Sunnis feel chill in new Iraq

In one Baghdad neighborhood, members of the minority favored by Hussein talk of the struggle to find their political voice

In the Baghdad district where Saddam Hussein made his last public appearance in April, strolling through a cheering throng of supporters and vowing defiance allegedly on the same day the capital fell to US forces, public opinion is divided on both his legacy and the future for Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.

Adhamiya is a tough, working-class neighborhood that is made up almost exclusively of Sunnis. The minority served as the country's favored administrators, first under the Ottomans and then the British, finally consolidating its dominance after the Baath Party of Mr. Hussein seized power in 1968.

But the community, feeling frozen out of a political transition they say is being dominated by the Shiite majority and Kurds closely allied with the US, is far from monolithic in its attitude toward the US occupation or the fall of Hussein.

Like every other Iraqi community, Sunnis trod a path of tears and loss during 35 years of Baathist rule. Their fortune was relative. Their conscripted sons died alongside Shiites and Kurds in the devastating war with Iran; they lost jobs when co-workers reported them for private criticism of the regime; and their standards of living plunged with other Iraqis' under the double blow of war and sanctions that Hussein brought upon his nation.

Hussein's strategy for maintaining power pitted various Sunni Arab tribes against each other as much as it divided Sunnis and Shiites. As a consequence, the Sunnis are fractured by competing factions and ideologies that has left them without a unified voice in a new Iraq.

The one thing they all seem to share is an overarching feeling of being swept aside by forces beyond their control.

A common emotion is one of dismay at Hussein's capture. Even for those who say they didn't support him, he remained one of the few uniting symbols for the Sunnis. Though there are efforts afoot to create new Sunni parties - earlier this month a little-known organization called the State Council for the Sunnis said it would lobby for more political power from the US-led coalition - they have yet to gain much traction in the broader community. Unlike the Shiites, who have a highly organized clergy and a hierarchical system of interpreting God's will on earth, much like the Catholic Church, Sunnis look to no particular ecclesiastical authority.

Sunnis were victims of Saddam, too

Many equate the Iraqi nation with their own community and refer to Hussein's capture as a humiliation for Iraq. "The way Saddam was captured, down a hole without even fighting back, didn't just strip him of dignity,'' says Tarik Adil, a 19-year-old economics student helping out in the stall where his brother serves sweet Iraqi tea. "It stripped all Iraqis of their dignity."

Not all in the neighborhood agree. Making a throat- slashing motion, Hassan Saleh, a spiffy 60-something in a three-piece suit, tribal head scarf, and Ray-Ban sunglasses, summons a visitor to his bench at a streetside cafe.

"Give Saddam to us - we'll torture him to death," says the father of four, whose eldest son spent 13 years in an Iranian prison after being captured in the war.

"When he came back he was useless, he couldn't function in the world anymore,'' says Mr. Saleh. "We are Saddam's victims as much as the Shiites." A friend, leaning on his cane nearby, scowls at Saleh. "How could you say this - Saddam made us strong,'' he says before limping off down the block. "I'm not putting up with this."

Another pensioner on the bench watches the man go. "Some of us aren't ready to accept change," says Muhamed al-Hezraji, whose tattooed green dots on his face mark him as a member of a rural tribe. "But I think I could live with a Shiite president, as long as he isn't one of the religious figures.... I don't think they put Iraq first."

Sitting over a breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage in Mustafa's, an airless dive attached to the bustling Kemp Street Soukh, Mohamed al-Mumayiz says he hated Hussein and is grateful for the US invasion that liberated Iraq. Mr. Mumayiz, who worked as an interpreter for US troops until recently, saying he quit because he couldn't stomach participating in raids on local homes anymore, is nevertheless confident that America may end up as the final protector of Sunni political interests. "They say there's going to be a totally free election soon, but I'm pretty sure that they'll engineer the elections," he says. "They will never allow two Shiite states [Iraq and Iran] right next to each other."

US as balancing power

It's a common refrain in Adhamiya, where even those who considered the invasion a crime and see Hussein as a hero say they believe that the US is the principal balancing power against a Shiite ascendancy now.

That may prove to be a vain hope, with top coalition administrator Paul Bremer saying Iraq is on course for its first free and truly democratic elections in 2005. Mr. Bremer also said Wednesday that 500 low-level Iraqi prisoners who have been held for the past eight months would be released as a show of reconciliation. The first 100 are due to be set free Thursday.

A minority in the Sunni community say they reject the idea of elections altogether. These are represented largely by the preachers and Muslim adherents who frequently refer to themselves as Salafi - a group whose members share many of the same beliefs and goals of the radical Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia.

Hussein's regime was resolutely secular, and for much of his reign he viewed Islamist sentiments with suspicion. But in the 1990s, with challenges growing to his rule, he began to support some Sunni preachers, adding an Islamic verse to the national flag and encouraging some radical preachers.

The fruits of those efforts can be seen outside State Islamic College in Adhamiya, where a group of young imams gather after class, sporting pristine white turbans that declare their status as students of the Koran.

Mahmoud al-Zubia, a student, begins an oration on what Iraq needs by first denying that the Shiites even exist as a separate sect in Islam.

"There is nothing dividing Muslims; this is just a fiction created by Zionists and foreigners to divide us and create conflicts among us," he says. He adds that there can't be truly democratic elections in Iraq because so many Iraqis have been led into "error" about the nature of their religion.

"The only leader of Iraq should be a man who truly understands the Koran and the traditions of the prophet,'' he says. "The Americans won't allow us to have a leader like that - so we must find another way than elections to continue our struggle."

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