The Puzzle of Sunnis’ Leadership Vacuum

Times Staff Writer

Iraq’s Sunni Muslim Arabs don’t lack leadership qualities. They once filled the upper ranks of Saddam Hussein’s officer corps and government ministries, and now some of them are running an increasingly sophisticated insurgency.

But in the search for prominent politicians who can unite the fractious minority and secure its members’ place in rebuilding a nation, the pickings are slim.

“No one represents the Sunnis,” said Talat Wazan, the head of the Mosul-based Iraqi National Union Party, a Sunni Arab group. “Many of these people act like they are talking on behalf of the Sunni people and are a hero to them. But let me tell you that the Sunni people are divided into many branches and subgroups, so nobody can say that [they] can represent them.”


As the country’s politicians craft a constitution that will lay the groundwork for Iraq’s future, most Sunnis appear to have no unifying leadership or cause, other than resistance to the U.S. presence and anger at a government led by Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds.

Some Sunnis deny they are a minority, and even endorse goals such as a return to dominance -- something neither Shiites nor Kurds nor their American patrons would accept.

“There are some voices who say that Sunni Arabs are a minority,” Adnan Dulaimi, head of the Sunni Waqf, or religious endowment, said to a crowd of Sunnis gathered for a political conference Monday in Baghdad. “We want to prove to them that we are not a minority. We are the sons of the country. We are responsible for the history of Iraq.”

Iraq’s other major communities can point to strong authority figures: Shiites have Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has led the long-repressed majority down the road to democratic power. And Kurds have two authoritarian leaders whose political organizations have run a quasiindependent state in the north since 1991.

But Sunni Arabs have no one legitimate to speak for them in sight, and the vacuum continues to hamper efforts to defuse the armed rebellion.

Hussein was “their only leader,” said Ali Dabagh, an important member of the Shiite coalition that triumphed in the Jan. 30 elections. That comment has become a common refrain among Iraq’s political players. “Now that he’s gone, they have no one else.”

Into the leadership void have stepped outsiders like Ayham Sameraei, a longtime Chicago resident who claims to represent insurgents; firebrands like Mishaan Jabouri, who once alleged on the floor of the National Assembly that government agents were plotting to kill him; and religious groups like the conservative Muslim Scholars Assn., which condemns specific acts of violence while supporting the insurgents’ cause.

Plenty of Sunni Arab leaders justify, even glorify, the decision of young men to join the insurgency, which seeks the withdrawal of U.S. forces. But so far, few Sunnis have urged such men to put down their weapons and move on with their lives in post-Hussein Iraq.

“We should be the ones who stop them,” said Saleh Mutlak, leader of a Sunni political group. “But we are not talking to people in that way because we have no solution to offer them. We have nothing to offer them. We have to give them hope. There is no hope now.”

Those who claim to represent Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are a colorful lot.

Sameraei, electricity minister in Iraq’s previous postwar government, now claims to be a conduit between the Americans and the insurgents, despite being spurned by both groups.

“Can a guy from Chicago speak for the Iraqi insurgency?” quipped one U.S. official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know.”

Sameraei is dogged by allegations of hypocrisy and corruption. Officials are investigating his tenure for alleged financial improprieties.

Meanwhile, Sunni Arabs are baffled by the U.S. citizen’s sudden warming to the insurgency.

“During the time he was electricity minister, he never talked in the name of the resistance,” said Mohammed Shihab Dulaimi, leader of a small party that nominated Sunni candidates for the constitutional committee. “All the ministers, including Sameraei, were describing the resistance as terrorists.”

The insurgents for whom he purports to speak have threatened Sameraei with death. “He has falsified and lied about others almost every day with a face full of impertinence and no shame,” an insurgent group said in an Internet statement.

Lawmaker Jabouri is an ex-Baathist who returned to Iraq from exile after the U.S. invasion. After he accused the government of plotting to assassinate him, the assembly speaker turned off his microphone. Many deride him as a braggart, and no one rushed to his defense.

