Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Sunni Arab community — estimated to be less than twenty percent of the population — has been demonized and victimized by many inside and outside Iraq. Having dominated Iraq's political, educational, and military institutions since 1920, Sunni Arabs are now frightened by their sudden, dramatic loss of political power, social status, and economic well being. Some Sunni Arabs are directly responsible for violent opposition to the American-led occupation; some may be sheltering Saddam and his few surviving loyalists. Most probably do not want Saddam's return, but they blame the United States for their losses and probably see little recourse in democratic institutions or values. To deflect their opposition to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the appointed Governing Council and pave the way for the establishment of a viable democratic system, the CPA must foster a Sunni Arab "buy in" to Iraq's political and economic future.
Sunni Arabs have served as an elite class of lawyers, bureaucrats, educators and soldiers since the days of the Ottoman Empire. During the British occupation and following independence in 1932, they led the government and shaped Iraq's identity as an Arab and an Iraqi state. Under Saddam Hussein, members of Sunni Arab tribal confederations and clans dominated the elite Republican Guard, the officer corps of the regular army, and the security and intelligence services. Successful and politically quiescent Sunni Arab leaders benefited from their loyalty to a suspicious and malevolent ruler who would as soon lavish them with gifts of land and money as he would later execute them for conspiracy. They also grumbled about regime greed, corruption, and murders of clan members, and were the source of virtually all coup attempts during the 1990s.
Most continue to live in the so-called Sunni triangle — the area from Baghdad north to Mosul, west to the Syrian and Jordanian borders and from Baghdad east to Baqubah. They live as well in Basra and Zubayr in southern Iraq and along the border with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Some have been urbanized for generations, and are secular and modern in outlook; others are more village-oriented, still honoring tribal loyalties and customs. They identify with Arab causes, including any involving the Palestinians. At the same time they are "Iraq Firsters," placing Iraq's political independence and territorial integrity above other identities and values. Parochial in outlook and conservative in vision, Iraq's Sunni Arabs had — and still have — a strong sense of communal pride, nationalism, and specialness.
Today, Iraq's Sunni Arabs are joined more by their common fears of disenfranchisement and retribution than by religion or tribal custom. Stripped of their power and positions, they fear life-long persecution for sins committed by Saddam's regime. Some may choose a life in exile over uncertainty in Iraq, while others may opt for more violent and dramatic means to confront their perceived enemies. A number are also increasingly bound by a newer regional trend — political Islam — which is shaping their self-view and behavior.
Traditionally, Iraq's Sunni Arabs did not identify themselves in sectarian terms. Islamist sentiment in the form of greater personal piety took on new popularity among Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Muslims under Saddam. Accompanying such expressions of faith, which Saddam permitted, is a growing religious extremism, which Saddam did not condone. It is attracting Sunni Arabs inside Iraq as well as extremists from outside to commit acts of violence against the foreign presence in Iraq.
Two major CPA decisions have exacerbated the problems facing Sunni Arabs. Because a significant percentage of the community were Baath Party members and regime loyalists, de-Bathification has removed many Sunni Arabs from inclusion in politics or public sector jobs. Similarly, the sudden demobilization of Iraq's military stripped many of their rank, status, and incomes.
Those sheltering anti-Coalition guerrillas and supporting acts of sabotage against Iraqi and foreign interests must be stopped. The most effective way to disarm angry Sunni Arabs would be to re-invest them with a role in Iraq's political and economic future. This could be done by expanding the sub-councils of the interim Governing Council to include more Sunni Arabs, adding constitutional mechanisms to ensure legal protection from retribution for service in the Baath Party and government (excluding individuals implicated in regime crimes, senior Baath party officials, and members of Saddam's repressive security apparatus), supporting political arrangements to ensure Sunni Arab participation in the transition to Iraqi control next June, and encouraging economic development programs in Sunni Arab regions.
At the same time, ethnicity and religion must be de-emphasized as identifiers of those recruited to local councils and other interim political institutions. Tribal, ethnic, and sectarian rituals may reflect local truths, but Iraqiness — incorporating all elements of society —should ultimately form the basis of national identity.
These are neither simple nor quick processes to absorb but, if successful, could pay off in gaining even tacit support for the new governance of Iraq in place of implacable resistance.
Judith S. Yaphe is Distinguished Research Professor for the Middle East at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Washington, DC. The opinions expressed here are the author's and do not represent policies of the University, the Department of Defense, or any other government agency.