Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Sunni Opinion Over Talabani Divided

Sunni Arabs greet appointment of a Kurd as president with mixture of cautious optimism and concern.
By Zainab Naji

Omar Ahmed, 26, from Falluja, is playing dominos in one of Baghdad’s casinos and remarking on a political development once thought impossible, “It is the first time we’ve had a Kurdish president since the establishment of the Iraqi state in the 1920s.”

Discussion about the appointment of a Kurd, Jalal Talabani, as president of Iraq has been a hot topic of conversation in Baghdad, especially among the Sunni Arab minority that ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Nagam Basil, 35, a teacher from the city of Ana, reflected the views of some Sunni Arabs when spoke of the dramatic change of fortunes for the Kurds and urged Talabani not to engage in ethnic discrimination.

“It really is a surprise to have a Kurdish leader to run Iraq. I hope he will be fair to both Kurds and Arabs equally,” he said.

To the Kurds - who won 27 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly in the January election - Talabani has long been a freedom fighter and patriotic figure who led resistance to Saddam’s ethnic cleansing campaigns in Kurdistan.

As a result, the president enjoys massive popularity among his people. They see him as a liberal politician who will pursue the interests of all ethnic groups in Iraq.

But many Sunni Arabs, most of whom boycotted the election, are not all encouraged by the appointment.

Mohammed Aziz, 30, an engineer from al-Anbar province, highlights the view of some that Talabani will only look to strengthen his own ethnic group, at the expense of other Iraqis.

“Jalal is an American agent. He will join Kirkuk to Kurdistan region. He will serve only the interests of Kurds,” he said.

Other Sunni Arabs, while unhappy about the presidential appointment, adopt a pragmatic approach to the matter.

“Arab Sunnis do not want to have a Kurdish leader but for the time being we will line up with the government because it is merely a caretaker government," said Sheikh Salim al-Hindawi, 35, from Khaldiya city, west of Baghdad.

Talabani is supported by the population’s majority Shia, who have more than half the assembly seats.

Unlike many of their supporters, most Sunni politicians now accept Talabani as president. The Iraqi Islamic Party, which refused to take part in the elections, has called on its members to give Talabani a chance.

Kheder Mohammed, a party member and Ramadi council member, said, “In the interests of Iraq, we have to deal with Talabani and his new government free from sectarian, national, or ethnic judgment.”

Middle-class, educated Sunni Arabs are, it seems, already willing to accept that the appointment of a Kurdish president is an important step towards democracy.

"Educated Arab Sunnis after the election became more accepting of the new political situation in Iraq. They understand that they must be part of politics to reach their goals, so they welcomed the presidency of Talabani," said Mohand al-Grayri, a political analyst from the Strategic Centre in Baghdad.

One such educated Sunni Arab is Omar Abdul Rahman, 40, from Ramadi, who said, “We cautiously watch the new government. Our concern is not at having a Kurdish or an Arab president, it is about finding a solution to the security and economic issues, and getting Iraq out of the trap of violence.”

Zainab Naji and Dawood al-Ani are IWPR trainee journalists in Baghdad.

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