May 22, 2005

The Message From the Sunni Heartland


New York Times

DURING the nearly two years I reported from Iraq, from November 2002 to August 2004, I spent a great deal of time with Sunni Arab families in Baghdad and the countryside around Fallujah. I rented an apartment in Ramadi and visited for hundreds of hours in the houses of people who were deeply involved in the insurgency.

What I saw was a society feeling its way into the future, almost blindly and without consensus. In those days, it wasn't unusual to come upon an argument between an elderly patriarch who wanted to cooperate with the occupation and a son who wanted to kill Americans. Other sons and cousins might want contracts with the American Army. Occasionally, I was asked to act as an intermediary to arrange such contracts for men who were themselves fighting the occupation to get money to support their families.

A country going through fast changes is bound to be opaque, especially from the outside. But when I read now about attempts to lure Sunni Arabs into the democratic process, I recall how this population can seem incoherent even to the Sunnis themselves. A mix of forces is at work within it: tribal divisions, sectarian differences, class tensions and an Arab nationalism with conflicting views of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The minority who are doing the fighting are driven by a range of often irreconcilable motives, including national or religious pride, wounded by the occupation, revenge, fantasies of establishing a caliphate and the dream of re-establishing Sunni domination.

The majority of the Sunni Arab population may not be fighting but remains enormously confused and buffeted by outside pressures. They feel both demonized by the West and encouraged by the Sunni Arab world to fight for its honor.

It is this confusion among the Sunni Arabs that has prevented the insurgency - as violent and deadly as it is - from becoming a full-scale rebellion, or even coalescing into a framework with leaders who could make coherent and realistic demands.

After spending time with Sunni Arabs, I can understand why some fight against occupation by a foreign army, but it is difficult to understand what they expect to get out of it in the long run. Perhaps, early on, an opportunity was lost. Most Sunni Arabs I met were ambivalent about the insurgency, but the occupation did little to win them over. Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Baghdad, apparently to force the Shia-led government to make concessions. to bring in some Sunni Arabs and so isolate those who want to fight for all or nothing. But it may be very late in the game.

Feeling threatened, the Sunnis, I learned, will retreat into religion, tribe and old mindsets, skewing their view of the future. I was often astounded by how they interpreted their position in the country. Iraq's population is generally thought to be about 60 percent Shia but a surprising number of Sunni Arabs believe that they, along with the Sunni Kurds, form the majority. Some Sunni Arabs are convinced that they form the majority by themselves and cite a secret Iraqi intelligence agency census from the mid-1990's to back their claims. This is not the conspiracy theory of extremists but of American-educated, wealthy Iraqis who were thrilled by the American invasion.

The Sunni Arabs have run Iraq since the Ottoman era under the same illusion that affects every group in controls of a society - that they are the natural rulers because they are more educated and harder working. They often view the predominantly Shia southern Iraq as lazy, corrupt and promiscuous. This is not so much a sectarian division as a cultural one, a north-south relationship with almost racist overtones. It is this attitude, combined with a fear of Iran, that allows many Sunnis to justify Saddam Hussein's oppression of the Shiites.

But the north-south relationship is complicated and not one expressed merely by contempt. For instance, people from Ramadi and Fallujah are fond of people from Basra because of the southern city's disarming friendliness and relaxed mores, which made it at one time a kind of Iraqi New Orleans.

The Salafi fundamentalists, like the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, may view the Shia as Muslim apostates but that is not as common among Sunnis I have met as having a grandmother who is Shia. The Shia-Sunni divisions tend to be more pronounced where there are fewer of one or the other. In Baghdad, where class consciousness is often more pronounced that sectarian division, the Shia and Sunni intermarry a great deal. A friend of mine jokes that he is "Sushi."

The Sunni Arabs view the Shia parties now in power with alarm because of what they see as their close ties to Iran, and because they feel they will not share in Iraq's enormous wealth. The insurgency is not likely to calm down until Sunnis sense they are getting a fair share of the pie.

Many in the Baghdad elite, a small group of powerful families, believe that politicians like Ahmed Chalabi, whose Shia family comes from this class, are using the new governing parties to push them out of the way. Mr. Chalabi has become the acting oil minister, which to the Sunni Arabs, who always point to allegations that he defrauded a Jordanian bank, is like putting Ivan Boesky in charge of the United States treasury.

Just as the Sunni Arabs are not all Baathists, very few are Salafi fundamentalists, the group thought to be responsible for the latest wave of car bombings. While rural Sunni Arabs are very traditional, many view the strict codes of the Salafis with some distrust. One very religious Iraqi fighter I got to know disliked the Salafis because he thought they did not love the prophet Muhammad enough and that they believed the Koran was merely a set of rules uninformed by love. Like many insurgents I met, he considered himself a Sufi and believed car bombs to be the work of Americans trying to discredit a legitimate resistance.

Outside Iraq, you get the impression that Sunni Arabs take orders from their religious leaders. But unlike the Shia, the Sunnis have no revered leader like the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They can be ambivalent about their clerics, often treating local imams like benign country parsons.

Sunni Arab society outside of Baghdad, where most of the fighting is taking place, is deeply divided along tribal lines and these tribes are in turn divided among smaller clans or subtribes (some of which have Shia and Sunni branches).

The relationship between the tribes is complex and often violent. American marines recently found themselves involved in what appeared to be a tribal fight along the Syrian border between clans who oppose Salafi foreign fighters and those that support them. Knight Ridder Newspapers has reported that tribal leaders in the area asked the government for help and then found themselves caught in the crossfire.

The divisions of Sunni society means its cooperation will require accommodating a host of factions, which are difficult to distinguish and by now extremely suspicious of each other and outsiders.

No one is probably more aware of this than Mr. Zarqawi, who, said his driver, Abu Usama, in news reports, was nearly caught by American forces in February. Mr. Usama, who was arrested in the raid, was quoted as saying that when American forces closed in, Mr. Zarqawi jumped out of his moving car demanding repeatedly: "Who lives in this area? What subtribe is here?"

It is a question that foreigners in Iraq might be asking more frequently in the coming months.

Patrick Graham is a former correspondent for The National Post in Canada. His article for Harper's Magazine in June 2004 about his time with Iraqi insurgents won an Overseas Press Club of America award.