Last week, Jabouri announced the formation of a political party that he said represented the insurgency. At a one-day convention of the party, he made statements that were certain to alienate significant constituencies in a country racked by suicide bombs every day. “I confirm that some of them have hidden their mortars and machine guns somewhere to attend this conference,” he said, “and they will go back to pick them up after the conference.”

Mutlak, a mild-mannered agricultural engineer who prospered under Hussein and still believes in the Baath Party, leads the National Dialogue Council.

One U.S. official, speaking anonymously, noted that Mutlak once benefited from business contracts with the Americans, “but then he turned around and slammed us” by criticizing the U.S. and playing to the insurgents. Other U.S. officials complain that Mutlak is an apologist for violence.

Mutlak contends that the Americans’ conduct in the war and its aftermath justifies Sunni rebellion. “When part of the country has had a big role for centuries and suddenly you take all the power away from them, of course they will defend themselves,” he said in an interview.

U.S. officials have long dismissed Ghazi Ajil Yawer, the country’s vice president and leader of a small parliamentary bloc, as barely competent. An engineer, Yawer lived for decades in Saudi Arabia before returning to Iraq after Hussein’s ouster. Iraqis say he sailed to his current position on the strength of his tribal ties and the lack of any other palatable Sunni Arabs.

Iraqis and U.S. officials show much more tolerance for Mohsen Abdel Hamid, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a decades-old Islamist group with roots in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

But Iraq’s Shiites say the party flip-flops on key issues. It announced it was dropping out of the National Assembly elections at the last moment, when it was too late to take its candidates off the ballot. Iraqis wondered whether the party was making a principled decision to boycott the vote, or seeking cover in case it did poorly.

Iraqis and U.S. officials also have little choice but to engage with the Muslim Scholars Assn., adherents of the same fundamentalist tradition that spawned Wahhabism, of which Osama bin Laden is a follower. The association did not field candidates and urged a boycott of the election. But its control of thousands of mosques around the country has given it a measure of legitimacy among Sunnis.

Americans and interim Iraqi leaders have implored Sunni Arabs to step up and guide their people into the political process. But they have also consistently spurned Sunni leaders who have emerged from the wreckage of post-invasion Iraq as irrelevant, corrupt or worse.

Efforts to finalize a group that will write the country’s constitution have been held up for weeks, as Sunni candidates are considered, then rejected. On Monday, officials said Shiites and Kurds had “almost” approved a constitutional committee that would include 15 Sunni Arabs.

The U.S. has done little to address Sunni concerns. It has often dismissed Sunni grievances, raided Sunni organizations and even detained respected figures. At the same time, U.S. officials say Sunni participation is key to defusing the insurgency.

Sunni Arabs “have to feel that they have a place in the new Iraq, and that doesn’t mean a dominant place,” said a U.S. official, speaking to a group of reporters on condition of anonymity. “If the drafters of the constitution can go back out to Ramadi and Rutbah and Mosul and Baqubah and Kirkuk and say, ‘We have a place, and we will be treated fairly,’ I think that will help.”

By boycotting national elections, Sunni Arabs reduced their influence in the transitional government, allowing it to be dominated by the Shiite and Kurdish blocs that opposed Hussein’s rule for decades. The boycott also prevented the Sunnis from coming up with any credible leaders and cast doubt on the legitimacy of anyone who did claim to represent them.

Some Sunni leaders have already urged their community to change course. At Monday’s conference, Adnan Dulaimi called on Sunnis “to prepare themselves, to get ready and organize themselves to participate” in the planned Oct. 15 referendum on the constitution.

But many lack faith in the words of any of Iraq’s selfproclaimed Sunni Arab leaders.

“If you ask Sunnis on the street what they think about these guys, no one will answer,” said Ala Talabani, a member of the Kurdish coalition. “What we have since the liberation is that people claim to represent this group or this constituency, and then when it comes to elections they don’t get any votes.”

Times staff writers Raheem Salman, Shamil Aziz and Saif Rasheed and special correspondent Asmaa Waguih contributed to this report.