BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government has been in power less than two months, and minority Sunni Arabs — the dominant force in the nation’s relentless and bloody insurgency — are struggling to find a place in the country’s future.
But the once-powerful community, at its lowest point since the U.S.-led invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein, refuses to accept second-class status and believes it still has trump cards to play — chief among them: withholding approval of a new constitution in a fall referendum.
“These are very harsh times for us,” said legislator Salih al-Mutlak, leader of a Sunni Arab umbrella group. “I am not optimistic, but maybe things will change after the next election.”
Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs — who were dominant under Saddam but sidelined when he was toppled — have been force to surrender virtually all authority to the long-oppressed Shiite Muslim majority and to the likewise oppressed Kurds, who enjoy autonomy in their region in northern Iraq and are mainly Sunnis.
Worse under new government
As bad as conditions became after Saddam fell from power and the Americans were running things, many Sunni Arab leaders claim conditions have only become worse under the government of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
An ongoing security sweep in Baghdad, they say, has singled them out for random arrests. They also complain of brutal and high-handed treatment during raids of their homes by forces of the Iraqi police and army.
Shiite militiamen, they insist, are killing their clerics and hounding them out of government jobs to make way for supporters of ruling coalition parties.
Al-Jaafari’s government denies pushing a sectarian agenda and has reached out to the Sunni Arabs, giving them Cabinet posts and endorsing proposals for them to have a bigger political role.
But the overtures have done little to ease Sunni fears of exclusion or to defuse the insurgency. To the contrary, violence has only intensified since the al-Jaafari government took power in late April. Nearly 950 people, U.S. forces included, have been killed in insurgent attacks and bombings since then.
In a move to blunt the attacks, the government Sunday said it was in contact with insurgent groups that want to lay down their weapons and join the political process. Laith Kuba, al-Jaafari’s spokesman, gave no details, saying only that some militant factions had been in direct contact and others put out feelers through intermediaries.
The Sunni-dominated insurgency — unforeseen by U.S. war planners — has cost additional billions of dollars for security, snarled reconstruction efforts and put on hold any plans to draw down the 140,000 American forces still in Iraq.
Contacts between the government and the insurgency were first reported by Shiite and Sunni politicians last week. While they could take months to produce results, they are almost certain to enhance the standing of the Sunni Arab community both in Iraq and with the United States, which still holds sway a year after formally ending its occupation.
The Sunnis complain bitterly of their plight, but can only blame themselves for much of it.
Many of them boycotted January’s historic elections, allowing rival Shiites and Kurds — who represent about 80 percent of Iraq’s estimated 26 million people — to capture most of parliament’s 275 seats, leaving the Sunnis with little voice in Iraq’s future.
Parliament must draft a new constitution by Aug. 15, which will be put to a referendum two months later. If adopted, it will be the basis for yet another round of elections in December.
Sunni Arabs are asking for a bigger say in the constitutional process and are threatening to boycott it if their demands are not met. Only two of parliament’s 17 Sunni Arab legislators sit on the 55-member constitutional committee under its present makeup.
Under the provisional law now in force, Sunni Arabs can reject the draft constitution in October by voting against it in three of the four provinces where they have a majority. Such a move would force the dissolution of parliament and new elections held, throwing the entire political process a year behind schedule — as envisioned by Washington.
“If we don’t like it in October, we shall vote against it and return the entire political process to point zero,” said senior Sunni Arab politician and lawmaker Meshaan al-Jiburi.
Beyond the Sunnis’ failure to take part in elections, they seem further plagued by an inability to accept the political realities of postwar Iraq.
“Baghdad has been ruled by Sunni Arabs since its foundation” in the 9th century, said al-Jiburi.
“We are the founders of modern Iraq but now we practically have no say in running it,” said al-Mutlak, the other Sunni Arab legislator.
No single voice
What’s more, the Sunnis have no single authoritative voice pushing their demands, leaving them at a disadvantage with the Shiites, who take their lead solely from spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
“I always knew that there are three major Sunni Arab groups,” said Wael Abdul-Latif, a Shiite lawmaker and former Cabinet minister. “But when we asked the Sunni Arabs to provide us with representatives to join the constitutional committee, 53 groups came to us claiming to speak for the Sunni Arabs.”
The Sunnis say their immediate objectives include mobilizing the community to contest the December elections and to reinstate or provide pensions for members of Saddam’s disbanded army.
Another priority is to end “de-Baathification,” a policy introduced by the U.S. occupation authorities in 2003 to purge the government of senior members of Saddam’s Baath party.
They say disbanding the army and de-Baathification targeted their community and took away the incomes of tens of thousands of people, effectively pushing them into the waiting arms of the insurgency.
De-Baathification was put on hold during the former interim government of Ayad Allawi, a Shiite and a former Baathist himself, but it has resumed under al-Jaafari.
Ali Faisal, director of the De-Baathification Commission, said over the weekend that the government has pledged to implement recommendations for the dismissal of 900 Interior Ministry employees and 100 to 150 at the Defense Ministry.