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Sunnis Seek New Political Role

Competing with Kurds and Shias, the Sunnis are creating new organisations to represent their interests.
By and Dhiya

After months of being eclipsed by Shia and Kurdish political movements, leaders of the country's Arab Sunni minority have been quietly organising to stake a place in Iraq's postwar system.


Sunni Arabs are represented in several religious trends, as well as by tribes. Some also claim allegiance to the toppled Baath party. But new organisations also claim to represent the Sunnis as a separate entity with their own interests.


Several such pan-Sunni organisations are in the process of formation, the most prominent being the Hayat al-Ulama al-Muslimin or Muslim Scholars' Board, a primarily religious authority; and Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jamaa – roughly translated as the People of the (Prophet Muhammad's) Way and Solidarity – an umbrella organisation which claims to coordinate between different Sunni religious movements.


Neither has made much display of mobilising power, unlike the followers of Shia Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, who have recently taken to the streets in their tens of thousands to demand direct elections.


The Sunni groups also lack the institutional base of the two big Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdish Democratic Party, as well as the huge grassroots organisation of followers of radical Shia preacher Muqtada al-Sadr.


Both Sunni groups are, however, still very young institutions, born out of the vacuum of authority that followed the collapse of the old regime.


According to Hayat al-Ulama al-Muslimin member Sheikh Ahmed Hassan al-Taha, the group established itself after the war to take religious decisions in what members felt was the absence of a legitimate government.


"Because there is no established government, the religious scholars should hold the [religious] authority, and because of this we established the Hayat after the fall of the old regime," said Taha.


The Hayat has issued decisions such as appointing imams to mosques, and declaring the start and finish of Islamic calendar months – a process that depends on the lunar cycle, where there is some leeway for interpretation.


The Hayat demonstrated the weight it carries with Iraq's Sunnis during the month of Ramadan. The board declared the fasting month at an end one day earlier than the Sharia Observatory, a body nominally under the United States-led Coalition Provisional Authority, CPA.


When the decision was broadcast on the Iraqi Media Network, Sunnis rushed out in the streets to fire their weapons in the air in celebration. Even Sharia Observatory members admitted afterwards that they were wrong to have gone against the Hayat's decision.


The Hayat also has ambitions as a secular authority. Hassan al-Naamy, one of the founding members, told IWPR that the organisation would – if "democratic and legitimate elections" are held – nominate one of its members to be the "Islamic president of Iraq".


Despite the authority it wields, the group is considered too radical for the CPA to deal with comfortably as an organisation representing the Sunni community.


For its part, said Naamy, the Hayat regards the US-appointed Governing Council as illegitimate, and considers that resistance against the coalition is lawful.


"America came to Iraq for weapons of mass destruction and to get rid of Saddam, but now has no reason to remain on our land," he said. "I call on Shia and Sunna to form a single hand to resist the occupation.”


According to some sources within the community, many prominent Sunni figures fear that taking too confrontational a stance will see the entire religious group – who form a minority in Iraq - pushed away from power.


This fear, the sources say, led more moderate Sunnis to push for the creation of the Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jamaa, whose main consultative council held a series of meetings in Baghdad's Um al-Qura mosque in late December and early January.


The council – whose 230 members include Kurds and Turkomans as well as Arabs – intends to lobby for Sunni Islamist concerns in the transitional government. Many of its members also sit on the Hayat.


"We will take our stance regarding the coming election of the independent government and will have a say regarding the constitution, which we will demand should be Islamic," said council spokesman Mohammed Ahmed al-Rashid.


Although some members are reluctant to say so on the record, many in the council view it as an attempt to be seen by the CPA as a more palatable organisation that can be involved in power-sharing.


Rashid and other council members say that if one takes into account Kurds and other non-Arabs, the Iraqi Sunnis form a majority, but the United States deliberately chose to sideline them by naming the Shia as a majority on the Governing Council.


"It aims to be a cooperative face to the coalition," said the aide to one Ahl al-Sunna member, who preferred to remain anonymous. "Sunnis have always governed Iraq, and if the Shia govern it will be a disaster."


But some council members explicitly take the Shia, and their relatively centralised religious leadership, as a model.


"We want there to be a marjaiya [the Shias' word for their scholarly establishment] for the [Sunnis] to speak as one, and to unify our ranks so that in future, decisions can be made that are binding in nature,” said Ahmed Abd al-Ghaffour al-Samarrai, the imam of Um al-Qura.


Member of the council say they bring together three trends, each with very different views on how to deal with the CPA.


The first trend is the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement with branches throughout the Arab world. Exiled members of the Brotherhood made up the Iraqi Islamist Party, one of whose members, Mohsen abd al-Hamid, now holds a seat on the Ahl al-Sunna council.


Abd al-Hamid, who simultaneously sits on the Hayat, has complained in press interviews that Sunnis are discriminated against in post-war Iraq, but he is still considered to be on relatively good terms with the CPA.


The second trend comprises branches of the various Sufi mystic groups, which have traditionally eschewed politics.


The third trend includes the Salafis, an ultra-conservative movement that bases its behaviour on that of the Muslim community at the time of the Prophet Muhammad.


Salafis are traditionally hostile to Sufis, and also have taken up a confrontational stance with the coalition.


On January 1, US troops raided Baghdad's main Salafi mosque of Ibn al-Taymiya – named after a 14th century theologian who is a major inspiration for many of the Arab world's more radical movements – arresting its imam, Sheikh Mahdi al-Sumadai.


The coalition claimed that the mosque was a hub of resistance activity, and said it had seized weapons including mortars and an anti-aircraft missile.


Salafis complained that the US soldiers had deliberately defiled copies of the Koran, and they took to the streets chanting "America is the enemy of God".


Regardless of whether they take a conciliatory or a confrontational stance, the Sunnis are in a difficult position.


By contrast, the Shia leadership has been allowed to set the tone of Iraq's postwar political debate, making vocal calls for direct elections of the interim government. This has forced other parties either to choose between stands that make them seem either undemocratic, or to fall in line behind Sistani.


Some Sunni leaders have asked for direct elections under the United Nations or the Arab League rather than the CPA.


But sources close to both the Ahl al-Sunna and the Hayat say that support is growing within the movement to choose Iraq's next government through a series of consultations between different Iraqi groups.


Hareth al-Dhari, president of the Hayat, has come out in favour of such a solution. He told IWPR that he rejected direct elections as long as foreign forces remain in the country. "We have doubts about the validity of any election while under occupation," he said.


Dhari said that he wanted an interim government to be formed by consultation between representatives of Iraq's cities, selected by gatherings of tribal sheikhs, religious leaders, and other notables. His vision differs from the US plan in that the coalition would play no role in the process.


Sunni towns have already shown some ability to produce reasonably legitimate representative bodies.


In a series of weekly meetings between January 23 and February 5, notables from the western Iraqi town of Ramadi selected a local council of 39 men and one woman, bringing in tribal sheikhs, members of political parties and professional associations, and religious leaders.


Iraq's nascent Sunni organisations are in something of a race against time, however, with the coalition pushing for the creation of an Iraqi interim parliament by the end of June.


Sunni Arabs may have dominated Iraqi governments in the past, but unless they can speed up the process of institution-building, they may find themselves with poorly represented in future Iraqi governments.


Haytham al-Husseini, Wisam al-Jaf, Aqil Jabbar, and Dhiya Rasan are trainee journalists with IWPR in Baghdad.


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