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Baghdad attacks stir fears of Sunni violence

Analysts caution that violence could increase in Iraq if Sunnis do not get what they want through the ballot box in a nationwide vote scheduled for January.
Iraq Suicide Bombing
Relatives and friends of Hind Qassim, 35, load her coffin during her funeral in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, on Tuesday.Alaa Al-marjani / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iraq's Sunnis, long dissatisfied with the Shiite-led government, seek more power, respect and a bigger share of oil wealth in upcoming elections. But disunity among their political leaders and the sheer force of Shiite numbers threaten to derail those hopes.

The result, some analysts and Iraqis fear, could be increased violence as some embittered Sunnis try to destabilize the government and gain power.

Sunday's bombings that killed 155 people in Baghdad sent a chill across the country, with an al-Qaida-linked group claiming responsibility. Two years ago, Iraq descended into intense violence when Sunni extremists launched bombing campaigns that aggravated the underlying Sunni-Shiite tensions, fueling a vicious cycle of sectarian reprisals that brought the country to the edge of chaos.

For now, mainstream Sunnis seem willing to seek what they want through the ballot box in a nationwide vote scheduled for January.

But analysts caution that fringe al-Qaida-linked groups, like Islamic State of Iraq which claimed responsibility for Sunday's attacks, could play off the simmering Sunni fear and anxiety, especially if the January election proves bad for Sunnis.

"They want to make this government dysfunctional," said Riad Kahwaji, head of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, discussing attacks by Sunni extremists.

Al-Qaida in Iraq, which once held sway among Sunni insurgents in the country, "wants to make a comeback, and they seem to be making a comeback in a very noisy and bloody way," he said.

In the minority
Sunnis, who make up 20 percent of the overall population, have never accepted their status as a minority after generations as the politically dominant group in Iraqi society. They lost that status when the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein and propelled the Shiites, who make up an estimated 60 percent of the population, into power.

In addition, Sunnis complain that the Shiite-led government keeps them from positions of power such as the police, doesn't share the country's oil wealth sufficiently with Sunni areas and targets Sunnis for arrest.

Powerful car bombs targeting city government office buildings kill more than 130.

Intensifying fears of violence is the fact that a law to govern January's elections remains caught in a deadlock. It has been during periods of political impasse that Iraq becomes particularly vulnerable to renewed violence.

In 2006, months of political wrangling over the country's first permanent post-invasion government allowed al-Qaida linked insurgent groups, backed by some Sunnis, to provoke Shiite militias into a near-civil war.

So far, Shiites in Iraq do not seem to be responding, even when provoked by the recent rash of extremist al-Qaida-linked attacks.

Yet, "there is always that danger that the sectarian factions can revert to violence. So, it's vital to keep the political process going," said Terrence Kelly, a senior analyst at the RAND Corp. "Al-Qaida's goal has always been to keep a democratically based political process from taking hold."

The attackers have targeted mostly government buildings — a potent target since the government is Shiite-led, but less outright sectarian than attacking Shiite markets and neighborhoods as in the bloody days of 2006 and 2007.

'Obvious exclusion'
Iraq's mainstream Sunnis have been quick to distance themselves from the horrific bombings, and analysts note that groups like al-Qaida in Iraq which claimed the attacks, should not be confused with the Sunni population or political groups.

Yet there is no question that many Sunnis are disaffected as the January vote nears, and looking to the election to regain some of their lost power. Sunnis, who led the country under Saddam, boycotted a critical first nationwide vote in 2005, resulting in a Shiite-led government.

"Despite the existence of some Sunni figures in the parliament and government, we are still suffering from obvious exclusion from the political environment, and we have no influential say in the decision-making process of the country especially in the security side," said one Sunni from Baghdad, Khalil al-Obeidi.

In a key turning point of the war in late 2006, one-time Sunni insurgents denounced violence, turned on their former al-Qaida-linked partners from abroad, and began working with the U.S. military to root out insurgents.

That was viewed as a critical factor, along with a surge in U.S. troop levels, in pulling Iraq back from the brink of civil war.

Waiting for 'a piece of the pie'
Multiple Sunni parties plan to take part in January's election, which analysts consider a good sign. But the Sunnis also make clear they expect something for their part in making the country safer.

"They are now willing and ready to play a role, and they expect to be given a piece of the pie," said Kahwaji.

Lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq, who leads a Sunni bloc of 11 members in parliament, said Sunnis are looking for transparent elections that serve "all Iraqis of all sects and religions."

He warned that if Iraq's political makeup remains the same after the election — meaning a Shiite dominated government — the country will remain "unstable."

The problem is that the Sunnis are not necessarily able to bring about change at the ballot box. They are fragmented and on the defensive, said Joost R. Hiltermann, from the International Crisis Group.

The Shiite-led government has won praise for some outreach to Sunnis. But it has never done as much as the United States has urged to allow former Baathists allied with Saddam, mainly Sunnis, to regain a role in Iraq's government.

"I don't think the Sunnis want a delay in the elections — I don't think anyone in Iraq wants this," Hiltermann said. "But the Sunnis are on the defensive."