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Iraq Needs a Bigger Sunni Role

Nearly five months after Iraq’s first free elections in decades, suicide bombers and rifle-wielding guerrillas continue to inflict appalling carnage. Insurgents killed three U.S. soldiers and two Iraqis in car bombings Tuesday in Baghdad, a day after a wave of attacks and bomb blasts killed more than 50 Iraqis and five U.S. troops. The ever-increasing violence should spur Islamic rivals to search for a compromise to stop the nation from disintegrating.

Sunni Arabs boycotted the Jan. 30 vote for a national assembly, an election that inspired the world when Iraqis defied insurgents’ threats and flocked to the polls. Sunni leaders appear now to have realized that the boycott was a mistake; on Saturday, clergy, politicians and tribal leaders promised to seek a unified plan to reenter politics and negotiate with Shiites and Kurds.

Another hopeful sign came from fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, who sent representatives to meet with Sunni leaders Sunday and appealed for an end to Sunni-Shiite quarrels. Sunni Arabs dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein, although they account for only about 20% of the population. The new government formed this month is dominated by Shiites, who make up more than half the population, and Kurds, who are Sunni but not Arabs.

Sadr commands thousands of militia fighters and has failed to live up to previous pledges to rein in his thugs. Last year his militia fought U.S. troops in a section of Baghdad and the holy city of Najaf. He went underground after the country’s most revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, ordered him to call off the violence, but he has recently reemerged, with his followers staging large demonstrations to demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops. That upsets government leaders, who want U.S. forces to stay until Iraqis are trained to protect the country.

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Most insurgents are Sunni Arabs; some are former members of the army and police, others are from outside the country. Their targets have included U.S. forces, Iraqis signing up for training as police or soldiers, and Shiite religious sites. Shiites have mostly resisted retaliating for the killings, but recent weeks have seen some revenge attacks. Quarrels between Shiites and Sunnis represent a threat to Iraq’s unity, as do Kurdish demands for a bigger role in the government and more control over oil fields.

Guerrillas are unlikely to cease fire soon, but greater Sunni Arab involvement in politics could make them feel less marginalized, thus depriving insurgents of some support. The national assembly is charged with writing a constitution this year and setting the stage for new parliamentary elections. The religious and ethnic factions need to stop letting their differences jeopardize Iraqi unity. Sunnis need to see their community represented in the government that emerges from the rubble of Iraq.


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