edged Sunnis like Mr. Qaisi remains one of the most important and difficult tasks of the new government.

"Credibility is key," said one American official with long experience in the region. "We need people who can go out to places like Tikrit and Ramadi, and persuade them that violence is not the answer."

Iraq's Sunnis are fractious and varied; there is no single individual or group that could represent their variety of mindsets and opinions. In the last two weeks, though, communal tensions have risen, making life almost impossible for would-be Sunni middlemen like Mr. Qaisi.

Many Shiites view them as closet insurgents, and last week police officers - who are overwhelmingly Shiite - raided the Baghdad offices of Mr. Qaisi's political council, smashing furniture and stealing files.

Some Sunni jihadist groups have also made plain that they view Sunnis who negotiate with the government as traitors. There have been explicit death threats. On the day after the police raid, a suicide bomber detonated his vehicle outside Mr. Qaisi's offices, killing a bystander and wounding several others. Another Sunni politician, Meshaan al-Juburi, narrowly survived an assassination attempt a few days earlier.

"Zarqawi wants me, the U.S. troops want me, the police want me," Mr. Qaisi said wearily.

The Sunnis' problems are partly of their own making. Mr. Hussein's Sunni military and secret police slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Shiites over the course of more than three decades. It is hardly surprising that Shiite leaders - and some Kurds - are now reluctant to turn the Defense Ministry over to a former Baathist who may be implicated in some of those crimes.

Sunnis also largely boycotted the January elections, a decision that many of them now regret. With only 17 representatives in Iraq's 275-member National Assembly, they are entirely dependent on the good will of the Shiites and Kurds for any role in the new government.

A further problem is the lack of any cohesive Sunni political bloc. When negotiations over the Defense Ministry and other cabinet posts opened, several Sunni groups put forward separate lists of cabinet nominees instead of banding together on one.

The lack of unity arises from several factors. Sunnis in Iraq were in charge and never had to take shelter in communal loyalties, as Shiites and Kurds did. Sunni Islam does not have the kind of religious hierarchy that makes Shiites rally around their ayatollahs. As a result, many Sunnis still do not take their primary sense of identify from their religion. More than their Kurdish and Shiite counterparts, they have resisted the sectarian trend that has swept Iraq over last two years, and prefer to call themselves simply Iraqis.

But that is starting to change. Even cosmopolitan figures like Adnan Pachachi, the 81-year-old Iraqi elder statesman, have begun to drop their secular language and cast themselves primarily as Sunnis. Mr. Pachachi now says he hopes to build a Sunni political and religious coalition that might rival the Shiite alliance formed under Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Mr. Qaisi, as it happens, conceived the idea of uniting Iraq's Sunnis in early 2003, during a trip to Mount Ararat, near Mecca. Within a few months he had gathered 85 leaders of Sunni groups across Iraq, secular and religious. But that group eventually fell victim to partisan bickering. Last year Mr. Qaisi tried again, forming his current coalition, the National Dialogue Council.

Mr. Qaisi says he believes in nonviolence. His three wives are all Shiites, he says, so he understands the Shiite point of view.

Still, his Sunni nationalism has taken on a darker edge. Where he and other Sunnis once reserved most of their bile for the American occupation, he is now much angrier about Iraq's Shiite leadership.

During a raid on his house last year, American soldiers threw his pregnant daughter to the floor, and she later miscarried, he said, and his son was so frightened that he has become mentally ill. But Mr. Qaisi seems far less angry at the American troops than at the Shiite militia members who were also in on the raid.

"If the U.S. troops came alone, we would shake their hand," Mr. Qaisi said. "But they brought our enemies with them."

Behind the Shiite religious parties, Mr. Qaisi sees a darker foe: Iran. Like a number of other Sunni politicians, he has taken to calling the Shiite leaders "Safawis" - an allusion to the Safavid rulers who came from what is now Iran to conquer Iraq in the 17th century.

Most tellingly, Mr. Qaisi has a perception of Iraq's most fundamental realities that is utterly opposed to that of the Shiites. He and many other Sunnis believe that much of the terrorism ostensibly carried out by Sunni fighters is in fact directed and financed by Iran. He even says that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist whose network often attacks Shiite mosques and civilians, is largely a front for Iran's Shiite government.

Mr. Qaisi refuses to believe that Shiites make up 60 percent of the population, the figure that has been widely accepted inside and outside Iraq for a number of years. Instead, he believes they are closer to 30 percent - less, he adds, than Iraq's Sunnis.

For the Shiites, it is tempting to simply dismiss such opinions. But if the Sunnis, however contrarian, are ignored or left out of Iraq's new political sphere, they will fight harder, and will almost certainly have the sympathy of neighboring Sunni governments like Saudi Arabia, whose borders are easily crossed by jihadist volunteers.

"The Sunnis will not give in," said Ghassan al-Atiyya, a secular Shiite and the director of the Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy, a Baghdad research institute. "If you fight them, you turn them into national heroes. You must find the moderates and deal with them."

Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedy contributed reporting for this article.

Go to: Iraq Occupation and Resistance Report