Iraq’s Besieged Sunnis Now Looking to U.S.

Times Staff Writer

Two years ago, doctor Riyadh Adhadh cursed the U.S. soldiers who had overrun his homeland, toppled the Sunni-dominated government and tormented prisoners at Abu Ghraib. A member of the city council, he loudly demanded that American troops leave Baghdad.

Last week, his Sunni Arab neighborhood under attack by Shiite militiamen, Adhadh found himself huddled over the telephone in panic, begging the U.S. Embassy to send American soldiers.

The moment of bitter irony for the 52-year-old father of six is emblematic of a sharp shift in Iraqi opinion. Three years after the March 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, with the threat of civil war looming, leaders of a nervous Sunni Arab minority have started to drop demands for an immediate U.S. withdrawal.

“We’ve changed our ideas,” Adhadh said. Iraq’s current government, dominated by Shiites, has been “abusing people more than the Americans,” he said. “Iraqi security is the responsibility of the Americans. They have established this type of government -- this will be written in history. We are living in a jungle.”


Meanwhile, Iraq’s Shiite majority, which initially cheered the arrival of the Americans, has grown far stronger and is quickly losing enthusiasm for foreign soldiers and diplomats.

“The reality is that the Americans have switched position a little bit. They seem to be siding with the Sunnis, and the Shia are not happy,” said Saad Jawad, a moderate Shiite politician. “Certainly in our areas there is no need for American soldiers.”

Many Iraqis are dismayed that the violence here increasingly pits Iraqis against each other instead of against foreign invaders. The stakes are high as the two main Muslim sects vie for power in the emerging state.

Shiite groups stand poised to control Iraq’s government and economy. They have consolidated their power over key government ministries; organized armed militias to patrol the streets and wrangled bitterly over power sharing in the government.

By contrast, the Sunni Arab minority, which dominated Iraq for most of the 20th century, has spent the last three years grappling with a sense of dispossession. Already stripped of resources and clout, they seem poised to lose much more.

In recent days many Sunni mosques have been burned and scores of men slain, apparently by Shiite death squads retaliating for the bombing of a prominent Shiite shrine in Samarra.

Many Sunnis hold a substantial grudge against the United States for launching the invasion and remain distrustful of its designs on Iraq. But the alternative -- abandonment in a Shiite-dominated country -- is even less appealing. And so even an irritating foreign presence is looking to many Sunnis like a layer, however thin, of protection.

“When the Americans entered Iraq, the Shia helped them a lot, and the Sunnis stood against them,” said Alaa Makki, a senior leader in the Iraqi Islamic Party, the main Sunni party. But “the Sunnis are now accepting the American political direction. It’s not suitable for the Americans to leave. Everything they have arranged during the past three years would be destroyed.”

Many Sunnis say the United States pushed their sect into a precarious position and has a responsibility to establish security before leaving. It is common to hear Sunnis say that there was no sectarianism in Iraq until the war unleashed long-buried religious tensions.

“We would refuse the withdrawal of American forces during this period,” said Salman Jumayli, spokesman for the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni bloc in parliament. “They have to fix what they destroyed ... [and] guarantee that no sect will dominate the other sect and no party will dominate another party.”

The sectarian violence that raged across the country these last weeks was the latest chilling reminder to Sunnis of their vulnerability. Many fear that a campaign of sectarian cleansing has begun to pick up pace.

Sunni concerns have been fed by mounting evidence that Shiite militias have infiltrated the Interior Ministry, which runs the police forces. Investigations into the Shiite-dominated ministry have revealed a torture chamber and death squads responsible for kidnapping and killing Sunnis, all with alleged ties to official security services.

Many Sunnis believe that if a civil war erupts, Iraqi police brigades would devolve into Shiite militias and government weapons would turn against Sunnis.

Brig. Gen. Mudhir Moula, a secular Shiite who is a senior official in the Defense Ministry, expresses a similar fear.

A career soldier, Moula is leery of an American pullback. Government ministries have become too mired in sectarian tensions to function, he said.

“If [the Americans] don’t do their best to control and coordinate, maybe there will be civil war,” he said.

The Interior Ministry has arranged its security forces to ensure that their sect would dominate in case of civil war, he said.

“They’re a lot stronger than the Ministry of Defense. This is the reality, let’s be honest.”

Recently, Defense Ministry soldiers and police commandos from the Interior Ministry each staged raids on the same neighborhood at the same time. The soldiers ended up surrounding a group of commandos and detaining them. Negotiations for their freedom went on for days.

“Their faces were covered and they had black uniforms. It didn’t say ‘Iraqi Police,’ ” Moula said. “They came outside their jurisdiction. There was no coordination.”

Amid the tensions, Sunni leaders are battling through contentious negotiations for a place in Iraq’s new government. The Americans are increasingly acting as their strongest advocates.

Both the Sunnis and the U.S. Embassy are pushing for a national unity government that would give Sunnis more than a token or opposition role in the government. U.S. officials, who believe that the deadly insurgency is largely driven by the disenfranchisement of the Sunnis, have insisted upon their inclusion -- or leaders acceptable to them -- in significant government posts.

“The ministers, particularly security ministers, have to be people who are nonsectarian, who are broadly acceptable, who do not represent or have ties to militias,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad recently told reporters in Baghdad. “This is the single most important issue that Iraq faces: forming a national unity government.”

When the shrine at Samarra was attacked a few days later, on Feb. 22, angry Shiite leaders blamed the American ambassador for stirring up anti-Shiite sentiment.

“The ambassador’s statements were irresponsible,” said Abdelaziz Hakim, leader of the main group in the Shiite coalition in parliament. “He gave the green light for terrorist groups, and therefore we blame him for part of what happened.”

Hakim’s office later issued a clarification, saying that he blamed terrorists, not Americans, for the shrine attack. But the message had been delivered -- and was echoing from Shiite leaders across the country.

“There’s a lot of interference in the internal affairs of the country by the Americans,” said Sadruddin Qubanchi, a Shiite cleric based in Najaf who is allied with Hakim. “We don’t want conditional support. The ministries here don’t want foreign help.”