Voters clap and cheer as Sunni turnout is higher than expected

By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad

31 January 2005


The Sunni Arabs of Iraq voted yesterday in larger numbers than seemed likely early in the morning when polling stations often did not open or were empty for hours.

In Baquba, a notoriously tough Sunni town north-east of Baghdad, crowds were confident enough to clap and cheer as they went to the polls. In Mosul in the north, election officials said the turnout had been higher than expected. There was even said to be a trickle of voters in Fallujah, its houses and shops turned to rubble by the US assault in November.

A pre-election poll said only 9 per cent of Sunnis intended to vote. Sunni parties had called for the poll to be postponed for three months or more, hoping the situation would be calmer.The fear before the election was that the Sunnis would in effect disenfranchise themselves by not voting because they were either boycotting the poll or were intimidated. But the strength of the insurgency means that, whether they have representation or not in the National Assembly, they will be able to bargain about their share in political power and economic resources.

The Sunni are not homogeneous. Saddam Hussein's regime drew its cadres from rural Sunnis outside Baghdad. The Hashemite monarchy installed by the British and overthrown in 1958 was rooted in the Sunni districts of the cities.

If an election had taken place a year ago it might have prevented insurgents becoming so powerful. They are now well entrenched, experienced, and it is unlikely they can be uprooted. But it is also true that they have not succeeded in spreading the uprising beyond Sunni areas.

The insurgent movement consists of a mixture of groups. Some 35 Sunni Arab groups have claimed responsibility for attacks though some may only be small cells. They include Iraqi nationalists, members of the former regime and self-defence forces of Sunni villages. Some 90 to 95 per cent of those detained by the US and the Iraqi army are Sunni, as are most of those killed in the fighting.

The effectiveness of the Sunni resistance so soon after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was the result of the alienation of the population by the US, the military expertise of former officers and the ferocious cruelty of the Islamic fundamentalists, the Salafi. A recent poll showed that 53 per cent of the five million Sunni approved of armed resistance.

But the bigotry of the Salafi and particularly of the groups associated with the Jordanian militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has angered and frightened the Shias. When the US first attacked Fallujah in April, there was an Iraqi nationalist reaction in Baghdad. When the US destroyed the city in November, after suicide bombers had slaughtered teenage army and police recruits, there was no sympathy among them.

A weakness of the resistance is that it has not developed a movement appealing to Iraqi nationalists as a whole. Bloodthirsty statements from Zarqawi tend to isolate insurgents. So too does the suicide bombers' disregard for Iraqi civilian casualties (though the US might be shocked by the number of Iraqis who criticise bombers for not killing Americans instead). The Sunni community is united in opposition to the US. It will never regain its predominance but does not know how it will fit into the new order.

Did yesterday mark the end of Sunni Arab domination of Iraqi politics and start an era when the country will be run by the Shia and Kurdish communities? The change probably will not be so dramatic. If Sunnis have proved one thing, it is that they cannot be ignored when it comes to deciding Iraq's fate. The US rues the day when it dissolved the predominantly Sunni security forces and army officer corps in May 2003, ensuring they became the embittered core of the guerrilla campaign.